Originally created 06/25/02

Court's ruling delays sentence in Downs case



AIKEN - Citing an "abundance of caution," Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning on Monday halted the sentencing hearing of William "Junior" Downs, the Augusta man who raped and killed a North Augusta 6-year-old.

Mr. Downs could be sentenced to death for the April 1999 strangulation of Keenan O'Mailia.

The judge ordered the hearing delayed until today to give attorneys for both sides time to review a ruling Monday from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling is expected to have far-reaching implications in death-penalty cases.

The court ruled in Ring vs. Arizona that death penalty sentences handed down solely by a judge are unconstitutional. In a 7-2 decision, the majority said sentencing systems in states including Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska violate a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

South Carolina was not mentioned in the court's 55-page ruling, and the ruling's effect on the Downs case is unclear because Mr. Downs, when he pleaded guilty, surrendered his right to a jury trial.

Judge Manning said the ruling needs study because of its source, however.

"I think it is fair and appropriate to allow the state as well as the defense to read it more," he said. "Reading it is one thing; understanding it is another."

Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara R. Morgan and Mr. Downs' attorneys are under a gag order and could not comment on the ruling.

Monday's delay came as prosecutors were prepared to air details of the slaying in video confessions by Mr. Downs.

Judge Manning will decide whether Mr. Downs will spend life in prison or be executed.

Keenan's mother, Nina O'Mailia, appeared in court Monday and embraced Kathy Porter, the mother of James Porter, who was killed in 1991 at age 10. Police say Mr. Downs has confessed to killing both children.

After his South Carolina sentencing, Mr. Downs will face a death-penalty trial in Augusta in James' slaying, District Attorney Danny Craig said.

"I think it is fair and appropriate to allow the state as well as the defense to read (the ruling) more." - Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com.