|Special Report from Steven Drizin, Esq.
Center for Wrongful Convictions
Possible New False Confession Case Deserves a National Spotlight
January 7, 2004
Neighbors, friends, and fellow churchgoers from the Rock Hill, S.C. community (a suburb of Charlotte) were stunned when 38 year old Billy Wayne Cope was arrested and charged with beating, sexually assaulting, and murdering his 12 year old daughter Amanda in December 2001. Cope, his wife, and three daughters had come to the attention of authorities before due to the dirty and dilapidated condition of their home but there was no violence in Cope's background (he had no prior convictions), and he was not a drinker or drug abuser. In fact, he was an inveterate churchgoer who had fallen on hard financial times as he struggled to make ends meet.
Cope became a suspect because he notified police that he had found his daughter's lifeless and partially clothed body under a blanket in her bedroom on November 29 and because police claimed there were no signs of forced entry. He was charged when, after 4 days of interrogation, he confessed on videotape to the murder during a crime scene reenactment at his home. None of the preceding days of interrogation had been recorded. And an evaluation of Cope shortly after his arrest showed that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of finding his daughter dead.
Now, two years after Cope's arrest, a second man has been charged with the Amanda's rape and murder. A neighbor, James Sanders, with a history of break-ins involving sexual assaults or attempted sexual assaults, had moved into Cope's neighborhood only a few weeks before Amanda's death, was arrested and charged. Early DNA test results excluded Cope as the source of semen found inside Amanda but Sanders was connected to the case when investigators ran his DNA through a state database and it matched evidence recovered from Amanda.
Here's the kicker. Instead of dismissing the charges against Cope, prosecutors simply amended the charges to add a conspiracy count against Cope and a conspiracy and murder, and rape charges against Sanders. A trial court judge on December 30, 2003, found probable cause to sustain those charges despite the fact that there is no connection established between Cope and Sanders.
Unless and until prosecutors can prove a connection exists, they should release Cope on bond and/or drop the charges. If this case proceeds to trial, there is a great danger that Cope will be convicted based on his videotaped confession. In studies of false confessions, innocent defendants who take their cases to trial (believing that juries will be able to ferret out the truth) are convicted nearly 80% of the time. The power of confession evidence is just too compelling -- the myth that "noone would ever confess to a crime they did not commit, especially a murder" is often too hard for even the best defense attorneys to overcome. Studies also show that false confessions are most likely to occur in murder cases, especially high-profile cases like this, because it is in these cases that police officers are more likely to push the envelope in using coercive tactics to extract a confession. In my soon-to be released study of 125 proven false confessions with false confession expert Richard Leo, murder was the most serious crime in 81% of the cases .
Complicating Cope's chances is the fact that the victim was his daughter and that she was only 12. When jurors see "life and death" pictures of her, it may be next to impossible to convince them that Cope was not her killer and jurors are even less likely to believe that a father would ever admit to killing his daughter if it was not true. In point of fact, there are many false confession cases on record where distraught family members have admitted to killing their relatives (Gary Gauger was sentenced to death here in Illinois for murdering his parents when he gave police a hypothetical statement of how he thought they were killed). And the other danger is that in cases of infanticide, matricide, or patricide, juries may be more likely to impose the death sentence.
One other disturbing fact which suggests that Cope's confession may be false. In portions of the tape shown in the p/c hearing, it was reported that Cope clearly is having difficulty remembering what occurred on the night of the murders. In describing the alleged attack, he also is quoted as saying: "I thought the whole time that I was in the bed asleep...It was almost like I could seem the moon." These kinds of statements suggest that detectives may have used the "dream statement" trick on Cope or convinced him that he was in a fugue state of some kind when he raped and killed his daughter. These tactics have been linked to many false confessions.
This case has tragedy written all over it. After Amanda was killed and Cope was arrested, the Cope children were removed from their mother's care and placed with child welfare services. Then Mary Cope, Billy Wayne's wife, and the children's mother, passed away apparently from natural causes at the age of 32. I'm not sure of this but I do not think the children have been allowed to visit with their father since his arrest.
The reporter on these stories is Nichole Monroe Bell of the Charlotte Observer. Those interested in finding out more should contact her. I will update you with more info as I get it. A trial is expected in 2004.