Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Culbertson will now decide whether death-row murderer Stephen Stanko will get a new trial based on evidence presented during a hearing this week in Conway.
Attorneys submitted testimony and law briefs to Culbertson during the hearing that began Monday and concluded Tuesday in Stanko’s post-conviction relief proceeding.
Attorneys with the Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center represented the 47-year-old during the hearing and called his former defense team to testify. The Attorney General’s office argued against Stanko receiving a new trial in the matter.
It is unclear Tuesday how long it would take before Culbertson issues his decision.
Stanko, who is awaiting the death penalty in two murder cases, is seeking a new trial in the shooting death of 74-year-old Henry Turner of Conway.
It took about an hour in 2009 for an Horry County jury to sentence Stanko to death after convicting him of Turner’s murder, and the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld that conviction and sentence in 2013.
Stanko is seeking post-conviction relief, which is the next step in the judicial process. In this proceeding, Stanko claims his attorneys failed to properly defend him in the Horry County capital murder case.
On Tuesday, Briana Williams, who along with Bill Diggs defended Stanko in the Turner case during the 2009 trial, was called to testify about her involvement with the case. It was the second death penalty trial she conducted with Diggs.
Williams and Diggs also defended Matthew Boyd Meekins, who in 2003 was sentenced to life in prison for murder in the slaying of Horry County Sheriff Lt. Randy Gerald, killed during a domestic assault in 2001.
In Stanko’s case, Williams said Diggs dealt with experts and had developed the defense that was used in both trials. She said there was no defense for Turner’s killing so they used the same insanity defense caused by brain damage Stanko had suffered either at birth from lack of oxygen or being hit in the head with a beer bottle as a teen.
“The facts of this crime were terrible … and as a defense lawyer you do your best to look for an explanation. Quite frankly we were limited,” Williams said during Tuesday’s testimony.
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’s post-conviction relief hearing for the Ling case is set for April in Georgetown County.
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 both trials Stanko’s defense was that he suffered a brain defect that caused him to not be aware of the criminal responsibility for his actions.
Williams said she, Diggs, Stanko and Circuit Court Judge Steven John talked in “ad nauseam” about Diggs representing Stanko in Turner’s case and the potential conflict that created because Stanko had appealed his death sentence in the Ling case.
Stanko was firm that he wanted the same defense of insanity that was used in the Ling case when arguing the Turner case, Williams said.
“It went in support of he was not thinking correctly to do something like that and supported the insanity,” Williams said of using a crime scene recreation expert. “We didn’t have a client with a recollection. We didn’t have a whole lot of how the event [Turner’s killing] happened.”
Robert Dudek, who defended Stanko in an appeal of Turner’s case, said he raised the issue of conflict of interest for Diggs to represent Stanko in both cases, but that appeal was denied.