An appeal by twice convicted murderer Stephen Stanko, who is serving two death sentences, is in the hands of the S.C. Supreme Court justices after attorneys made their oral arguments Thursday.
Stanko, 44, appealed his murder conviction and death sentence from his 2009 trial in Horry County for the fatal shooting of 74-year-old Henry Turner of Conway.
Stanko also was sentenced to die after being convicted in 2006 by a Georgetown County jury in the death of his 43-year-old live-in girlfriend, Laura Ling.
In April 2005, police said Stanko killed Ling in her 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 taking his pickup truck, according to authorities.
Stanko fled Conway and went to Columbia where he claimed he was a New York millionaire and flirted with several women at a downtown restaurant. From there Stanko went to Augusta, Ga., where the Masters golf tournament was being held and met another woman and spent the weekend with her before he was arrested there.
Prosecutors tried Stanko for Ling’s death and the assault of her daughter and in his defense he claimed a brain injury caused a defect that caused him to not be aware of his criminal responsibility for his actions.
Stanko has already appealed his conviction and death sentence in Ling’s murder and state Supreme Court justices denied his request saying his trial was fair.
On Thursday, Bob Dudek with the S.C. Commission of Indigent Defense told the justices that Stanko’s trial in Conway was flawed because jurors were not given the opportunity to consider insanity as a possible verdict; attorney Bill Diggs represented Stanko in Ling’s trial and Stanko had appealed that conviction on the basis Diggs was inadequate; a juror had prior knowledge of the case and was biased toward the death penalty; the publicity surrounding the case did not allow for a fair trial.
J. Anthony Mabry, who represented the state Attorney General’s office, told the justices that Stanko was not insane, but a psychopath.
“Under insanity the test is did he know the difference between right and wrong, not that he could form malice,” Mabry said.
But Dudek said giving jurors instructions to consider malice was part of the crime because a weapon was used does not allow them to consider that Stanko was insane at the time of the crime because he used a gun to shoot Turner.
“You are telling the jury they can infer malice by the use of a deadly weapon and they can skip over insanity,” Dudek said. “There were doctors who testified Stanko was legally insane. Stanko was not responsible for what he did and that is totally inconsistent with malice.”
Chief Justice Jean Toal asked Dudek to explain how the inference of malice undercut Stanko’s insanity defense.
“There’s no real contest that Mr. Stanko brutally killed this person,” Toal said before describing that there was extensive expert testimony during the trial about Stanko’s frontal lobe injury and his mental defect of not being criminally responsible. “That doesn’t depend on any facts of the crime.”
Dudek replied that just because a gun was used to kill Turner does not mean that Stanko had malice and wasn’t insane.
“Everybody knows juries are very weary of finding people not guilty by reason of insanity because they feel like the person is getting off,” Dudek said.
Another issue justices must consider in the appeal is whether Diggs should have represented Stanko in the Turner case because he had represented Stanko in the Ling case and Stanko had appealed that conviction.
Justice Costa M. Pleicones asked Dudek why should a circuit court judge ignore Stanko’s request for Diggs to represent him in the second trial, and Pleicones called Stanko’s request one the “best arguments by a defendant” that he had ever heard.
“Mr. Stanko made an eloquent, lucid argument as to why he didn’t want Mr. Diggs disqualified,” Pleicones said.
Toal also said Stanko told the court before his trial that Diggs was the only attorney he was comfortable with because Diggs understood his brain injury and the defense.
“He has the ability and right to waive any conflict, does he not?” Toal said.
“No, I disagree,” Dudek said. “The good of the system comes before the right of the defendant.”
The issue of Diggs representation was decided by two circuit court judges and was shown not to be a conflict, Mabry said.
Stanko also appealed that a juror should have been disqualified because she knew about his previous death sentence and Dudek described her as being for the death penalty based on the way she answered some questions.
But Mabry questioned if the juror was confused by questions from Diggs because John said during the voir dire that he was confused. The juror later said she could set aside any prior knowledge and make her decision based on the facts of the case, Mabry said.
In the appeal, Stanko also asked for the court to consider his mental illness and that he is not fit for execution, but Toal said now was not the time to discuss the issue because his execution is not near.
“We couldn’t consider a person’s mental status until execution looms,” Toal said. “That decision also could never be made at trial.”
It is unclear when the justices will issue a ruling in the appeal. Stanko is being held on death row at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville.