William "Junior" Downs struggled through emotional pauses to say that the death sentence he wanted and received Thursday was justice.
During a short, sometimes whispered statement after his sentencing for raping and killing 6-year-old Keenan O'Mailia, Mr. Downs, 34, turned to the boy's mother.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, shaking his head and trying to hold back tears.
In her seat across the courtroom, Nina O'Mailia watched stoically, as she had two days before when, without tears, she turned to Mr. Downs and said God wanted her to forgive despite her anger.
"I don't see how she can say that, but I want to tell her thank you," Mr. Downs said. "It took the biggest heart in the world to do something like that."
As Mr. Downs struggled with more words, Circuit Judge Casey Manning said he could tell that Mr. Downs was attempting to gain peace about his crime through his sorrow, his guilty plea two weeks ago and his lengthy confessions to police after his arrest.
Mr. Downs partly agreed, telling the judge as he stood to leave that he had pleaded guilty and confessed so he would receive the sentence he deserved.
"I think it would be disrespectful to the family and disrespectful to the whole world if you did not give me the death penalty," Mr. Downs said.
After Mr. Downs was led away from the courtroom Thursday, Ms. O'Mailia said his remorse showed that her obedience to God was honored and that prayers said for her had "lifted me out of darkness."
"My prayer for (Mr.) Downs is he feels remorse, and I think God has answered that," she said.
Keenan's grandmother, Merrie Miller, who had two days earlier called Mr. Downs a "demonic being," said his remorse showed God at work.
"I think it demonstrates the power of Nina's words to him," Mrs. Miller said.
According to testimony, Keenan was found April 18, 1999, mostly naked and covered with debris just outside Riverview Park in North Augusta.
He had been missing since the evening before, when he was riding his bicycle along a dirt path near his home.
On that path, Mr. Downs said, he stopped the boy, asking him his name before throwing him to the ground and strangling him.
Mr. Downs returned the next morning to dump the boy's body into the Savannah River, but he left when a woman near the park told him police were looking for a missing boy.
He told investigators he was trying to repeat with Keenan what he had done eight years before when he strangled and raped 10-year-old James Porter in Augusta.
Mr. Downs saw James as the boy was on his way to a store. James accepted an offer from Mr. Downs to ride on a motorcycle and they headed toward the river.
When the boy refused to have sex, Mr. Downs said, he strangled James and dumped his body into the river.
Mr. Downs still faces the death penalty in Richmond County for James' murder.
After Keenan's slaying, Mr. Downs fled to Warner Robins, Ga., where he showed a friend of his sister a newspaper article about his crime. She told police, giving them their first and only break in the case after more than 200 unsuccessful leads.
Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara R. Morgan said she regretted not having the opportunity to have a jury trial for Mr. Downs because the community was so pained by the case.
"We have people here that will remember that day forever, people who don't have any personal connection with Nina," Ms. Morgan said.
The following is a transcript of the sentencing of William Ernest Downs Jr. by Circuit Judge Casey Manning on Thursday in 2nd Circuit General Sessions Court in Aiken.
For the purpose of the transcript, Judge Manning is referred to as "the court" and Mr. Downs as "the defendant."
THE COURT: Mr. Downs, I was informed that you would like to make a statement, but I believe, if I'm correct, it's after I pronounce the sentence?
THE DEFENDANT: That's right.
THE COURT: All right. I invite you to do so, sir. I'm not one for long speeches, and I'll be short here. But I'd be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to thank all the lawyers involved from the solicitor's office as well, in particular, Mr. Whittle and Mr. Moore. I know it was strangely difficult in a situation such as this when you follow the wishes of your client and you're somewhat prohibited or handcuffed, so to speak, from doing what you're trained and taught to do. But in that difficult circumstance, I need to congratulate you for your zealously (sic) in representing your client and doing the best job you could do under difficult circumstances. And that makes it no less difficult for the solicitor and her staff in presenting a very difficult case. It's not easy for anybody involved.
So I've said about as much as I need to. So on indictments number 99-1230, 99-1231, and 99-1232; Mr. Downs indictments for the kidnap, the rape and murder of Keenan O'Mailia, it is the decision and sentence of the court that you, William Ernest Downs Jr., that you be taken to the Aiken County Detention Center and thereafter to the South Carolina Department of Corrections henceforth to be kept in close and safe confinement until the 27th day of December, 2002, upon which day between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. on December the 28th of 2002, or upon an order of execution issued by the South Carolina Supreme Court; you the defendant, William Ernest Downs, Jr., shall suffer death by electrocution or by lethal injection in a matter (sic) provided by law. So, Mr. Downs, do you understand your sentence?
THE DEFENDANT: That's correct.
THE COURT: All right. And it's not with any sense of vengeance or perverse compassion that I make this pronouncement and this sentence, Mr. Downs. I've taken everything into account. It's not necessarily an easy decision, but I've taken everything into account. And that's my decision in this case. And if you'd like to say something at this time, Mr. Downs, you're invited to do so.
THE DEFENDANT: Do you want me to stand up here or up there?
THE COURT: You can stand there, Mr. Downs.
THE DEFENDANT: I would like to say that I don't hold anything against you for this. I think you did your job and did it very well. You're a very honorable judge. I'd like to say that I think Mrs. Morgan did her job, and my lawyers have done their job. It's hard. I'd like to say to the families that I'm sorry to all of you. This is hard to do, your honor.
THE COURT: I beg your pardon?
THE DEFENDANT: This is hard to get out. Mrs. O'Mailia; she said the other day that she forgives me for this. I don't see how she can say that, but I want to tell her thank you. It took the biggest heart in the world to do something like that. I don't know what else to say, your honor.
THE COURT: Mr. Downs, I make this observation. I think it's accurate and true. I would guess by your stance throughout the course of these proceedings that you are perhaps seeking some sort of spiritual redemption, atonement. But without your coming forth, it would have been absolutely impossible for these offenses to have been discovered. And if in fact you're seeking spiritual redemption of some sort by the stance you took in this trial---
THE DEFENDANT: No, sir.
THE COURT: I don't know; but I would think that you've found it. I hope that you have. I wish you the very best of luck, Mr. Downs. And I guess it's appropriate to say may God have mercy on your soul. This case is ended, ladies and gentlemen.
THE DEFENDANT: Your honor?
THE COURT: Yes, sir?
THE DEFENDANT: I'd like to say the reason I did not try to ask you to spare my life is because I think it would be disrespectful to the family and disrespectful to the whole world if you did not give me the death penalty.
THE COURT: I understand that, Mr. Downs. I wish you the very best, sir.
Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.