Originally created 07/11/98

Man executed for involvement in murder



COLUMBIA -- Four months after his cousin was executed for the racially tinged torture and murder of a black woman 20 years ago, John Plath was put to death Friday by lethal injection.

Mr. Plath, 43, was pronounced dead at 6:22 p.m., state Corrections Department spokesman John Barkley said.

Mr. Plath, who quoted Bible verses in the death chamber, still professed his innocence in his final handwritten statement, read by defense attorney David Voisin. "I did not kill the woman. I was 500 feet away sitting in a car," Mr. Plath said. "Killing me offends the peace and dignity of God."

Before the curtain to the glass partition opened, Mr. Plath could be heard praying in a high-pitched voice. Seconds before he died, he mouthed words to three relatives of his victim who witnessed the execution.

Betty Gardner, 33, was hitchhiking on St. Helena Island when she was picked up by Mr. Plath; his cousin John Arnold, who was executed in March; an adult woman; and a 12-year-old girl.

The men, both white, later stabbed and strangled Ms. Gardner, and Mr. Arnold carved "KKK" into her body.

"This murder has left a void in our lives that we will never fill... Now with the death of Betty's murderers, we can continue to move forward," Ms. Gardner's family said in a statement. The witnesses did not want their names used.

Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Gov. David Beasley would block Mr. Plath's execution. Requests for clemency, a stay and a rehearing of the Pennsylvania man's appeal were denied.

Mr. Plath becomes the 15th person overall and the third killer of a black person to be executed in South Carolina since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins was executed in 1991 for killing a black man while in prison.

Both Mr. Plath and Mr. Arnold, who also was 43 when he was put to death, maintained their innocence.

Mr. Plath's position was "I was there, and I didn't stop this ... but I didn't kill anyone, and I don't deserve to die," defense lawyer John Blume said.

Ann Traylor, a Gaston pastor who counseled Mr. Plath, said the condemned man blamed what happened on his drug use and failure to follow God's path.

"John is angry," Ms. Traylor said before the execution. "He didn't kill that girl. He was sitting in the car. He just doesn't understand why he is going to be killed when he didn't kill her."

Mr. Plath became a Christian while in prison and badly wanted to live, Ms. Traylor said. "He was hurt and angry that day," she said. "If he had it all to do over again, he would have followed God's way."

The jury did not have the option of convicting Mr. Plath of being an accessory to murder. The law then did not allow an accessory charge for someone present during the crime, Mr. Blume said.

Ms. Gardner was hitchhiking home when the two cousins from York, Pa., picked her up. She was forced to perform sex acts with Mr. Plath and the adult female companion while being beaten, according to trial testimony.

The companion, Cindy Sheets, who led police to Ms. Gardner's body and was granted immunity, later testified that Mr. Arnold did not like blacks.

She said Ms. Gardner was stabbed with a knife and a bottle and strangled with a garden hose, and said Mr. Plath stomped on the woman's neck.

Mr. Blume said the jury did not hear about Mr. Plath's substance abuse, emotional neglect or paranoid schizophrenia.

"Once the death momentum builds, it's hard to derail it," Mr. Blume said.