A man ordered to be put to death in the robbery and slaying of two former Burger King co-workers was granted a new sentencing hearing by the S.C. Supreme Court, according to a ruling issued Monday.
Justices ordered a new sentencing hearing for Angle Joe Perrie Vasquez, who was convicted in October 2003 and sentenced to die in the shooting deaths of 19-year-old Kuma Walker and 28-year-old Joseph Williams.
Walker, an employee, and Williams, a manager, were found shot in the head March 26, 2002, inside a walk-in cooler in Burger King at 203 George Bishop Parkway. Earlier in the day, Williams fired Vasquez after he shouted a string of curse words at another co-worker in front of a customer and her young children. The woman complained and Vasquez, a Conway resident, was immediately fired.
About four hours passed March 26, 2002, between when Vasquez was fired and before he returned to the business armed with a 9 mm pistol and with his cousin Michael Howard of Lake City. Police said Vasquez forced Williams, Walker and two other employees into the cooler and that $737 was stolen from the business.
The other two employees escaped and one man, Reggie Atkins, returned to the business to find the pair dead inside the cooler.
During his opening statements, Solicitor Greg Hembree told jurors the case was about ``domestic terrorism,'' explaining how Williams was terrorized before he was killed knowing that Walker had been fatally shot next to him.
In the ruling, justices cited the use of the term “domestic terrorism” as being prejudicial to Vasquez, who is Muslim. They wrote that Vasquez’s attorneys were “ineffective in failing to object to comments made by the solicitor.”
The use of the word terrorist and a story told at the end of the nearly three week trial by Hembree about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were reason enough to order a new penalty hearing.
But Hembree said he used the word to describe how jurors should imagine the fear and terror Williams experience just before his death and was the “best characterization of what Vasquez did for $700 that was taken from the restaurant.
“I don’t know what else you could do to terrorize someone than to kill another person in their presence and then come for them. I was using it as general understanding,” Hembree said Tuesday. “You have to imagine that what was running through his mind was just horrible. I couldn’t think of a word that better described [Vasquez’s] conduct.”
When Vasquez filed a motion for a new trial in May 2007, one of his trial attorneys, Paul Archer, said Hembree’s statements were inflammatory. He said he didn't object because ``it happened so quickly. It was the opening statement and it just took me by surprise.''
Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote she did not agree with the ruling.
“In my view, the solicitor's statement regarding September 11, 2001, simply was reference to an historical event, not an attempt to inflame the passions and prejudices of the jury,” Toal wrote in her dissent. “The solicitor's remark, despite the majority's characterization, was not religious in nature or directed at [Vasquez’s] Muslim faith. He did not call attention to any racial or religious aspect of that event, and he did not liken [Vasquez] to the attackers. The solicitor focused on the before-and-after effects on an individual who suffers a sudden, tragic loss of a loved one. Therefore, in my opinion, the solicitor's comments were not improper, and I would hold counsel was not deficient for failing to object.”