Originally created 05/21/01

Courts entangle hunt for closure



Construction worker Paul Koon, drinking beer in his car and watching people pass at the National Hills shopping center in Augusta, set his sights on the young woman just walking out of a store.

Carrying a pocket knife, the Warrenville man approached the shopper and ordered her into his car and onto the floorboard. He drove to a isolated area of woods in Aiken County, where he told the Martinez mother to get out of the car. She tried to run but Mr. Koon caught her and strangled her.

The year was 1980.

A year later, an Aiken County jury decided the man, who was diagnosed with having a schizophrenic personality and abnormal sexual fantasies, deserved to die for the kidnapping and slaying of Valerie White Newsome.

But the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned the conviction, based on improper closing arguments made by then-Solicitor Robert Harte.

A second jury heard the details of the crime and sent Mr. Koon back to death row in 1983.

When the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned that death sentence in 1987 because the killer's good behavior in prison had not been considered at trial, Aiken County Coroner Sue Townsend gave up on the death penalty process.

The coroner said she wondered whether relatives of murder victims weren't better off without the drawn-out appeals and sometimes endless retrials afforded a death row inmate. She said family members might experience closure quicker if the criminal were given a life sentence without a chance at parole. She said it could save victims the potential pain of attending a new trial or waiting years for the actual execution.

"The mental anguish is just terrible for the families," Mrs. Townsend said. "I was for the death penalty when I first got into law enforcement. In fact, I had been quite an advocate of that. But after being involved in (the Koon) death penalty case that basically consumed decades of life and seeing what it does to the victims' families ... I'm not for it anymore."

While some family members agree the appeals process can be frustrating, most say they will do what is necessary to see a death sentence carried out.

Relatives of murder victims involved in cases where the criminal got a life sentence insist they are no better off. They also suffer through countless appeals and sometimes harbor resentment that the person responsible is not paying through execution.

Jack McClure Jr. - one of those willing to wait - might have his patience tested, because the state Supreme Court overturned in September the death sentence of his nephew, who was responsible for slaughtering Mr. McClure's brother and his brother's girlfriend in Barnwell in 1996.

The high court said the trial judge improperly allowed 2nd Circuit Solicitor Barbara R. Morgan to question the remorse of defendant David McClure Jr. when she suggested no one had testified that the defendant was sorry.

IN THEIR DECISION, the justices wrote, "We find the solicitor's comments so infected the sentencing phase of appellant's trial with unfairness as to make the resulting death sentence a denial of due process."

The ruling angered the McClure family.

"I didn't realize all the stuff that you have to do to actually get a death penalty," Jack McClure Jr. said recently from his Aiken County home, where a portrait of his brother hangs on the dining room wall.

The McClure families had long talks with the solicitor's office about the possibility of appeals. But Jack McClure Jr. thought the case was open and shut because investigators had a taped confession of the defendant saying he made a deal with Satan to kill his father in return for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

"I was looking for seven years (until the execution). They said something like five appeals, seven years, something like that," Mr. McClure said, repeating what he remembers about his talks with the solicitor's office. "I'm not sure now."

Seven years from sentence to execution is wishful thinking, according to Reishia Kelsey, of the National Center for Victims of Crime in Virginia, which provides victim services, lobbies for pro-victim legislation and offers training to victim advocates and criminal justice professionals. Families involved in death penalty cases should expect to wait more than twice that, she said.

"The (national) average from point of conviction to actual execution is 15 years," Ms. Kelsey said.

Since South Carolina reinstated the death penalty in 1977, the wait almost always has been in the double digits. The average for the past 20 inmates executed is 13.5 years. Two of those were sentenced to death and executed 21 years later.

FOR JACK MCCLURE Jr., a man who spends his spare hours working outside on home projects or watching his grandson learn how to walk, time doesn't seem to matter.

Safety does.

Before the first trial, David McClure Jr. escaped from a prison van while being transferred from a state prison to a mental hospital for an evaluation. He was captured after three hours.

When Jack McClure Jr. found out, he worried his nephew might escape again and come after him or his family.

"At least on death row, he is watched heavily," he said. "I know it's rough on the family, and we've talked about it. All of them still want the death penalty. It's not a revenge-type thing. It's more fear for other lives, I think."

While the McClures await another trial, truck driver Zach Davick makes his daily deliveries of gasoline and enjoys life with his 3-year-old son and second wife.

Mr. Davick's first wife, Tammy, was killed in their Wagener home in September 1994 - shot eight times with a .22-caliber revolver before her head was blown open with a deer rifle. A judge sentenced William Cato to life in prison for the slaying, which police say was drug related.

Since the sentencing hearing, Mr. Davick has not set foot in a courtroom again. But he has remarried, fathered a child and continued working.

"It does help that you can go back on with life, but you always wonder in the back of your mind what's happening and how prison breaks are and things like that," Mr. Davick said. "He's sitting in a prison doing who knows what, and she's buried in the graveyard. And it doesn't make a lot of sense the way the law puts it."

DWAIN REINER, whose husband was killed during a robbery at his Clearwater convenience store in 1994, said a life sentence for convicted killer Chasako Glanton didn't spare her the time-consuming appeals. Because two juveniles were convicted of participating in the crime, Ms. Reiner faces appeals for three people.

"I went to parole hearings for the first boy three times. The fourth time, he was released after he served three years and three days," she said. "It is a continuing, ongoing thing that I am put through.

"I mean, it never ends. Every time you think you can go on with your life, here comes another hearing. It's just so unfair."

Ms. Reiner says she has accepted the death of her husband. After the killing, she continued working at the Medical College of Georgia as a supervisor in the Cardiology Department and retired in June. Now, the Clearwater resident works with her son repossessing automobiles.

She acknowledges she doesn't have to attend the appeals and parole hearings. But when the letters arrive announcing them, she says, she feels obligated to go.

"Wouldn't you?" she asks.

She's still waiting to hear whether one of the defendants will get a new trial based on a recent appeal.

"I mean, that's all I need is to have to go and sit through all of that again," Ms. Reiner said. "It would make you want to get a gun. I mean, I don't own a gun, and I would never do that. But you just wonder, when does it end?

"And when do they think of the victim? When do they think of the person who these boys killed? Once they sentence them, they should have to serve the time."

THE ISSUE OF closure for crime victims has become a national issue, according to Regina Poteat, who serves as public defender in Aiken County.

"Victims of violent crimes have gotten a lot of press these days about needing closure. And we have concluded that in order for victims to have closure, apparently it depends on everything being over," said Ms. Poteat, who has been involved in a death penalty case and many other murder cases. "I don't think closure should depend on that. Yes, the trial can go on. And yes, it may be that (family members) have to continue dealing with it if it requires retrial.

"But in my opinion, closure is something that should happen in a person's heart and soul and should not depend on the ultimate outcome of the case."

Ms. Morgan, the 2nd Circuit solicitor, said most families receive a sense of finality from attending the trial, participating in it and understanding the details of the crime.

During the recent death penalty trial of Hastings Arthur Wise, Ms. Morgan frequently took the families into another room or the hallway to explain what was happening. In the end, many said the jury's death sentence brought closure.

"People said, 'It's done. It's over. Let's move on,"' said Perry Fernandez, a spokesman at R.E. Phelon Co., where Mr. Wise killed four former co-workers in 1997. Mr. Wise had been fired from the Aiken manufacturing plant, and authorities say he returned to get revenge.

Although Mr. Wise might have many appeals left, hearing the evidence at trial and participating brought some finality, Ms. Morgan said.

"As long as you let them understand and participate and honor their relationship and their appreciation of what the system can and cannot do, I think it brings them closure no matter what," she said. "But it's not a perfect science. ... I try to be as straight with them as possible - what I can do and what I can't do. I don't promise them anything, and I try and honor and respect what they are going through. And it is not easy."

AT LEAST ONE victim advocate says families should not expect closure. Laura Slade Hudson, public policy coordinator for the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network, compares a family's pain to scar tissue.

"The wound may have healed to a certain extent, but it has probably healed over a piece of shrapnel. And it still burns, and it's still there," she said. "You might not be bleeding on the outside, but you really don't get closure....

"You get to a state where you might be able to go on with your life. But as long as the appeals are going on, the scar gets recut and recut and recut."

Ms. Townsend, the coroner, says the multiple retrials were hard for the family of Ms. Newsome, especially the victim's daughter, who was 11 years old when Mr. Koon kidnapped her mother from the grocery store, killed her and left her body in the woods.

In the end, after suffering through overturned convictions and two lengthy trials for Mr. Koon, the solicitor's office in 1990 settled on a life sentence because the case file was old and most of the original witnesses were unavailable, Mrs. Townsend said. Mr. Koon pleaded guilty and said he would never ask for parole, the first time such an agreement was made in South Carolina.

AFTER TWO TRIALS and a third sentencing hearing, the Newsome family won't see Mr. Koon die for the crimes. Reached at their Augusta home last month, the Newsome family declined to discuss the case.

But Ms. Morgan, who inherited the case when she became the county's prosecutor, said it wasn't a quick decision to give up the death penalty.

"It was to bring closure to it because of the frustrations of the system as it developed in the evolving death penalty case law," she said. "But you talk about it (with the family) - what's the right thing to do under the circumstances.

"The way we designed his case, we don't think he will ever be out. And if we can guarantee them that under the complexities of the system, then we know we have done our job."

Ms. Slade, the victim advocate, says she doesn't even try to insinuate that families will receive finality from the criminal justice system. There is none, she said.

Instead she said, "You kind of get to a plateau to where you can breathe."

There might be a plateau of the grieving process when the survivor accepts the reality that the loved one is gone. Another plateau might come from an arrest of the criminal and yet another from the trial.

"If you have been the mother or father of someone who has been murdered, you just don't get over it," she said. "Everybody around you wants you to get over it because they want you to come back to being the person that they knew and loved, and you can't.

"The reality is that the justice system is not going to make them feel better no matter what happens. (It) is not going to return the life of their loved one, and it gives them very little satisfaction of justice being done because it takes too damn long."

Dates with death

Here is a list of the past 20 executions in South Carolina, according to data from the South Carolina Department of Corrections. The wait indicates the number of years and months, rounded upward, between the conviction and the execution:

Inmate: Robert W. South

County: Lexington

Convicted: Nov. 17, 1983

Executed: May 31, 1996

The wait: 12 years, 6 months

Inmate: Fred Kornahrens

County: Charleston

Convicted: Nov. 19, 1985

Executed: July 19, 1996

The wait: 10 years, 8 months

Inmate: Michael Torrence

County: Lexington

Convicted: May 28, 1988

Executed: Sept. 6, 1996

The wait: 8 years, 4 months

Inmate: Larry Gene Bell

County: Lexington

Convicted: Feb. 27, 1986

Executed: Oct. 4, 1996

The wait: 10 years, 8 months

Inmate: D. Cecil Lucas

County: York

Convicted: July 27, 1983

Executed: Nov. 15, 1996

The wait: 13 years, 4 months

Inmate: Frank Middleton

County: Charleston

Convicted: Feb. 4, 1985

Executed: Nov. 22, 1996

The wait: 11 years, 9 months

Inmate: Michael E. Elkins

County: Jasper

Convicted: March 30, 1991

Executed: June 13, 1997

The wait: 6 years, 3 months

Inmate: Earl Matthews Jr.

County: Charleston

Convicted: May 13, 1985

Executed: Nov. 7, 1997

The wait: 12 years, 6 months

Inmate: John Arnold

County: Beaufort

Convicted: Feb. 9, 1979

Executed: March 6, 1998

The wait: 19 years, 1 month

Inmate: John Plath

County: Beaufort

Convicted: Feb. 9, 1979

Executed: July 10, 1998

The wait: 19 years, 5 months

Inmate: Roberts Sammy

County: Berkeley

Convicted: Jan. 19, 1981

Executed: Sept. 25, 1998

The wait: 17 years, 9 months

Inmate: Gilbert Larry

County: Lexington

Convicted: Feb. 26, 1980

Executed: Dec. 4, 1998

The wait: 18 years, 10 months

Inmate: J.D. Gleaton

County: Lexington

Convicted: Feb. 26, 1980

Executed: Dec. 4, 1998

The wait: 18 years, 10 months

Inmate: Louis J. Truesdale Jr.

County: Lancaster

Convicted: Sept. 25, 1987

Executed: Dec. 11, 1998

The wait: 11 years, 3 months

Inmate: Andrew L. Smith

County: Anderson

Convicted: Jan. 18, 1984

Executed: Dec. 18, 1998

The wait: 14 years, 11 months

Inmate: Ronnie Howard

County: Greenville

Convicted: June 15, 1986

Executed: Jan. 8, 1999

The wait: 12 years, 7 months

Inmate: Joe E. Atkins

County: Charleston

Convicted: June 28, 1986

Executed: Jan. 22, 1999

The wait: 12 years, 7 months

Inmate: Leroy J. Drayton

County: Charleston

Convicted: Oct. 8, 1984

Executed: Nov. 12, 1999

The wait: 15 years, 1 month

Inmate: David Rocheville

County: Spartanburg

Convicted: July 15, 1991

Executed: Dec. 3, 1999

The wait: 8 years, 5 months

Inmate: Kevin D. Young

County: Anderson

Convicted: May 22, 1989

Executed: Nov. 3, 2000

The wait: 11 years, 6 months

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 648-1395 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.