Sunday, January 11, 2009

Death penalty cases on the rise

When accused torture- murderer William Dickerson Jr. goes on trial this April in Charleston, he could face the death penalty for kidnapping a rival and brutalizing him for several hours over the course of a night.

His case is not unique.

At least five death penalty cases are set for trial in the Lowcountry during the coming months: three in Charleston and Berkeley counties and two in Dorchester County.

Typically, the area sees one death penalty case every few years.

Reasons behind the 2009 spike have drawn a flurry of opinions, ranging from those who say society has become more accepting of capital punishment to those who contend it's a needed response to the increasing violence.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said the reason isn't so much philosophical as it is the calendar reflects "a perfect storm" of scheduling collisions, she said. All three of her cases were affected by arrests, judge issues and other timetables.

The Charleston and Berkeley cases are:

--Dickerson, who's accused of torturing to death Gerard Roper in a Fleming Road apartment in 2006. Roper was mutilated, burned and stabbed.

--Walter Fayall III, the accused triggerman in the May 2007 shooting death of state Constable Robert Bailey after a late-night traffic stop in Lincolnville.

--Colin James Broughton, accused of the September 2006 murder of his aunt, 59-year-old Shirley Mae Birch in a Cainhoy mobile home. Birch was beaten with a hammer in a robbery that allegedly netted her attacker about $200 and her car.

The Dorchester cases are:

--Anthony Sanders, accused of triple murder for shooting a mother and two of her children in July 2007 at the Archdale Forest Apartments on Dorchester Road.

--Delronezy Washington, who is accused of baiting pizza deliveryman Wilson James into a neighborhood with an order and killing him during an armed robbery attempt.

The Dorchester cases follow the plea of convicted triple-murderer Kenneth Henry Justus, who last month asked for and received the death penalty for fatally stabbing a fellow inmate inside Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville.

The local lineup comes as the national frequency of death penalty cases is continuing to decline for a variety of reasons, ranging from costs to moral concerns and Supreme Court rulings prohibiting capital punishment for minors and the mentally retarded.

The drop is so significant that last year, 37 people were executed in nine states, the lowest total in 14 years, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. Still, the South ranks highest among the states for death penalty cases, as states such as Texas, Florida and Georgia have significant populations on Death Row.

"Ninety-five percent of executions occurred in the South last year," said Richard Dieter, a Catholic University law professor and director of the DPIC.

In South Carolina, multiple factors go into a solicitor seeking the death penalty, but primarily includes murder committed with aggravating circumstances, such as done in the course of rape, burglary, killing a police officers or murdering a child.

When the local cases are called, they are expected to be expensive and time-consuming affairs. Jury pools are traditionally larger and screening about beliefs and background is more in-depth. Death penalty cases also take as long as two weeks of a county's limited amount of court time, while other murder trials might last a few days. Costs also escalate as experts are consulted and pasts investigated.

Even with a good case, there also is the fear of what happens on appeals. As many as one-half of death penalty convictions get overturned, according to some statistics.

South Carolina's Death Row is housed at the Lieber prison in Dorchester County, and is home to 58 inmates.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or

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