Life or death: Capital cases in South Carolina can last for decades, Horry solicitor says

Fourteen years.

That was the typical wait time between a death sentence in South Carolina before an inmate was executed. Several appeals, all to make sure the punishment was correctly applied, were the biggest reasons for the lengthy wait.

Today, the wait is indefinite as South Carolina doesn’t have the three chemicals needed to carry out the lethal injection. There have been calls to bring back firing squads or the electric chair so the state can carry out executions.

Even with the lengthy appeals and an inability to carry out executions, South Carolina prosecutors continue to seek the sentence in the most severe cases.

Jerome “JJ” Jenkins in Horry County faces that punishment as his capital case starts Friday, May 10. Jenkins — along with McKinley Daniels and James Daniels — is accused of robbing convenience stores in the Conway area. Investigators believe the trio killed Balla Paruchuri in January 2015 at a Sunhouse convenience store on S.C. Highway 905.

Weeks later the team allegedly robbed the Scotchman on Lake Arrowhead Road and the Sunhouse store on Oak Street, where clerk Trish Stull was shot and killed. Prosecutors say Jenkins and McKinley Daniels entered the stores and robbed them while James Daniels served as lookout and driver.

Pursuing the death penalty

Horry and Georgetown counties Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said he is selective in seeking the death penalty.

“You don’t take death willy-nilly,” Richardson said. “It’s got to be the worst of the worst.”

South Carolina statute requires not only a murder, but aspects making the case worse than others — called aggravating factors. Some examples are killing during an armed robbery, a sexual assault, during drug trafficking, killing a police officer or a judge, lynching or creating a risk of death to others in a public place.

If a prosecutor determines a crime meets those elements, the state can seek the death penalty and identify those factors.

Death penalty trials are in two parts, Richardson explained. The first part is a typical trial to determine a person’s guilt. That usually involves a prolonged jury selection in which hundreds of jurors are questioned about their knowledge of the case and death penalty beliefs.

Capital cases are often the only times when the jury is sequestered, which means they stay in a hotel and are not allowed their phones or contact with the public.

If a suspect is found guilty, the trial moves into its second phase in which the sentence is determined. There is a mandated 24-hour “cooling off” period for the jury between the two phases, so they aren’t deciding with emotion.

A judge typically determines a person’s sentence, but the jury does in death penalty cases. Their only options are life in prison without parole or death. The jury is aware of these two options.

“They are given a lot more information in part two of a death penalty case than they are in a regular murder case,” Richardson said.

Arguing life and death

During the second phase, prosecutors will try to prove those aggravating factors as a defense attorney argues mitigating factors, basically reasons that a person should not be executed.

Defense attorney Morgan L. Martin, who has defended death penalty cases, said there is added stress given the nature of the cases. Lawyers will dig up a person’s past to find reasons why the crime might not be as terrible as it seems or why a person might have acted that way.

Mitigating factors could include reasons like abuse during a person’s upbringing or mental health issues.

“You’re trying to put your client in the best light you can,” Martin said.

If the jury decides to go with a death sentence, the process is hardly over. There are several appeals — and appeals of the appeals — that can take more than a decade to complete.

There could also be appeals heard in the federal court.

There are 38 people on death row in South Carolina and each of their cases are in the appeals process.

Martin said the appeals process can be too long, but he didn’t know of a way to streamline the process.

Appeals courts know that a death sentence is in play and Richardson said for a time they were overturning about 75 percent of death penalty sentences. When a sentence is reversed, it must be retried. Richardson said that is why many capital cases are argued twice before a jury.

“It’s really not a perfect system. It really is just the best system we got,” Richardson said.

He paused briefly and then highlighted the elephant-in-the-room with death penalty cases.

“You don’t want anyone, with any probability at all that they didn’t do something worthy of death, going to death; or getting death. Because you can’t reverse that,” Richardson said.

Alex Lang is the True Crime reporter for The Sun News covering the legal system and how crime impacts local residents. He says letting residents know if they are safe is a vital role of a newspaper. Alex has covered crime in Detroit, Iowa, New York City, West Virginia and now Horry County.