By Stephanie Hardiman

Billy Wayne Cope’s case seemed simple at first.

On the morning of Nov. 29, 2001, he called the police to report that his 12-year-old daughter, Amanda, had been raped, bludgeoned and strangled to death in her bed across the hall from his bedroom.  There were no signs of an intruder and within days Cope confessed to police.

In September 2004, a jury in Rock Hill, S.C., took only five hours to convict Cope, 45, of murder and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct.

But law students at the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, a legal clinic at Washington and Lee University’s School of Law, say the case is not as open and shut as it seems.

Tim Gilbert and Christine Kidwell, third-year law students who are working on Cope’s appeal, say police pressured Cope into making a false confession and the trial judge made a mistake by barring testimony that pointed at Cope’s co-defendant as Amanda’s killer.

The state’s strategy “avoided the need to acknowledge any mistakes by the police or the prosecution in their pursuit of Billy Wayne Cope,” the W&L team said in court filings. “In particular, it deflected the very uncomfortable question of whether the Rock Hill Police Department had extracted a false confession from the innocent father of a murdered child.”

W&L Law Professor David Bruck, who heads the capital clinic, told the South Carolina Court of Appeals in September that Cope did not receive a fair trial because he was barred from telling the jury that his co-defendant, James Sanders, had broken into nearby homes and assaulted other women around the time of Amanda’s murder.

Nine months after the killing, a state computer DNA analysis linked Sanders to Amanda’s rape. “By that time, the state’s case against the only suspect the police had previously been able to produce—Amanda’s own father—had hardened like concrete,” Bruck wrote.

Not everyone thinks that Cope, who is serving a life sentence, should get another trial.  “I don’t think he should even be allowed to appeal,” Cope’s mother-in-law, Vickie Dixon, said in an interview. “I don’t think he should be allowed a breath of air.”

When police arrived at Cope’s home early that November day, there were no signs of forced entry.  Neither Cope, who was hooked to a loud breathing machine for his sleep apnea, nor his two younger daughters, Jessica and Kyla, said they had heard anything.  Cope’s wife, Mary Sue, was at work.

According to court records, police found Cope, an obese white man who lived in squalor, fiddling with his computer and acting disinterested despite finding his daughter’s body.

Police were familiar with the Cope family. In 1999, the Copes were convicted of child neglect because their home was filled with garbage and roaches.

Rock Hill detectives interrogated Cope for four hours the night of the murder, and he denied killing Amanda some 600 times, according to court records. “I have never in my entire life beat my child or sexually messed with any of my children.  Never,” Cope repeatedly told police during the tape-recorded interrogation that was played for the jury.

Several times during the interrogation, Cope asked to take a polygraph to prove his innocence. “I’ll be willing to do anything. You can put me under hypnosis. You can do anything you want to me,” he said.

After police allegedly mischaracterized the polygraph results and told him he had flunked the test, Cope relented, admitting he “must have” killed Amanda, according to court records. Although polygraph results are inadmissible as evidence, the test’s outcome was hotly contested during the trial, with each side calling experts who contradicted one another. Cope’s lawyers argued that police lied about the results to trick Cope into confessing.

In all, Cope made four confessions, none of which mentioned Sanders.  But his versions of the killing differed.

In one of the confessions, Cope described hearing a cackling laugh in his sleep, which led him to strangle Amanda and bash her head on a video game console near her bed.  In another, he described a dream sequence where he confused Amanda with a woman who had wronged him in the past.

While a police video camera rolled, Cope also re-enacted how he thought he might have killed Amanda.  At times, Cope hesitated in telling his story.  Prompted by a police detective, he resumed the tale, altering the narrative and changing details here and there about how the crime occurred.

“He had already been interrogated for hours and hours,” Gilbert said, “and the police had already put together their theory of what had happened. It’s possible that during the interrogation he picked up on that theory.”

After Cope confessed, police charged him with Amanda’s murder. Prosecutors added Sanders, 49, who lived around the corner from the Cope home, to the case after the DNA match.

Four women later identified Sanders as the man who broke into their homes between November 2001 and January 2002 and attempted to assault them. Three of the women fought back, including one who beat Sanders with a frying pan and stabbed him in the neck with a screw driver, before he fled. But an elderly woman could not fight back, and she was raped and robbed, according to court records.

Instead of dropping the murder charge against Cope, the Rock Hill prosecutor, Kevin Brackett, asked a grand jury to charge both men with conspiring to rape Amanda.  During the trial, Cope’s lawyers, James Morton and A. Philip Baity, argued that the two men were social opposites and did not know each other.

Lawyers for the state told the appellate court that the evidence against Cope and Sanders—although circumstantial—was strong and that “the only logical explanation is that Cope served up his daughter that fateful night for his and Sanders own perverse pleasures.”

Brackett declined comment.  Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka said, “The prosecution satisfied its burden of proof.  The issues raised before the South Carolina Court of Appeals were insufficient to require a new trial.”

Attorney Leland Greeley, who represented Sanders, said he “made a strategic decision” to oppose efforts by Cope to hold separate trials for each defendant.

Bruck told the Court of Appeals that the conspiracy charge was the prosecutor’s only hope of convicting Cope.  “This state’s decision to charge Cope with conspiracy was one of expediency—there was simply no other way, short of admitting a grievous error, for authorities to reconcile the fact that Cope had confessed to a crime that Sanders had clearly committed,” he wrote in court filings.

Cope’s lawyers also argued on appeal that Judge John Hayes III deprived Cope of a fair trial when he decided that Sanders’ crime spree was not similar enough to Amanda’s murder to be characterized as a trend and barred the jury from hearing the evidence.

“The problem was that the jury hadn’t heard the evidence that Sanders’ M.O. was to break into houses without leaving signs of forced entry and to not wake anyone up,” Gilbert said. “He was very good at this. He had done it many times, and that was the problem that the jury didn’t hear.”

Hayes also limited the testimony of Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., who said that 20 to 25 percent of defendants who were exonerated by DNA analysis had given false confessions.

The judge did not allow Kassin to cite specific cases because he said they would be too sensational.  Hayes said parading “a horrible string of injustice” on the witness stand would not help the jury decide the case.

Kidwell said the jury probably needed to hear all of Kassin’s testimony to understand how a parent could admit to killing his child when he did not do it.  “Unless you hear that evidence from other situations similar to that, it’s a hard to thing to wrap your head around,” she said.

But it does happen. In 2004, a suburban Chicago man, Kevin Fox, falsely confessed to killing his 3-year-old daughter, Riley.  After being interrogated by police for hours, Fox admitted to sexually assaulting and murdering Riley before dumping her body in a local river.

Fox was charged with his daughter’s murder. But, as in Cope’s case, DNA evidence found on the girl’s body did not match that of her father. He was released from jail after eight months and charges were dropped.  He sued the county for violating his civil rights, and a jury awarded him $15.5 million.

The Innocence Project, a national legal group that has helped free more than 200 defendants through the use of DNA evidence, says on its Web site that false confessions often are obtained when innocent suspects feel threatened by police or when they are pressured while they are exhausted, in a fragile state of mind or under the influence of drugs.

Kassin testified that when false evidence, such as a failed polygraph, is used to confront suspects, they often will confess to things that never happened.  “It disorients their view of reality and they begin to question their own memory,” he said.

During the four years since his conviction, Cope has completed an associate degree in ministry and is working as an assistant chaplain at the Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C., Gilbert and Kidwell said. Before his incarceration, Cope was active in his home church, the West Main Church of the Nazarene, and was his daughters’ Bible quiz team adviser.

If Cope loses the case, Gilbert said, the lawyers will appeal again.

This story was originally published Dec. 4, 2008, on the Rockbridge Report website. The video package aired the same day on the Rockbridge Report newscast.