COLUMBIA — A judge in Lexington County is considering doing something that hasn’t been done in South Carolina in more than 14 months: send a convicted murderer to death row.
If Kenneth Lynch is sentenced to death for killing a 7-year-old girl and her 53-year-old grandmother, he would be the 52nd inmate on South Carolina’s death row, boosting the population from its nearly two-decade low.
The pace of executions has slowed considerably too. South Carolina has executed just one inmate in the past three years.
There were 72 people awaiting execution in the state at the end of June 2005, and just 10 executions in the state since then. Prosecutors in South Carolina sent no one to death row in 2011, the first time that happened since 1994.
It’s not that South Carolina has lost its willingness to put people to death.
More than a dozen death penalty bills were filed during this session of the General Assembly, many of them seeking to add crimes to the list of aggravating factors prosecutors must prove to get a death sentence. The state also changed the way it conducts lethal injections because of a shortage of one of the drugs it had been using.
As states like Connecticut outlaw capital punishment, and neighbor North Carolina discusses whether it is applied fairly, South Carolina seems content with its laws as written.
Instead, prosecutors worry that complex death penalty trials are too expensive in all but the most extreme cases.
South Carolina abolished parole for life sentences in 1995, making “life means life” an attractive option for juries and prosecutors who can use the chance of the death penalty to leverage a guilty plea.
There might be no better way to illustrate how seeking the death penalty has changed in South Carolina in the past two decades than the case of Shaquan Duley, who is serving 35 years in prison after pleading guilty in March to suffocating her 2-year-old and 18-month-old sons, putting them into a car and rolling them into an Orangeburg County river to try to make it look like an accidental drowning.
The case brought immediate comparisons to Susan Smith, who left her two sons in her car to drown in a Union County lake. Smith’s prosecutor sought the death penalty, but Duley’s didn’t.
Because a murder conviction in South Carolina has no parole, Duley will serve all 35 years of her sentence.
That’s not the case for Smith. She was sentenced to life, but she will become eligible for parole in 2024 after serving 30 years behind bars.
Tommy Pope was a prosecutor both before and after a 1995 law created a sentence of life without parole in South Carolina. After that law went on the books, he said, he would tell victims’ families that putting someone away for the rest of their life with no chance of getting out “allowed them a measure of closure that three retrials in a death penalty case never would.”
Pope, now a member of the South Carolina House, said that once parole was removed from a life sentence, it freed prosecutors from feeling compelled to go after the death penalty as often.
Lynch could become the newest resident of South Carolina’s death row. The 52-year-old West Columbia man’s trial is especially unusual because the bodies of his victims have not been found.
Prosecutors have used blood evidence to link Lynch to the deaths of his live-in girlfriend Portia Washington and her granddaughter, Angelica Livingston. They have not been seen since June 2006. Lynch was arrested as he tried to take a Greyhound bus across the Canadian border, and Washington’s Ford Focus was found two blocks from where Lynch boarded the bus.
A judge will decide Lynch’s fate after the penalty phase, once both sides have presented evidence whether he should live or die.
Lynch is from Lexington County, which has six people on death row. The lead prosecutor in the county, Donnie Myers, also sent someone to death row from Edgefield County last year.
But seven people on death row is nowhere near the pace Myers set earlier in his career. Back then he picked up the nickname Dr. Death after trying five death penalty cases in 17 months. In 1997, Myers had 10 people he prosecuted awaiting execution and three more went to the death chamber in the previous 12 months.