A judge on Thursday said it was the strangest case he had ever seen, as Clayton pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and malicious tampering with a food or drug.
“This one takes the cake as far as being bizarre,” South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Paul Burch said as he handed down a 25-year prison sentence, according to the Herald. “The old saying, ‘What a tangled web we weave.’ Ms. Clayton, you sure have tangled this one up.”
Opting for half of the maximum possible sentence, Burch rebuked some of Clayton’s defense, news reports said. He noted that she hid her husband’s phone to keep him from getting help.
“How can you maintain you did this to teach him a lesson, when it is obvious from the facts that you let him suffer for three days,” Burch said, according to the Associated Press. “You ignored him.”
Lana Clayton’s defense said she put eye drops in her husband’s drink only once, after he verbally abused her and amid escalating abuse that was also physical and sexual. Prosecutors dismissed the allegations as smearing the reputation of a man unable to rebut, according to news reports.
Clayton’s case drew national attention in 2018 when she was arrested and charged with murder. It wasn’t until after 64-year-old Steven Clayton’s funeral that an autopsy led authorities to suspect foul play: The body contained an unusual concentration of tetrahydrozoline, a chemical found in over-the-counter products that can be deadly when consumed in high doses.
When officials confronted her, Lana Clayton admitted to adding the eye drops into her husband’s food, they said.
“We don’t have a clear-cut reason why she committed the crime that she did, or what kind of motive she had,” Trent Faris, spokesman for the York County Sheriff’s Office, told ABC News at the time.
The arrest brought renewed attention to a 2016 episode in which Lana Clayton told authorities she accidentally shot her husband in the head with a crossbow as he slept, according to the Charlotte Observer. Steven Clayton also called the injury a mishap, the newspaper said, and no charges resulted — though police noted that they found Lana Clayton “crying and upset,” saying her husband never hit her but could quickly turn cruel.
While Burch would marvel at Lana Clayton’s case this week, eye-drop poisoning allegations are not without precedent. Just last month, a man in North Carolina was charged with first-degree murder for allegedly using the household item to kill his wife — all to get the insurance payout, prosecutors said.
Speaking in court for that case, North Carolina Insurance Department attorney Jordan Green noted tetrahydrozoline’s ability to wreak havoc on the body.
“We’re told by our toxicologists and our cardiologists that medicine has a dramatic effect on your heart and would cause heart stoppage or heart failure in a fairly short amount of time, which is consistent with what happened here,” Green said.
In another North Carolina case earlier this year, authorities said a woman intentionally put eye drops in her fiance’s Coca-Cola, inspired by the movie “Wedding Crashers,” according to a local news report. The comedy suggests that ingesting eye drops leads to diarrhea — an urban legend, experts warn, that underplays potentially deadly consequences.
B.J. Barrowclough, a public defender representing Lana Clayton, said in a brief interview with The Washington Post on Friday that his client’s actions were not premeditated and that she passed a polygraph test while saying she did not want to kill her husband.
Reiterating that Lana Clayton acted in momentary anger, Barrowclough said that past trauma — including sexual assaults that occurred before her relationship with Steven Clayton — had left her wary of bringing concerns with her partner to authorities.
Prosecutors had argued for Lana Clayton to get the harshest possible penalty, pointing to money as a motive and saying she destroyed her husband’s will after killing him, the Herald reported.
Citing court records, the newspaper reported that Steven Clayton had more than $1 million in assets in addition to the expensive Mount Vernon-inspired home in South Carolina’s York County where he lived with his wife. An obituary remembers Steven Clayton as “an entrepreneur, a visionary, and a brilliant business strategist,” who founded and led a medical company before retiring in 1995.
Steven Clayton’s family also showed up in court, to echo prosecutors’ calls for accountability. They reminded the judge how his death might have never led to criminal charges.
“She fooled a lot of people,” his sister Rose Marie Clayton said of Lana Clayton, according to the Herald. “And she almost got away with it.”