AIKEN -- Whether jurors spare David Mark Hill from the death penalty for killing three Department of Social Services workers could depend largely on how much they sympathize with the details of his life leading up to the 1996 murders.
The jury panel will hear testimony of the chronic guilt Mr. Hill felt for causing an accident that killed his beloved sister and his near-death experience as a teen-ager in the waters off Hunting Island, S.C. Jurors also will hear of his wife's drunken-driving accident that crippled their daughter and of the depression and seizures Mr. Hill suffered in the months before the DSS killings.
But defense attorneys will have a huge obstacle to overcome after evidence in the guilt phase revealed Mr. Hill confessed to killing his third victim, Josie Curry, because she was black. Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan emphasized that testimony in the closing arguments of her case, suggesting Mr. Hill was more than just a father who snapped after his children were placed in foster care.
"The murders at DSS were about hate. He had hate in his heart, and he had hate in his hand," Ms. Morgan said, referring to the gun he used in the slayings.
Beginning today, the jury also will hear the graphic details of how the victims died, the pain Mr. Hill has caused the victims' families and the terror he created in the DSS office. Ms. Morgan will use the emotional testimony to ask the jury to send Mr. Hill to death row.
The strategy of the defense to humanize their client became clear Tuesday during the cross-examination of a prosecution witness, Lt. Leon Garvin of the Richmond County Sheriff's Department. The Augusta man knew Mr. Hill for 25 years as a fellow church member at Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Augusta.
Because of his personal knowledge of Mr. Hill, he helped investigators in the case and overheard Mr. Hill's confession the day after the killings. On cross-examination, defense attorney Robert Harte questioned him about Mr. Hill's early life and the tribulations he went through.
Lt. Garvin recalled a life-threatening situation with a younger David Hill in the early 1970s. During a church trip to Hunting Island, Mr. Hill and a few other teens waded out too far in the Atlantic Ocean and were caught by a dangerous undercurrent. Lt. Garvin testified that he swam out to get Mr. Hill and when he reached him, the young man was frantic.
"He was really beyond reality. He was afraid he was going to die," Lt. Garvin said. "He was pushing me under while he was trying to stay afloat."
Some military men with a large inner tube eventually swam out and saved them both.
Lt. Garvin also described an accident on a dusty Augusta road in 1979 in which Mr. Hill -- a sophomore in high school at the time -- was blinded by the sun and lost control of the family truck, killing his sister.
"There was nothing he could do" to help his sister, Lt. Garvin said.
It was the type of testimony that the defense says it hopes will counter any image of their client as a hate-filled monster.
Defense attorneys also are expected to call several psychiatrists and physicians to describe Mr. Hill's depression and state of mind before and after the killings.
Mr. Hill, 39, was convicted Tuesday of 11 felony counts related to the killing of three DSS caseworkers Sept. 16, 1996. The penalty phase begins at 9:30 a.m. today and is expected to last through the weekend.
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.