Jury says Cottrell guilty of murder in killing of Myrtle Beach police officer

It was a moment of delight Wednesday evening for family, friends and colleagues of Myrtle Beach police Officer Joe McGarry when an Horry County jury said Luzenski Cottrell was guilty of murdering the street crimes officer while he was on duty in 2002.

For the second time a jury convicted the 36-year-old of murder in the shooting death of the 28-year-old officer. It took the jury of eight women and four men nearly three hours to reach their verdict, which is similar to the amount of time it took when he was first convicted in 2005.

“I’m elated. It’s the second time we had to go through this unconscionable thing. I hope we get justice, which is the death penalty, again and I hope the Supreme Court takes the will of the people the second time,” said Joe McGarry Sr., after the verdict. “A huge weight has been hanging over our heads since 2008 when they overturned it. It’s all we’ve been thinking about.”

McGarry’s family quietly reacted to the verdict being read aloud in court Wednesday, while Cottrell showed no emotion.

On Friday, the second phase of the capital case will begin where prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty, will present testimony and evidence about aggravating circumstances regarding the incident and Cottrell’s character. Cottrell’s defense team will have a chance to challenge the information and present their own mitigating circumstances.

Defense attorneys declined to comment following Wednesday’s verdict.

“We fully expected the jury to deliberate and come back guilty of murder. It’s always nervous. You never know what people will do when they are back there, but we fully expected them to go through the evidence and come back with murder,” 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said.

Jurors must be giving 24 hours from the time they deliver the verdict before the penalty phase of the trial begins, Richardson said. Since it was late in the day Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge Larry Hyman ordered jurors to take Thursday off from the case, but they remain sequestered.

In April 2005, Cottrell was convicted of murder by a jury and sentenced to death for killing McGarry.

Cottrell appealed the decision and in January 2008 the S.C. Supreme Court overturned his conviction and death sentence. Justice Costa Pleicones stated that the court erred in not giving jurors the option to convict Cottrell of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Seeking the death penalty is not a typical penalty in murder cases, Richardson said.

“It’s not something that you do every year or every couple of years, it’s rare,” Richardson said and noted Stephen Stanko’s 2006 conviction was the last capital case.

“It’s a little more expensive than the other cases, it’s a lot more time consuming, it’s something that you don’t want to take lightly, so that’s one of the reasons it’s so rare,” Richardson said. “We lead off every court week with a murder trial, but this is different. I don’t want to get into the details of why it’s different, but we don’t seek the death penalty on every person.”

On Wednesday morning, attorneys summed up their cases for jurors.

“It was an execution of Officer Joe McGarry on Dec. 29, 2002, by Luzenski Cottrell,” said Scott Hixson, 15th Circuit chief deputy solicitor. “That’s the big picture.”

Witnesses testified that McGarry and his fellow officer and friend, Mike Guthinger, were at Dunkin’ Donuts on Kings Highway to get coffee about 12:30 a.m. that night. McGarry had previously arrested Cottrell on traffic charges earlier in the year and a month before the shooting McGarry learned Cottrell was a suspect in a Horry County homicide.

When the two officers saw Cottrell inside the business, they waited and followed him outside to do a background check for any active warrants, officials said.

“They had no intention to go to the Dunkin’ Donuts to investigate anybody. That was Joe McGarry’s state of mind,” Hixson said. “Joe McGarry does his duty. He was there to talk about other things. He interrupted his life.”

It was 37 seconds that McGarry waited for dispatchers to check Cottrell’s background before Cottrell tried to walk away from McGarry, Hixson said. The men struggled when Cottrell refused to comply with McGarry’s commands before the officer was fatally shot.

“That’s conclusively the bullet that killed Joe McGarry and it came from Luzenski Cottrell’s gun,” Hixson said holding the bullet remnants sealed in a plastic baggie.

“The weapon was 12 inches away. No question the intention was to kill Joe McGarry.”

But Cottrell’s attorney, William McGuire, told jurors that Cottrell was acting in self-defense because during the struggle with McGarry, Cottrell was shot in the leg by McGarry’s gun. He said McGarry pulled his gun and tried to stop Cottrell from walking way.

“When the gun didn’t do it and the commands didn’t do it, [Cottrell] was tackled by a 6-foot, 4-inch, 285 [pound] police officer and smashed into the car and then shot,” McGuire said. “There is zero evidence that Officer McGarry ever, ever, ever saw a gun on Cottrell.”

Jurors heard testimony on Tuesday that there were 24 gunshots fired the night of McGarry’s death in the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts along Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach. A SLED firearms expert testified that cartridge casings collected from the scene showed police fired 14 shots and 10 came from a gun linked to Cottrell.

Officials also testified 75 rounds of unfired ammunition were found in a bag linked to Cottrell. That bag was found in the vehicle Cottrell was in at the time of his arrest.

Officer Mike Guthinger testified he exchanged gunfire with Cottrell in the parking lot after McGarry, whose gun fired a single shot, was fatally shot.

Amber Counts, Cottrell’s girlfriend at the time, testified she was in the car when the shooting happened and she drove Cottrell away with police in pursuit.

Officers used stop sticks to disable the vehicle on U.S. 17 Bypass near 76th Avenue North after a chase through the city. Counts and Cottrell were taken into custody there.

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