COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s highest court on Wednesday affirmed the guilty plea and death sentence of a man condemned to die for strangling a Clemson University student with her bikini top, ruling that a local prosecutor’s intimidation of a defense witness constituted misconduct but was not severe enough to throw out the whole case.
Attorneys for Jerry Buck Inman, 41, had asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider the fate of their client, a convicted sex offender who pleaded guilty to killing 20-year-old Tiffany Souers in 2006. The body of the engineering student from Ladue, Mo., was found in her apartment near campus.
In his appeal, Inman argued that Solicitor Bob Ariail should have been removed from the case because he intentionally intimidated a social worker who was set to testify about Inman’s mental illness and troubled childhood during a hearing to determine whether he got a life sentence or the death penalty.
During questioning about her credentials, Ariail told Marti Loring she was testifying without a proper license in South Carolina and suggested she could face charges for practicing without a license. Loring, who told the judge she felt threatened and wasn’t sure if she could properly represent Inman’s best interests, eventually testified as a court’s witness, chronicling Inman’s physical and sexual abuse as a child, his drug use and suicide attempts.
On Wednesday, the justices ruled that, while Ariail did intimidate Loring, it wasn’t enough to justify throwing out the case entirely.
“Although we find the Solicitor committed prosecutorial misconduct, we conclude Inman’s sentence of death was not imposed in violation of his due process rights,” Justice Don Beatty wrote. “We conclude that the sentence of death was not the result of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor.”
During a hearing earlier this year, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal suggested that Inman’s appeal could be used as a warning to prosecutors who take what she called a “win at all costs” approach. But Toal added that, given Inman’s confession and the heinousness of the crime, she wasn’t sure overturning his death sentence is the way to send the message.
A habitual criminal, Inman spent years in prison for rapes he committed as a teenager in North Carolina and Florida and is a registered sex offender. He had been free from prison for about nine months before Souers’ death and also faces charges in an attempted rape in Alabama and a rape in Tennessee that authorities have said occurred in the days before Souers’ death.
In a separate opinion, Justice Costa Pleicones wrote that he agreed with the majority’s ruling but called Ariail’s behavior “inexplicable and reprehensible.”
“It is difficult to comprehend how the solicitor believed that intimidating an expert witness would be more likely to ensure a death sentence than to create a risk of reversal,” Pleicones wrote, adding: “Whatever the appropriate response to the solicitor’s conduct might be, it does not include reversal.”
Inman’s appellate attorney said that he was disappointed that the justices hadn’t ruled that Inman deserved a new trial but noted the opinion’s strong language about the misconduct of Ariail, who opted not to seek a fifth term.