COLUMBIA — The first man sentenced to death in South Carolina for killing an unborn child is set to be released from prison this week, state officials said Tuesday.
Joseph Lee Ard, 41, was sentenced to time served last week after a new jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter. That crime carries a maximum of five years in prison; Ard has been incarcerated since 1993, according to prison records.
“It would be this week, as soon as we possibly can and get all of the details worked out,” Department of Corrections spokesman Clark Newsom said.
The expected release comes nearly two decades after authorities say Ard shot his 17-year-old girlfriend to death and also caused the death of their unborn child in 1993. Three years later, Ard was sentenced to death in the shooting death of Madalyn Coffey inside a Lexington County mobile home. Coffey was 35 weeks pregnant, and the fetus died from a lack of oxygen, officials said.
During that first trial, Solicitor Donnie Myers set a watch timer for six minutes, the time he said elapsed between Coffey's death and the baby's.
“What was that baby going through? … That familiar sound of her heartbeat – baby doesn't hear that anymore,” Myers said as the watch alarm sounded. “Two generations wiped out, and he wants mercy.”
Throughout his trial, Ard maintained that the shooting had been an accident and said the woman was distraught because she thought Ard was sleeping with another woman and was threatening to kill herself.
“I loved Madalyn, and I loved little Jeremy,” Ard said during his original 1996 trial, using the name planned for the baby. “There's a lot of things I wish I could change in my life.”
The state Supreme Court upheld Ard's conviction in 1998, ruling that his death sentence was a proper punishment for the crimes. In 2005, a circuit judge overturned Ard's conviction, ruling that Ard's trial attorneys should have hired their own expert to challenge state police testimony that no gunpowder residue had been found on Coffey's hands.
Prosecutors appealed Circuit Judge Ernest Kinard's ruling, but it was upheld in 2007 by the state Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial for Ard. During a new trial last week in Lexington County, Ard was convicted of involuntary manslaughter – which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison – and sentenced to time served, officials said.
Newsom would not say where Ard was being held, but Lexington County jail records show that he is in custody there. Ard's attorney did not immediately return a message seeking comment.