The attorney, who represented twice-convicted murderer Stephen Stanko, testified Monday he continues to support his defense theory that the 47-year-old suffers from brain damage that caused him to be insane during his 2005 double killing spree.
However, members of the defense team in the separate murder cases in Horry and Georgetown counties testified they never thought such a defense was viable.
Stanko, who is awaiting the death penalty in both 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 where a judge decides the outcome, and testimony began Monday in Conway.
In this proceeding, Stanko claims his attorneys failed to properly defend him in the Horry County capital murder case.
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. Decisions in this week’s proceedings will have not bearing on Stanko’s conviction or his sentence in Ling’s murder.
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.
Myrtle Beach attorney Bill Diggs testified for nearly three hours Monday about his representation of Stanko in both trials.
“Stephen did some pretty terrible things. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would do that. . . . I wanted to explain why he did that,” said Diggs, who was suspended from law practice in October and is under investigation by the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Diggs testified his suspension doesn’t impact Stanko’s case or his truthfulness in the proceedings.
The use of scans to detect Stanko’s brain function and medical experts, who testified Stanko was insane at the time of his crimes, was new in criminal defense at that time of both trials, Diggs said.
“At the time he pulled the trigger on Mr. Turner I don’t think his brain was working,” Diggs said Monday. “When he killed Laura Ling he walked through the house and cleaned up. He did all those events in a blackout state.”
During the trial in Turner’s death, experts testified that the frontal lobes of Stanko’s brain were damaged. They pointed to the complicated pregnancy Stanko’s mother had with him and an episode when Stanko was 16-years-old and struck in the head with a beer bottle as the causes of the damage.
The frontal lobe defense was used in both trials, and Diggs said Monday he never considered changing his strategy for the Turner trial. He also said he understood Stanko would argue he was ineffective when Stanko filed for post-conviction relief.
“It’s not something I focused on . . . I understand it was something he had to do,” Diggs said. “I always understood Stephen to be happy with the defense because it allowed him to understand why he did those things.”
But two women, who worked as investigators for Diggs on both trials, testified they didn’t think the defense was appropriate for the case.
Dale Davis, who worked as a mitigation specialist on the Ling case, testified Monday that she refused to help with the Turner case because Diggs was using the same defense in both trials.
“The theory was that [Stanko] was a psychopath and couldn’t help but kill people,” Davis said. “I thought it was a crazy theory to expect a jury to spare your client’s life.”
Davis testified Monday she noticed similarities in Stanko’s defense compared to that of Augusta, Ga., serial killer Reinaldo Rivera, who is awaiting his death sentence. An expert from that 2004 trial was used in Stanko’s trial and deemed both defendants psychopaths, she said.
“I was extremely upset in the way the case was handled. I thought it was a crazy defense. I thought it was a prosecution case, not a defense case. I thought it was like walking someone to death’s door,” Davis testified Monday.
Vicki Childs, who was a defense investigator in both of Stanko’s trials, said changing the defense was never discussed and there was no debriefing after the Georgetown County conviction and sentence, before they represented Stanko in the Conway murder.
“I don’t believe Stephen is insane,” Childs said. “Stephen was happy there was some indication in his brain that helped him understand why he did what he did.”
Testimony resumes Tuesday.