Originally created 05/27/01

Trial wait continues for Downs

Two years after police say a man confessed to sexually assaulting and killing two area children, the suspect remains in an Aiken County jail awaiting trial.

Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara R. Morgan once said the capital murder case against suspect William "Junior" Downs was on the fast track for spring 2000. That projected date passed a year ago, and the case isn't expected to see the light of a courtroom anytime soon - this fall at the earliest.

Police say the evidence is rock solid, with a videotaped confession from Mr. Downs in which he admits to sexually assaulting and strangling 6-year-old Keenan O'Mailia of North Augusta on April 17, 1999. After that confession, investigators said, Mr. Downs admitted to the slaying of 10-year-old James Porter of Augusta on March 13, 1991.

So what is taking so long?

"We have been diligently pursuing the case," Ms. Morgan said last week. "It's been very frustrating. But to comment further would not be appropriate."

Mr. Downs, who is being held in the Aiken County Detention Center, was indicted in Aiken County on Aug. 26, 1999, on murder charges in the O'Mailia killing. Ms. Morgan said the case remains in pretrial mode, and she is waiting on Mr. Downs to undergo a competency evaluation before the trial can begin.

Friday marks the second anniversary of Mr. Downs' indictment on murder charges in Richmond County Superior Court in the Porter killing.

But unlike Aiken County, Richmond County officials are prepared to call a jury.

"We're ready for trial; we've been ready," District Attorney Danny Craig said.

But there's a problem. South Carolina has refused Georgia's extradition request.

Mr. Downs, now 33, has been appointed the state-required two defense attorneys to represent him on capital murder charges in Augusta. Prosecutors have provided defense attorneys Richard Allen and William Davison with copies of all of the evidence. The defense team has filed more than two dozen motions on his behalf.

But in the two years since a Richmond County grand jury indicted Mr. Downs and Mr. Craig filed notice that he intends to seek the death penalty, Mr. Downs has yet to go through the first step in Georgia's legal process in death penalty cases - an initial appearance and arraignment.

Mr. Craig said he preferred not to discuss what conversations he might have had with Ms. Morgan about Mr. Downs' cases and extradition request.

Last year, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes signed an extradition request and sent it to South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges. Mr. Hodges refused to sign it because Ms. Morgan objected to the extradition.

If Mr. Downs is brought to Richmond County Superior Court, Mr. Craig estimates, the state-required pretrial hearing process could be completed within six months.

Since Mr. Craig became district attorney, death penalty trials in the Augusta Judicial Circuit have taken about two years, on average. The circuit includes Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.

In comparison, death penalty trials under Ms. Morgan's watch take an average of three years.

In Augusta, Mr. Craig and his assistants juggle various pretrial hearings in all the cases during the same time period. The final pretrial hearing for a teen-ager accused of killing two youths and wounding a third in Richmond County on Nov. 24 was Wednesday. Next week in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, a pretrial hearing is scheduled for two men arrested in 1998 in connection with a 1995 double homicide and robbery.

One of the defendants facing capital murder charges, Richard Breedlove, has been extradited from Florida to Georgia and back again, Mr. Craig said. He and a prosecutor in Volusia County, Fla., have agreed to "share" Mr. Breedlove, arranging his transportation back and forth as Mr. Breedlove's appearance is needed in both courts, Mr. Craig said.

"That's the way it gets done," Mr. Craig said. "It's real easy."

Ms. Morgan said South Carolina does not have the laws that Georgia does, which require a speedier and organized timeline of hearings in death penalty trials. She said the unified appeal laws in Georgia require defense teams to move faster.

James Porter's mother, Kathy Porter, doesn't understand the delay, especially when she waited nearly nine years to see someone charged in her son's death.

"I'm hanging in there, but it's pretty hard," Ms. Porter said of the wait for Mr. Downs' trial in Richmond County Superior Court.

"It's just too much pain to keep bringing up and bringing up. I waited 8 1/2 years just to see this," she said. "I would like it to be over. But two people are dead now, and they still ain't did nothing, but God will see that he gets what he deserves."

Nina O'Mailia, mother of Keenan, said she was disappointed the South Carolina trial was postponed. Reached in Oregon, where she is raising a 16-month-old and working at a church as an urban missionary, Ms. O'Mailia said she is hoping the trial will start this fall.

"But (I) cannot be sure of anything at this point," she said. "There was a case here in Oregon not too long ago, where a man was set free for a sexual offense against children because he didn't get a speedy trial. I know the solicitor is doing everything she can to make sure that doesn't happen with Downs."

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com. and Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.


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