In a year where voters in many jurisdictions have ousted some of the most aggressive prosecutors in the country, it’s worth pausing to bid farewell to Donnie Myers, the solicitor of South Carolina’s 11th Judicial Circuit. After his third alcohol-related charge in a decade, and because he is approaching the mandatory retirement age of 72, Myers announced in March that he would not run for reelection when his term expires next month. And a federal appeals court recently handed down a fitting parting reversal for the prosecutor who is a legend in the state and seems to have walked straight out of a paperback novel — a man “known for courtroom theatrics, a flashy wardrobe [and] chewing tobacco.”
He was also known for his affinity for capital punishment. Myers earned the nicknames “Doctor Death” and “Death Penalty Donnie” for his record-setting pursuit of executions. The State published a definitive profile of Myers in March. No prosecutor in the state has tried more death penalty cases than he has, and in 28 of those cases he’s persuaded a jury to vote unanimously in his favor (although only six of those defendants have been executed). He is famous for over-the-top, made-for-television closing arguments, as exhibited in these two examples from the State’s profile:
THE STATE V. FINKLEA. In this case, one of Myers’ most vivid courtroom stunts was found to be legal by the S.C. Supreme Court. The case involved Ron Finklea, who had been convicted of robbing an ATM and in the process, shooting a security guard, dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire with a lighter, killing him.
At trial, during his death penalty argument, Myers held out a large, match-shaped, metal fire-starter before the jury and ignited it, saying, “Gasoline pouring on another human being and the fire, the fire, the burning. When you’re cooking sometimes and you touch the stove … and you touch that hot thing or you’re grilling, whooo, oh, it hurts, it’s painful.”
Over defense protests, the high court approved Myers’ use of flicking a lighter to make his point during the jury argument.
Finklea remains on Death Row. His appeals are pending.
THE STATE V. NORTHCUTT. In this 2007 decision, the S.C. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Ron Northcutt, who was convicted of the 2001 killing of his infant daughter, Breanna, by beating her to death because she would not stop crying.
In his argument to the jury seeking death, Myers had, among other over-the-top actions, inflamed the jury “by producing a large black shroud and draping it over (a) baby’s crib,” the Supreme Court ruled. Myers then wheeled the crib from the courtroom in a staged funeral procession and also improperly told the jury they would “declare open season on babies in Lexington County” if they did not give Northcutt the death penalty.
After another sentencing trial, Northcutt was sentenced again to death. He is now on Death Row.
But it’s likely that the last major court decision in his career will be the one affirmed days ago by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. On Nov. 21 — hat tip to Nashville attorney Daniel Horwitz, who flagged the ruling on Twitter — that court upheld a federal trial judge’s decision to vacate the death sentence of Johnny Bennett — a man convicted in 2000 of kidnapping, armed robbery, larceny and a murder in which he stabbed his victim more than 70 times with a Phillips-head screwdriver — because of the way Myers’s arguments in the sentencing phase of the trial had relied on racist appeals to an all-white jury.
Myers had referred to Bennett, a black man standing 6½ feet tall and weighing 300 pounds, as “King Kong” and labeled him a “caveman.” During a cross-examination, Myers also appeared to go out of his way to highlight for the jury the fact that Bennett had been involved in a sexual relationship with a white woman.
Then there was this, as summed up by Andrew Cohen at the Marshall Project in March:
When one witness, a white woman, testified that Bennett had attacked her weeks before the murder, Myers asked the witness if she had dreamt of anything while in a coma. Yes, she told jurors, “Indians were chasing me trying to kill me, and the thing I thought was they were black.” Both before and after that answer, Bennett’s lawyer objected and moved for a mistrial. It was denied; the prosecutor had not elicited the “black Indian” dream testimony, a state judge subsequently (and erroneously) ruled.
All the more damning was the fact that Myers seemed to have tailored his argument to stir up racial animus in the white jurors. In the initial trial, a mixed-race jury had sentenced Bennett to death, but that sentence was reversed on appeal by the South Carolina Supreme Court. The jury for the second sentencing proceeding was made up completely of white jurors and, as the recent appeals court ruling puts it, “before this all-white jury, Myers chose to use racially charged language from the first sentence of his opening argument to his final soliloquy, casting aside the race-neutral presentation he had employed with the mixed-race jury.”
It seemed to work. More from Cohen:
Then, six years later, one of Bennett’s post-conviction lawyers asked one of the jurors from that 2000 sentencing why the juror had thought Bennett had killed his victim.” “Because he was just a dumb [n—–],” the juror candidly responded. “I apologize for saying that word,” the juror then said under oath, “but after going through that thing for an entire week and all the evidence piling up against him, that was just the way I felt about it.”
The state’s Supreme Court was unmoved by all this, ruling in 2006 that Myers’s comments “did not improperly inject racial issues into the trial.” Bennett’s appeals would continue to be denied, until March of this year when U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel vacated the death sentence based on Myers’s racist appeals.
His 40-year career, and the Bennett case in particular, is worth considering further in the context of South Carolina’s poisonous police culture — examined in a four-part series here at The Watch — and as we await a verdict in the murder trial of former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who shot Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist, as he fled a traffic stop last year. Slager has testified that he felt “total fear” when Scott grabbed his Taser during the altercation — a common refrain in recent incidents involving white police officers and black, often unarmed, men and an echo of racist depictions from the past of black men as especially aggressive and prone to violence.
The closing paragraph of the 4th Circuit’s ruling on the Bennett case serves as a decent summary of our predicament in policing and the criminal-justice system as a whole:
The criminal justice system must win the trust of all Americans by delivering justice without regard to the race or ethnicity of those who come before it. The many instances where the system performs its duties admirably help to build the trust of the people. A proceeding like this one threatens to tear that trust apart.