CONWAY — Twice-convicted murderer Stephen Stanko, who is awaiting the death penalty in separate Horry County and Georgetown County cases, is seeking a new trial here by claiming his lawyers failed to properly defend him against one of the capital murder charges.
Stanko on Monday filed a motion for a post-conviction relief proceeding that could potentially grant him a new trial in the shooting death of 74-year-old Henry Turner of Conway. An Horry County jury convicted Stanko of the murder in 2009 and the state Supreme Court last year upheld that conviction. A post-conviction relief proceeding is the next step in the judicial process.
Stanko also was sentenced to death after being convicted in 2006 by a Georgetown County jury in the death of his 43-year-old live-in girlfriend, Laura Ling.
Stanko, in court documents filed Monday, said his lawyers – Brana Williams of Murrells Inlet and William Diggs of Myrtle Beach – failed to present evidence that jurors had been prejudiced by widespread pre-trial publicity. Stanko said those lawyers also failed to present mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase of his trial. The filing does not state what mitigating evidence was available.
Williams and Diggs could not be reached for comment Monday.
Stanko also revived an argument he made during his supreme court appeal, in which he challenges a state law that exempts all citizens over the age of 65 from jury service. Stanko says that exemption prevented him from having a jury pool drawn from a fair cross-section of the community, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The state Supreme Court rejected that argument, ruling that the over-65 population is not a distinctive age group possessing “cohesiveness of ideas, attitudes or experiences that distinguishes them from the rest of society.”
Stanko is representing himself in the post-conviction relief process, although a lawyer could be appointed for him prior to any hearing. The S.C. Attorney General’s office will represent the state. Stanko would have to prove that his lawyers were incompetent in handling his case or that there were other trial errors that made his conviction unfair. A hearing likely will be held in Horry County, after which a judge would issue a written order. No hearing date has been scheduled.
Stanko’s crime spree took place in April 2005, when Stanko killed Ling in the Murrells Inlet home that he shared with her and Ling’s then-15-year-old daughter, who also was assaulted. Stanko took Ling’s car, drove to Turner’s home in Conway and killed him before stealing Turner’s pickup truck.
Stanko then fled to Columbia, where he claimed he was a New York millionaire and flirted with several women at a downtown restaurant. From there, Stanko traveled to Augusta, Ga., and met another woman and spent the weekend with her before he was arrested there. Stanko told the woman he was a businessman in town for a golf tournament.
In his defense, Stanko claimed a brain defect caused him to not be aware of the criminal responsibility for his actions.