Justice 360 is excited to announce that last week our attorneys won relief for two of their clients. Johnny Bennett will receive a new sentencing hearing and William Bell’s death sentence has been vacated because he is ineligible for the death penalty.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that racist comments made by the Lexington County Solicitor in Johnny Bennett’s death penalty trial violated Mr. Bennett’s right to a fair trial. According to the ruling, the comments “were unmistakably calculated to inflame racial fears and apprehensions on the part of the jury.” Solicitor Donald Myers referred to Mr. Bennett as “King Kong,” a “caveman,” and various other animals. The solicitor also elicited testimony about murderous “black Indians” and that Mr. Bennett had been involved in an interracial romantic relationship. The court of appeals found these comments “were poorly disguised appeals to racial prejudice” and that the solicitor’s conduct at trial threatens to tear apart Americans’ trust in the criminal justice system. The court remanded the case for a new (and fair) sentencing trial.
Also last week, a circuit court in Anderson County, South Carolina found that William H. Bell, Jr. is intellectually disabled and constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty. Under US Supreme Court law, a person with intellectual disability has “diminished capacities” and, therefore, lesser culpability. As a result, “[n]o legitimate penological purpose is served by executing a person with intellectual disability.” The circuit court found expert evaluations and Mr. Bell’s school records demonstrated that he is intellectually disabled and vacated Mr. Bell’s death sentence.
The state has the option to appeal both decisions.
According to a recent study of South Carolina’s death penalty, over 60% of all death sentences in the state have been reversed on appeal.