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A 20-year quest for freedom

A man was sent to death row, accused of the rape and murder of an elderly woman. But Sterling Spann always maintained his innocence. Keith Morrison reports.

There is an old town, a quintessential Southern place with manners, called Clover, South Carolina. in this town lived a sweet lady named Melva Niell.  Everybody called her Miss Mel. She was quiet, respectable, and devoted to her church, her friends and her town.

Melva Niell was 82 and healthy. Which made the worst, last day of her life all the more difficult to bear.

It was September 16th, 1981, Melva Niell had uncharacteristically failed to keep a morning appointment.

A neighbor, worried, went to investigate. The screen door was unlocked. The inside door was wide open. There was a rush of dread; the neighbor withdrew, and ran home and called the Clover police.

At first glance the home appeared tidy as usual, but stunned officers soon found Miss Niell’s bed splattered with blood... a church newsletter and her own zucchini bread recipe scattered nearby.

And there, in the bathtub, was Miss Niell.  It was ugly.  Apparently, she had been tortured on her own bed, sexually assaulted with some foreign object. Then the killer had strangled her and left her body lying in bloody water in her own bathtub.     

The small Clover police department had no experience with such horror. State police were called. Investigators looked at that gruesome scene and soon developed their own picture of the case was "open and shut," as they say.

What happened in the next few hours and days would echo over decades; would ruin lives and reputations.  Behind almost every twist in this strange tale lurked allegations of ineptitude, misconduct, injustice, racism. And more murder. But not yet.  Not at the beginning.

Sharon Spann: I heard the news report when she was murdered and it was scary.

Sharon Spann was like everybody else in town—fearful that the killer was still among them.

Sharon Spann: We wanted the person to be arrested.

The investigators discovered that some things were missing from Miss Niell’s house; some cash and jewelry notably a very unusual pendant made from an 1881 gold coin like this one.  It was something, at least, to go on.  If they could find that coin, would they have found the killer?

Days past with no lead, no suspect, you could almost feel the tension rise in Clover.  And then, three days after Ms. Niell was killed, a police dispatcher got an anonymous call.

The female voice said “Sterling Spann killed that lady.”  Officers knew that name; a local high school dropout who liked his dope, and his booze.  They found him at a popular beer joint just minutes from the police station.

The arrest was announced on local TV.

Sharon Spann:  The reporter said “an arrest has been made in the death of Mrs. Melva Niell, a young man from Clover...Sterling Barnett Spann.”

How do you measure shock? She stood there, trying to understand. The murder suspect was her own baby brother.

Sharon Spann: It was a feeling of helplessness of hopelessness. We were in shock.

Sterling was just 19.  He was the youngest of six, whose mother was a respected school teacher.

His brothers and sisters had gone to college, while he had drifted frequently into his favorite beer joint, but never for a moment did his family think he would be a killer.

Sharon Spann: He was just nice, he was just happy-go-lucky.

But Sterling Spann was not lucky this night. Officers took him to the police station.

Spann admitted he had once worked for the victim, had done some yard work. He told them he lived just a few blocks from Ms Niell’s house. But Spann insisted he had nothing to do with her murder.     

But then came the report from the crime lab. Spann’s fingerprints matched prints found on the zucchini bread recipe and church envelope on Miss Niell’s bed. And there was one more thing.

Remember that gold coin?  The one police believed might pinpoint the killer? They found it, alright.  It was in Sterling Spann’s pocket.

Spann gave them what they thought was a flimsy excuse.  He told them a man named “Cool Breeze” had given him the coin, days before.

Had to be nonsense, they thought, nobody had heard of such a man.

And with Spann behind bars, charged with a capital murder it seemed everyone in Clover was freed from fear that the “Bathtub Strangler” might kill again.

Robert Sutton, juror:  It was a very intense time. It’s still the most serious thing I’ve ever done.

Robert Sutton was one of the dozen jurors called to the York County courthouse to decide if Sterling Spann was guilty of killing Melva Niell.

Many days this grand historic courtroom was filled with curious spectators, with friends of the victim, with members of Sterling Spann’s own family.   They heard what was the prosecution putting up what it admitted was a circumstantial case.  But a case which day after day seemed to pile up damning evidence against Sterling Spann—particularly the finger prints on the zucchini bread recipe, the envelope and that gold coin.

Sutton: As the trial progressed we saw little pieces of evidence that were not refutable.   

And, in response, the juror remembered, the defense seemed to sputter—offering very little evidence to discount the coin or fingerprint evidence, or anything else.

Finally the defense of Sterling Spann depended on the one person who could clear him absolutely—an impeccable witness, his church-going respected grandmother who would tell the court that at the very moment Melva Niell was dying her horrible death, Sterling Spann was at home with her. It was an alibi.  But then something would happened that would turn a great witness into a disaster, before she even said a word.

Sutton: I remember that when she was called forward to testify, and was asked to place her hand on the Bible, she hesitated about doing that. And finally her hand was placed on the Bible.Morrison: By the court clerk?Sutton: By the court clerk.Morrison:  What impact did that have on the view of the jury?Sutton: Several of them felt like she was not telling the truth.          

And with Spann’s fingerprints on the zucchini bread recipe and the church newsletter and Miss Niell’s gold coin in his pocket, it took less than 90 minutes for Robert Sutton and the rest of jury to find Sterling Spann guilty of 1st degree murder.

His punishment:  death in the electric chair.  It was unanimous.

Morrison: Nobody really had any doubts?Sutton: Nah.Morrison: This was the right thing to do?Sutton: The right thing to do.

And so ended another of hundreds of such apparently obvious cases.  The right man was sent away and the legal wheel began slowly turning toward death.

But maybe this was not so obvious. 

It was as if the whole town of Clover sighed with relief when Miss Mel’s killer was sent to death row. The prosecutor called the evidence against Sterling Spann “overwhelming”.

No one was very surprised when Spann’s appeal failed.  So did his second appeal, his third, his fourth, his fifth—all failed.

And every time, the electric chair loomed a little closer.

On most of those occasions, his major complaint was: ineffective counsel. 

Two public defenders handled Spann’s case. But after one day at trial, Spann’s mother was so unimpressed, she dipped into the savings from her meager teacher’s salary to hire a third lawyer.

It was not money well spent.

It soon became obvious to Spann’s family that his own lawyers thought he was guilty.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: What was the advice that Sterling got from his lawyers?Sharon Spann, sister: Sterling was told if you just say that you went into the house and stole something, I can get you a life sentence.

Yet the state’s case against Spann that the DA had called OVERWHELMING was  circumstantial. There was no forensic evidence like hair or fibers. 

And the state never found any eyewitness who could put Sterling Spann at the murder scene.  

In fact Sharon Spann says her brother had alibi witnesses beside his grandmother.

There were young men with whom he had been playing cards that night.... who would confirm that Spann was never near Mrs. Niell’s house.  Some of them were sitting right in the courtroom but they were never called to testify. Why?

Sharon Spann: His response was just they were just teenagers.Morrison: They were just teenagers?Sharon Spann: Yeah, I mean it’s like who was going to believe a teenager? I remember that. 

And remember when Spann’s grandmother refused to put her hands on the Bible? Many jurors thought it meant she couldn’t tell the truth. But Spann’s sister says that was because the grandmother thought it was sacrilegious to bring a Bible into a courtroom.

She also says Spann begged to go on the stand himself to refute the evidence against him.  The lawyers advised him to keep silent.

And then she listened as that expensive lawyer called her brother by the wrong name.

Sharon Spann: Throughout the proceeding every time he tried to call Sterling’s name he said Stanley and that didn’t look good at all.Morrison: He called Sterling by the wrong name? Once? Twice?Sharon Spann: I think around 22 times.

But none of that was enough to win an appeal. After a while, Spann couldn’t bear to keep calendars anymore, as life on death row stretched from weeks, to months... to years..

It was, not surprisingly a depressing existence.  For 10 years, he was confined to his 5 by 7 foot cell, alone for 23 hours a day with one hour for outdoor exercise.  On the weekends, he wasn’t allowed out of the cell at all.

And one by one he watched others leave the row to die.

Sterling Spann: It was hard. He would say "I’m tired of being locked up for nothing. I didn’t do this and I shouldn’t be here."

He had some kind of life. 9 years after he went to death row, his childhood sweetheart, Jackie, came to visit.  They were married right there on death row, a year later.

But always, through all the dark days, it was his sister, Sharon Spann, who kept Sterling going; who gave him hope.

Sharon Spann: Just to know that someone was coming to see him, that his phone calls would be accepted, that he would be receiving mail. I think that helped him out a lot.

Even so, after years of faithful prison visits, Sharon  decided her emotional support just wasn’t enough.  She launched a personal crusade against the death penalty, organized vigils, drove from state to state with her brother’s story; convinced a miracle was on it’s way.

And as she drove, advertised that faith with her license tag: “Hebrew’s 11:1” - “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

Sharon Spann: I was willing to do what I could, knowing that what I couldn’t do,  God could do it.

But no matter how much Sharon loved Sterling, no matter that she believed in him, others didn’t, and time was running out.  Spann needed new evidence he wasn’t a murderer. But with no money and the meager budgets of court appointed lawyers, it was impossible to get such evidence from death row, even if it did exist.

Then one day, 13 years after he had been sentenced to death, Spann saw, coming down that dreary corridor... a familiar face.

A brand new private investigator named Pete Skidmore happened to be visiting death row and recognized Spann, a fellow student from their days at Clover Middle School.

Pete Skidmore, investigator: He played on the same football team as I did. We knew each other.

Spann, now 33 years old pleaded with his friend to work on his case. Skidmore listened, promised to - look into it - and left.

Morrison: Did you actually believe that he  might be innocent? Everybody’s “innocent” on death row.Skidmore: No. We actually believed he was guilty.

But Skidmore had made a promise.  And though the case was old and cold, an though experts had tried and failed, what if he could find something new?

Skidmore: My commitment to Sterling was that was long as he told me the truth, I would continue to work on his case, but the first time he had lied to me, that was the end of our relationship.

But how do you follow a trail so old?   Skidmore looked up the records.

And that’s when his jaw dropped... When he learned something even Spann said he didn’t know.

Just 60 days before Melva Niell was killed, another widow was found dead in a house just blocks from where Sterling Spann and Mrs. Niell lived.    

That victim, too, was an elderly white woman.  She too had been sexually assaulted, and strangled, and covered with water in her bathtub. The crime seemed virtually identical.

And yet, the Clover Police did not pursue a murder investigation.  They merely “noted” suspicious circumstances.

But then, to Skidmore’s utter amazement... the court files revealed yet another murder 60 days after Mrs. Niell’s death.  Yet another white woman, same murder method, same horrible death.

Skidmore: I’m looking through and they’re identical. Strangulation, elderly woman—which was bizarre to me that somebody hadn’t looked at this before.

What were the chances?  In a community of a few thousand people, three white elderly widows had died in virtually  the same horrible way, strangled, tortured and raped, precisely 60 days apart.

Skidmore: I don’t think that you have to be a great private investigator or a genius to figure out that probably one individual’s responsible for all three of those.      

But here was the most amazing thing of  all, like a light snapping on in Skidmore’s brain:  It could NOT have been Sterling Spann.  Couldn’t have been.  Why?

Because, when that third victim was raped and strangled, Sterling Spann was already in jail.

But if not Spann, then who?

In fact, someone HAD been convicted of killing the 3rd elderly woman...

The confessed killer was a former minister, and odd jobber named Johnny Hullett.

Skidmore: Johnny Hullet in 1969 had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He had had dreams and nightmares, seeing his grandmothers head roll toward him while he was at work.

But that was nothing compared to what Skidmore learned from Hullet’s own wife.  She said and later testified that her husband had often beaten and sexually assaulted her and their daughter.

And that he had worked a produce route that took him right by the houses of the other two elderly murder victims.

Skidmore rushed to tell Spann’s new lawyers Diana Holt and John Blume about his discovery. 

By now, these noted crusaders against capital punishment were fighting just to keep Spann alive.  He’d been on death row almost 15 years; he’d watched cell mates go off to die.

Blume and Holt had been shocked, though not surprised when they read old transcripts of Spann’s original trial, and saw the sort of lawyering he had...or didn’t have.

Pete’s new evidence changed everything.

John Blume, defense lawyer: I went from thinking he was innocent to really believing fundamentally in my heart that he was not guilty.

All very well, but it wouldn’t do much unless they could prove that Johnny Hullett, not sterling Spann, was in Melva Niell’s house when she died.

Remember, the police had  Spann’s fingerprints on Mrs. Mel’s zucchini recipe and church newsletter. And he did wind up with the gold coin stolen from the murder scene?

But could police have missed something that would clear Spann and implicate Johnny Hullet in Mrs. Niell’s death?

Skidmore dug out the old police reports and went back to Miss Niell’s neat little house on the corner of Sumter Street.

What Skidmore discovered was astonishing and might explain why there was so little evidence at trial that pointed to Spann’s innocence.       

Skidmore: And the police officer when he came in, let the water out of the tub.     Morrison: Let the water out?Skidmore: Yes.Morrison: With her in it?Skidmore: Yes.Morrison: How much sense did that make?Skidmore: Nothing because everything’s kind of destroying the crime scene.

Skidmore also discovered police had allowed Miss Niell’s friends to clean up the blood and mess left by the killer,  that a plumber had been allowed to remove a blood-soaked sponge and some papers from the toilet...and throw them away!  More lost evidence...

It was only later, police checked the house for hairs, fibers...traces of the killer’s identity.

Morrison: What did they find?Skidmore: Well they didn’t find Afro-American hairs.  They found Caucasian hair.  Not one African-American hair fiber was found on her body after this violent sexual assault.Morrison: Any Caucasian hairs that didn’t belong to ms. Niell?Skidmore: Well they didn’t run those tests. It would be nice to know whether they might match up with Johnny Hullett.

Now 15 years later, it was too late—the untested Caucasian hairs had long since disappeared.

So, with a crime scene compromised by well-meaning friends, evidence drained from the tub or thrown away from a stopped up toilet, Skidmore’s  discovery about sloppy police work was just too late. How could anything turn up now proving Johnny Hullet was the only killer? And not Sterling Spann?

Unless, of course the PI could get proof from Hullet himself.

Unbelieveably, Johnny Hullet serving a life sentence for killing the third woman agreed to talk about Mrs. Niell’s death with Skidmore and attorney Diana Holt.     

After several conversations, out came a startling confession that he later put in writing. Hullet said he didn’t kill Mrs. Niell, but his brother did, as he, Hullet, waited outside her house. Spann, he insisted, was innocent.

Skidmore: Finally he broke down, actually cried and said “I’ll tell you what happened.” And he said Sterling didn’t deserve to die. They had actually gone in the back of Ms. Niell’s house and his brother said just to wait in the van and he would go and collect some money that she owed.Morrison: And then the brother came out with ...Skidmore: Came out with some jewelry and a jewelry box.Morrison: This sounds like a fantastic story, like the ravings of a lunatic in a way to a normal person. What did it sound like to you?Skidmore: It sounded like you had a very sick individual that wanted to come clean with what had happened.

So there it was. The testimony Pete Skidmore had worked so hard to find...surely this was enough to free a friend who had been locked in this tiny cell from his teenage years right into his 30s.  Waiting for death while others made lives.     

But that new evidence, startling though it was, didn’t change anything. A state police investigator declined to reopen the case.         

In spite of the evidence of a series of murders, in spite of the evidence of crime scene bungling, in spite of Johnny Hullett’s assertion that Spann was innocent, the state law enforcement investigator took no action at all.   

Skidmore: I’m convinced a hundred and twenty percent that he’s innocent and here it was just falling on deaf ears.

And so Pete Skidmore - utterly frustrated, angry, depressed, quit. Quit the case. quit his private detective business and started selling copy machines.       

But not for long.

A promise is a powerful thing.  Pete Skidmore’s promise to help Sterling Spann haunted him every day he sold copy machines while the clock ticked toward his friend’s death.  It ate at the law seemed unprepared to see what he saw.

Skidmore: Now me with six years and limited resources, how did I come up with all this evidence and the South Carolina law enforcement division with all their manpower, experience couldn’t come up with the same conclusion.  I don’t understand that.

But when law enforcement officials turned him aside, when all legal arguments had failed, what could he do? Now, he decided, he couldn’t quit, not while he had one last weapon—publicity.

Skidmore arranged for a local TV reporter to interview the ex-preacher himself.

Johnny Hullet: I don’t think Sterling Spann deserves to die for something he didn’t do either.

On TV, Johnny Hullett tried to pin the murder on his brother Fred.

That night, Johnny claimed he stayed outside Mrs. Niell’s house and Fred went in.

Hullet: The next day he told me he killed her.                    

Now that, thought Skidmore, was something nobody could ignore.

But Spann’s lawyers knew that Johnny Hullett, a convicted killer, was not exactly a stellar witness.

So they called in a renowned forensic psychiatrist, and asked him to examine both Sterling Spann and Johnny Hullet.

Dr. Emmuel Tanay, who specializes in the study of sex crimes says for Hullett to blame his brother, who, by the way, denies any involvement, is standard behavior for psychopaths like Hullett.

He has no doubt he says, Hullet murdered all three elderly women.

Emmuel Tanay: He had a history of really torturing members of his family. He did all kind of things that are characteristic for a serial killer.    Morrison: You used a particular phrase to describe the kind of crime that occurred against these 3 women.Tanay: Sadistic sexual murder—killing for pleasure. A sadistic killer doesn’t use a gun. He tortures. The pleasure, the purpose is to torture the victim.Morrison: And you just felt it was impossible that Sterling Spann could be that kind of killer?Tanay: It was exceeding unlikely. Yes if you push me, I would say impossible, yes.

Then, Spann’s lawyer John Blume called in an equally well-known pathologist to examine the autopsies that detailed the way those three woman had been killed.

In each case, even though the women had been strangled, a small neck bone called the hyoid remained unbroken.  The expert said that was so unusual he’d never seen such a pattern before in his entire career.            

John Blume, defense lawyer: I’ll never forget. I mean he called me up and said there is absolutely no doubt in my mind one person committed all three of these murders.    

And exploring any remaining doubt, the defense team turned to a third expert, renown former FBI profiler, Robert Ressler.  Ressler studied all three deaths too and told Blume and Holt that he too believed one killer was responsible.

And there was something else — very important, said Ressler: Based on his research, it is very rare, he told Blume, for  black men to commit psycho-sexual serial killings, rarer still that a such a disturbed black man would target white women.

And remember, Sterling Spann was already in prison when the third widow died.  If one person committed the three murders, it could not have been him.

Spann’s lawyers were driven by knowledge that a man they believed to be innocent would soon die if they didn’t do something. But what if Spann was involved, as say an   accomplice? Was he here?  Did he leave his finger prints while stealing something?  Like that gold coin they found in his pocket?

All along, Spann had insisted that a redheaded, freckle-faced stranger he knew as “Cool Breeze” had given him the coin days after Miss Niell’s body was found.

Morrison: And you thought it was outlandish still or that it’s couldn’t have happened.Skidmore: It almost became a joke because we’d go and literally try to get him to come up with something else and he was absolutely not.  This is what happened.

It just didn’t seem credible. Until the day in Johnny Hullet’s prison cell, when a visiting Pete Skidmore heard somthing that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.

Skidmore: This name kept coming up: Jessie Pruitt. A nd something  hit me and i just asked Johnny. I said, “What does this guy look like?” And he said “Oh, he’s got red hair. And I said, “Does he have freckles? And he said, “Yes, I think he does.” Well, at that point my heart’s racing.”

There is was the man named “Cool Breeze,” the man who supposedly helped frame Spann with that gold coin, the person no one, not even Spann’s own lawyers believed existed, now had a name.  Now Spann’s story didn’t seem so unbelievable after all.                

But now, surely, it was too late. All that happened nearly 20 years ago. Could they find Pruitt before Spann’s time simply ran out?

With only a silver of information,   Spann's other lawyer, Diana Holt learned that Pruitt might be somewhere in West Texas.

Finally, she tracked down a waitress in Colorado City named MRS. Jesse Pruitt..

Morrison: What did she tell you?Diana Holt: She said you’re going to have a hard time finding him because he lives under an overpass somewhere in Oklahoma.Morrison: You mean he’s a homeless man?Holt: He was homeless.

So, there was nothing left to do, but drive to Oklahoma hoping that somehow, they’d find the right overpass... and the one person in the world who could corroborate Spann’s story about the coin.

If Sterling Spann really wasa innocent, finding the stranger who had given him that gold coin was the only way to exonerate him.

It was the only way to explain how Spann could have had - in his pocket -a coin stolen from Ms. Niell’s house on the day of her murder: somebody named “Cool Breeze” gave it to him.

So now this normally reasonable  lawyer found herself driving through Oklahoma, peering under overpasses, looking for a man with red hair and freckles.

It was mad.  Impossible.  And, sure enough, it worked.

Diana Holt, defense attorney: We’re driving  around the general area and here comes this man walking across the yard of a church wearing a hefty garbage bag. And there he headed as he could be. freckles. Blue-eyed. There was Cool Breeze right there.

Amazing: Sterling Spann’s red headed stranger really did exist.  But how could anyone expect a man  in Jessie Pruitt’s condition - beaten down, homeless, a garbage bag for clothes... How could Spann’s lawyer expect him to remember giving a man a gold coin almost 20 years earlier?

But remarkably, he did.

Holt: And he confirmed the story with details about this gold coin.

It was better than Diana Holt had dared hoped.

“One day in late summer or early fall of 1981, wrote Pruitt - in a sworn affidavit -  Johnny Hullett gave me this thing - I call it a trinket - and asked me to get rid of it for him...”

Holt: Looking at how did that gold coin got in that pocket that’s really huge. Answering that question was big.      

But when she took her affidavit back to S.C., she didn’t have long to savor her victory because soon Jessie Pruitt had more visitors—state investigators from South Carolina.

Jessie Pruitt’s story about the gold coin apparently got prosecutors attention; it was so important to the case they sent investigators to confirm it for themselves.

But this time Pruitt appeared to change the story he told Spann’s attorney.

He signed a statement for the investigators saying he had made the whole thing up. 

So which story was true?

Jesse Pruitt’s stealing cars, committing burglary, and drinking have left him a prison veteran. When we met Jesse Pruit, he told us those policemen from South Carolina made him very nervous.

Jesse Pruitt: There was two guys  came to see me  at the restaurant where my wife worked at. The police detective brought them over there with guns.Morrison: Did they try to get you to say you didn’t give a gold pendant to anybody?Pruitt: Tried to say there wasn’t a gold pendant. That’s what they tried to tell me, but I know better.

In fact, claimed Pruitt, he never did change his story. He claimed the policemen who came to see him did not faithfully record what he said.

Could we believe what he said?

Pruitt told us Johnny Hullett approached him with a piece of jewelry back in 1981...and asked for a favor.

Pruitt: He told me take it and give it to a guy he knows what to do with it.Morrison: Did you have an idea at the time that this was evidence that was gonna be planted on someone else?Pruitt: I thought that necklace came from his house or his mom’s house. But I didn’t know he killed these people until it was too late.

So now there was testimony about that gold coin, about psychiatric profiles, hard evidence about a bungled investigation, forensic evidence that appeared to exonerate Sterling Spann.  But still he could die - and soon - if one last question wasn’t answered:   

How could Spann be innocent if his fingerprints were on that zucchini bread recipe and that church newsletter discovered on the bed at the murder scene?

Pete Skidmore believed he had the answer.  He says police investigators had been as sloppy with the paperwork as they had been with the other evidence.  They had allowed a close friend of Mrs. Niell’s to remove those critical papers from the crime scene. 

Pete Skidmore, investigator: And then put them up into his attic. The police came back later and asked for him to gather them up and bring them down to the police station.

Police say they found Spann’s fingerprints on two of those papers, shown here in crime scene photographs.

But to Skidmore’s surprise, no other fingerprints were found on those same papers, not Miss Niell’s, and not the friends who picked up the papers and took them to the attic.

And yet Spann’s prints were pristine.

Morrison: What are you saying?Skidmore: I’m saying it’s bizarre if you and I both touch the same pieces of paper both our fingerprints should be on that piece of paper. We don’t believe Sterling Spann touched those paper articles in Mrs. Niell’s house.Morrison: Where could he have possibly touched them if not there...where the crime scene occurred?Skidmore: Sterling has said that he was shown some paper articles and he touched and held these.Morrison: While he was in police custody…Skidmore: While he was in police custody.Morrison: The implications of what you are saying are pretty serious.Skidmore: Very serious.           

Was it even remotely possible that the South Carolina police had planted fingerprint evidence against Sterling Spann?

Or had someone been careless about when and how those fingerprints were obtained?

Remember the state’s theory depended on those fingerprints. There was no other forensic evidence putting Spann at the scene of the murder.  Prosecutors said that Spann left his fingerprints on the papers while he was brutally assaulting Melva Niell on her bed.              

And that’s where it stood, stuck, has it had for 14 years. Until John Blume took a very big chance, in appeals court, to blow the case wide open.

This was his best, maybe only chance, to make the case that those fingerprints were so suspect that the court should throw out the conviction.

Blume decided he had to get dramatic. He got the judge’s permission to bring a mattress right into the courtroom.  With the state’s lead investigator on the stand, Blume demonstrated graphically the improbability that anyone could commit a violent act on a bed, come in contact with two pieces of paper and leave pristine finger prints without even wrinkling the paper.     

And yet that’s what the state had alleged actually happened.

It was, said observers, a tour de force.

John Blume, defense attorney: I truthfully thought we had won the case, when the state’s fingerprint examiner admitted that the fingerprints were of unbelievable quality, they couldn’t be rolled that good and that the state’s theory on how the fingerprints got on the paper was not just improbable, but impossible.Morrison: Did you go home that night and say ‘yes!’Blume: Oh yes, we definitely went home that night and said yes....but as it turned out I was wrong.

Wrong because of a kind of catch 22. The court ruled that it could not overturn the conviction.  Because?  Evidence exonerating Spann could have been presented at his original trial. It wasn’t.  But it could have been.

So even that graphic demonstration with the mattress wasn’t enough to win their case.

The clock started ticking again.  The death sentence would be allowed to stand.

Execution was perhaps a matter of months now.

And as if it was an omen of how the long struggle would end, Spann’s beloved mother, fell ill and died.

And Sterling Spann, was prevented from leaving death row even to attend the funeral.

Now, after 18 years on death row, Spann watched his defense team launch a last, desperate stand.  His lawyers applied to argue the case before the highest court in the state: the South Carolina Supreme Court.   

Morrison: And if that failed?Blume: He probably was within, I would say, realistically six months probably of being executed at that time.

It would be a Mount Everest of legal proportions. Only once in a century had this state supreme court granted a new trial under such circumstances and that was nearly 90 years ago.

Blume gave it all he had.  And then waited.

At best? Blume thought the chances were 50/50 they could win.

Sterling Spann knew the effort could end up a legal formality just to say everything possible had been done to save him.  

Month after month passed.  Still, no  ruling. Spann kept calling from jail, desperate for an answer.

Blume: I reminded him of one of my favorite saying by Martin Luther King. Jr. which is “The arch of the universe is long, but always bends toward justice.”Morrison: Did he believe it?Blume: Well, I think you know it was maybe hard for all of us to really believe it.

Then, five months after the Justices heard all the reasons Spann should get a second chance and there was absolutely nothing more that could be done…

Blume: The phone rings and it’s the clerk of court. And they say the court today has entered an order in the case of the state versus Sterling Spann. 

So now, every stomach in knots, they waited.  Knowing what a long shot this was, and that whatever the court said would answer a simple question: Would Sterling Spann have a 2nd chance to live?  Or would he die?

Spann had always said if it was bad news, it would come on the phone...

And finally, when the news came, it  was almost beyond belief.

Sterling Spann: It was early one morning, my attorney called me and she was crying. I kept saying “What’s wrong what’s wrong?”

His lawyer was crying because... he had won!

After 18 years on death row, Spann, now 36 years old was, back in court, hearing he had won - not exoneration, but a new trial.

It was a moment of sheer joy. Not real freedom of course.  He’d have to wear an electronic bracelet while he waited,  for  a new trial to begin.

Spann: I don’t think words alone could fully comprehend how I felt. It was more like an awakening so to speak.

We talked for hours.  About his case, about how it felt to be locked up in that cell, with the prospect of his own execution.  Was he angry?  Bitter? If he was, he didn’t show it.  Even when we asked about all those years of failed appeals,  all those years of not being believed…

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Was that your blackest time, your most despairing time?Spann: Nah.Morrison: What was?Spann: The most was when my mother died and I couldn’t go to the funeral.Morrison: Do you wish she was around to be able to see you a free man?Spann: Yes. She always believed in me, she never doubted me. She always told me stay out of trouble because sooner or later they gonna find out what happened to me. 

But not just yet. The second trial Spann fought so hard to win wasn’t scheduled. No telling when, or even IF, that would be.

His own lawyers believed there was a good chance the prosecution would simply let it drop.

But in the meantime, as he waited for some decision, he faced a world outside of prison where little was familiar.

Pete Skidmore, investigator: I remember specifically going into the super Walmart at York and we weren’t in there but maybe five or ten minutes and he said “We need to leave.”  It just overwhelmed him. It just completely overwhelmed him.     

But Spann was determined to make a fresh start.  And, with his head held high. 

Runaway, to a place he’d be unnoticed?  No, not for Sterling Spann.

He and his wife, now living together for the first time, set up house in his home town of Clover; in his grandmothers old house just blocks from where prosecutors believed he brutally murdered Melva Niell.     

But not everyone in Clover was ready to give Sterling a new chance.

Skidmore: First he’s got to get a job and not many people want to step up to the plate after you’ve been on death row 17 years and give you a job.

It was clear soon enough that the past was going to rule Spann’s future. It took months to find a modest job at a restaurant, cleaning up, out of the sight of customers. But even then....

Skidmore: Evidently several people in the community didn’t like that and he was let go.Morrison: How did people feel about you?Skidmore: Some of them were very mad and upset. Some things said in exchange back and forth.Morrison: Like what?Skidmore: You know, “How could you help that N-word get out of prison?” “We know that he committed that crime.”   

But Spann was back in his old neighborhood surrounded by familiar things and face and living like a free man, even if that did take some getting used to.

And, as months past with no announcement of any new trial, he began to hope that perhaps this thing was over.

There was a new prosecutor now Tommy Pope. And Spann thought that with all that new defense evidence, Pope  must have decided an innocent man had been punished long enough.

Spann: I thought that it would be over and charges would be dropped and I would be going on with my life.

But, as time went on, hints began to emerge: this might not be over, after all.

Tommy Pope, prosecutor: The fact that the case is 19 years old or thereabouts will provide difficulties.  That doesn’t mean Mr. Spann didn’t do it.Morrison: The way things stand now, you believe you can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt?Pope: Yes. Yes sir, I truly do.

Defense lawyer John Blume, however, seemed neither worried, nor particularly surprised.

Blume: I just think the system is extraordinarily reluctant to admit they made a  mistake, a mistake of this magnitude which let somebody spend 18 years on death row.

Tommy Pope, as both his friends and enemies will confirm, will grab a case and work it like a dog on a bone.

Prosecutor Pope is an aggressive man.

It was Pope who, under intense national scrutiny, won a conviction in the Susan Smith trial—she’s the young mother now in prison for killing her two small sons.

But, in the case of Sterling Spann, Tommy Pope faced big problems.

For Tommy Pope the issue was crucial, and personal.

His very own father was once county sheriff. 

And so the defense suggestion that Spann was framed is where Prosecutor Pope began his new investigation.  If there was evidence against the police, he says, he was determined to find it.

Tommy Pope, prosecutor: I mean people don’t need to be convicted on illegal evidence or false evidence, and I’m not going to tolerate it—at least under my watch.Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: So that was a very important evidence issue that you would have wanted to look into right way.Pope: I did because I’ll tell you if law enforcement had planted evidence, I wouldn’t of proceeded any further on the Spann case, because there’s greater issues then. 

The first person Pope turned to was the very man at the heart of the original investigation: Howard Long, now retired from SC’s state police.  Long has lived around here all his life, and knows most everybody involved, including Tommy Pope.

Morrison: What’d he ask you?Howard Long, retired police officer: If what he heard was true. And of course I told him that it was not true. That Sterling Spann had not been framed. What he heard was absolutely false. 

Of course, just hearing that was hardly enough to prove to anybody that Spann was not framed. But, Long went on, his memory of how  Sterling Spann became the chief suspect is still fresh, partly because he himself was one of the first investigators to arrive at Melva Niell’s house.

Long: There were several items laying on the bed. Items of paper… the tub was filled with water. She was laying face up submerged in water. 

Certainly there were mistakes, Long says. He left the scene to get help from state crime lab, and while he was gone, somebody drained the tub letting potential evidence slip away.  Then, and this he acknowledges was a huge error, the house was turned over to family and friends who cleaned up.

Morrison: Did this upset you?Long: Maybe a little upset, disgusted that it happened but there nothing you could do about it.

But Howard Long assured the prosecutor that as bad as it looked, that failure to seal the crime scene,  didn’t change the facts.  The papers from Mrs. Niell’s bed, he claimed, were not compromised.

Long told Prosecutor Pope the prints were discovered on those papers  before Spann was arrested, in fact, he said, before the police had any idea who they belonged to.

The defense allegation that they were planted was rubbish, he said.

Long: The fingerprints had been matched before the warrants were ever issued for his arrest. That is one of the basis that we got the warrant on.     

In other words, Howard Long told Tommy Pope, he could help prove that Spann wasn’t set up; his testimony would be that those so called “perfect prints” were all retrieved at the scene of the crime before Spann was even a suspect.

So now, Pope dug further into the evidence and learned that even after 20 years there might be “new” evidence linking Spann to the crime.  Not really “new” of course; but newly useful.

It was another completely separate fingerprint, also found the day of the crime, this one  on the inside window of mrs. Niell’s house...But, at the time....

Steve Derrick, fingerprint expert: My understanding was originally the print on the window sill was declared to be of no value.  

Pope asked fingerprint expert Steve Derrick to have another look at that old print.

Derrick: I positively identified the latent prints on the window sill to the ink prints of Sterling Spann.Morrison: No question in your mind at all?Derrick: “No sir,” it’s not only my opinion, but the latent and the ink prints were also examined by another examiner who independently reached the same conclusion I did. 

Then Pope went to dig up the rest of the physical evidence... for example, a drop of blood on the carport floor underneath that window where Spann’s fingerprint was found.  Mrs Niell’s blood type was B. Johnny Hullett & his brother -  type A. The blood drop in the carport was Type O, the same type as Sterling Spann.

Pope: The more I looked at the case, the stronger the case became.

Prosecutor Pope’s theory? The blood drop, the windowsill print and the fingerprints on the papers found on Mrs. Niell’s bloody bed simply traced Spann’s route through the window and into the bedroom of the elderly widow.

But prosecutor Pope would have to come up with more than just that theory.

How, for example, would he deal with the defense blockbuster about the red haired stranger who said he’d given a gold coin -stolen from Mrs Neill’s house - to Sterling Spann?

When Pope sent his own investigator back to ask Pruitt questions on tape, that investigator the one sent by Pope says Pruitt gave a rambling account of giving away the coin or “trinket” years after Melva Niell was killed.

Pruitt’s story seemed to change depending on who he talked to.

Then, and perhaps even more important, there was the testimony of Johnny Hullett.  Remember, Hullett had confessed to one of the three murders which  DEFENSE expertshad attributed to a single killer.

On local television Hullet said he knew for a fact that Spann did not kill Mrs. Niell.

Hullet: I don’t think Sterling Spann deserves to die for something he didn’t do either.

But now here was something very interesting indeed.  When Pope sent his own investigator to talk to Hullett, he claimed the story he told on TV was made up.

In fact, said Hullet, defense Lawyer Diana Holt told him to lie.

Solicitor: And what did they want you to do to help them?Hullet: Tell me and my brother was going over here to this lady’s house and that he killed her.Solicitor: Why would you tell a story like that about you and your brother?Hullet: I had to do what I had to do to try and get my case back in court.

The more evidence Prosecutor Pope dug up, the more information he collected, the more determined he was that Sterling Spann WAS a murderer who deserved to go back to death row.

But he still hadn’t addressed his biggest problem: the South Carolina Supreme Court, which had taken seriously the argument that all three murders, Ms. Neil, Ms. Ring and Ms. Alexander, were the work of one deranged man.

And because Sterling Spann was in prison when the third murder occurred, he could not have committed any of them. 

Or could he?

Prosecutor Tommy Pope had come to believe that Sterling Spann was indeed the man who killed that lovely old lady, Melva Neill.

But no matter how much circumstantial evidence he pulled out of the old files, the finger print, the blood drop, the new testimony,  he still faced that monumental decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

So how could Sterling Spann have committed any of them?   Here was Pope’s idea:

What if Sterling Spann had committed just two murders?  Melva Niell and Mary Ring?

Tommy Pope, prosecutor: I know Spann killed Niell cause i know what I know about the case.  You know as we start branching out and then suddenly the more work we do on it, the more we look at it, you’d hear somebody say, you know  an old police officer or something say, I think he killed ring too.

The murders were eerily similar. 

Spann lived within blocks, of both of them.

Both investigations may have been bungled, especially in the Ring case.  There was very little to go on. 

And when the prosecutor poked around in the memories of Clover’s retired police officers, he came up with something that seemed to him an amazing bit of evidence—something which had never been suggested as evidence in Spann’s case...until now. 

Not only was jewelry taken from Melva Neill’s house, but from Mary Ring’s too.

Pope: It was on a key chain with a key and and I believe a cross, and some other item of jewelry a small item of jewelry.

Clover’s police chief at the time the three  widows were killed told Tommy Pope that the jewelry was actually a man’s tie tack... and, he claimed, he had shown the item to Mrs. Ring’s daughter.

And where did the chief find that tie tack?  He was in Sterling Spann’s pocket the day he was arrested, right alongside that gold coin that had come from the second victim, Melva Niell.

The tie tack had since disappeared, but it was a connection, along with another memory: Mrs. Ring’s daughter confirmed that Spann not only knew her mother but often cut her grass.

So many coincidences: Spann knew and worked for both women, he lived close by, his fingerprints were in Melva Niell’s house, he had jewelry from both women..

For prosecutor Pope these were reasons to believe Spann had killed not just Melva Neil, but Mary Ring, too.

But remember, there hadn’t been two murders, there had been three: Mary Ring, Melva Niell and Bessie Alexander.

So similar, the defense had claimed, they must have been committed by the same man. 

But, the closer the prosecutor looked at murder number three, the more sure he was that it did not belong with the others.  That there were significant differences...which he believed he could prove.

Pope: The more I worked on this case, the more I saw that the defense theory that brought this case back was a house of cards and is built solidly on  misrepresentation on innuendo.

Really? Remember, the defense had blue ribbon experts who would testify that in all three murders the same method was used.

And a world famous psychiatrist who had examined Spann... would testify he simply wasn’t capable of that kind of crime, but Hullett was.

How could the prosecutor counter such heavyweight expertise?

He called on this man.  Mark Safarik, an investigator in the FBI’S Behavioral Sciences unit.

Why Safarik?  Because he had just completed a study of the murder of elderly women who were also sexually assaulted. A very rare crime, just 128  in the previous 24 years, nationwide. Though Safarik did not look specifically at the victims of serial killers, he compared the findings from his study with what defense experts had claimed in the Spann case.

Safarik: I reviewed the testimony and the assertions that were made and some of them simply are just not correct.

Remember how the murders were said to be so similar because in all three cases of strangulation, the hyoid bone, the small bone in the neck, was unbroken?

That’s very rare, the defense expert had said, and powerful evidence that the murders were committed by one man.

But Safarik wasn’t quite as sure...

Mark Safarik, FBI Behavorial Sciences unit: It turns out, in fact, 22 percent of the women in my study who had been manually strangled, about 45 cases there was no neck structure injury identified.Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Doesn’t always happen? Safarik: It doesn’t always happen.

So prosecutor Pope didn’t see three identical murders. That third killing Pope says was different. The first two victims lived blocks apart, Ms Alexander was 12 miles away.

Her body was on the kitchen floor, not in a bathtub. And crime scene photos show a home that appears to have been ransacked; the houses of Ring and Niell were left tidy.

Armed with what he saw as real differences in the murders, prosecutor Pope made the decision: he would proceed with a new trial. His claim: Sterling Spann committed the first two murders, somebody else committed the third.

But how could the prosecutor counter those renown experts who were prepared to testify that because these three very rare crimes occurred in the same small rural community at about the same time and in the same way they had to be the work of one man.  He’d counter it with a simple and serious accusation that those experts were not given all the information they needed by the defense.

Pope: By the time those experts had it, those things were taken as fact by those experts and weren’t necessarily fact.Morrison: Are you telling me either the Supreme Court was duped or that the legal defense team was acting unethically was lying?Pope: I have to chose my words carefully.  I think that in some sense both of the things you said were accurate. I’m not saying that we don’t have a competent Supreme Court. Again, I’m saying that the material that was presented was presented to them was just flat not accurate.Morrison: Those are pretty serious charges.Pope: I feel pretty comfortable making them.

For prosecutor Pope, the dispute with Sterling Spann’s lawyers had become very personal.

Pope: For them the end justifies the means and because of that there’s nothing they won’t try or nothing they won’t do. And it’s almost a scorched earth policy.

And with that accusation, Prosecutor Pope got ready for a brand new trial that could send Sterling Spann back to death row.  But the defense had a counter attack coming.

For three years, Sterling Spann had lived the life of a free man.

He had enrolled in a welding class, a down payment on the future he had every right to expect once the case against him had finally been put to rest.

Now it was apparent though, there would be a new trial.

And for a man facing the death penalty a second time, Spann displayed an amazing confidence in his defense.

Sterling Spann: Well, I welcome a new trial.Morrison: Welcome it?Spann: Sure, I would like to be vindicated like I was convicted. I would like everybody that doubted me to be saying we were wrong.

But now, increasingly, every allegation, every new bit of evidence, seemed to be accompanied by a seething mutual distrust.

Prosecutor Tommy Pope was alleging misconduct by the defense team of John Blume and Diana Holt.

John Blume, defense attorney: They’re very serious charges without one shred of proof to support them.

So now defense lawyers counter-attacked. John Blume and Diana Holt accused the prosecutor of making up in bluster what he lacked in hard evidence.

Holt: I guess when you don’t have the facts on your side then you start attacking the people involved in the case.

But what about the new evidence... the prosecutor had assembled—that alleged trail Pope would claim Sterling Spann followed at Melva Niell’s house..

the blood drop outside the window... 

leading to the finger print on the inside of the windowsill..

leading to the scene of the crime?

The defense team had its own experts;  the director of Alabama’s forensic lab was brought in and concluded it was highly unlikely the killer came through the carport window as the prosecutor charged.  Why? Crime scene photos show plants in the way of the window on one side and a table on the other with fragile pieces of glass clearly in view.

Forensic scientist Roger Morrison: They have to raise the window, get through the plants, get into the house without tearing up a lot of stuff, and one they do that, they’re going to turn around and lock the window because the reports are that the window is locked when police get there.

But that print was on the windowsill, remember, inside the house, and it was Spann’s.  So how did it get there? Simple, says Spann. 

Sterling Spann: I used to work for her, I cut grass, I washed windows, washed floors.Morrison: How long before she was killed did you see her?Spann: I would say maybe a month before.

And, outside the window, that tiny drop of blood that matched Spann’s blood type?  Hardly worth noting said the defense expert.  There was no evidence to show when it got there. And nearly half the population has type O blood.  The real question if the killer entered that window bleeding.

Morrison: There should be blood on the clothing.  There should be blood on the bedspread. There should be blood somewhere in the bathroom where he’s moving the body of his victim. There is none of that.

Nothing.  And not only that: In the intervening years since Miss Melva Niell died, remnants of that horrible crime were thrown away.  Her bloody clothes her underwear, even that tiny blood drop from the carport all gone.    

Then there was the question of those changing stories; Johnny Hullett telling the prosecutor he’d been coached by the defense to lie about who killed Melva Niell.

The defense strongly denied telling Pruitt what to say.

Blume: We discovered  people who had been incarcerated with Mr. Hullet before we ever talked to him who would have said that he told the same story he told Diana and that he told Pete years before we ever met him.

But then, remember, there was that earlier murder, the killing of Mary Ring.  The prosecutor said he could prove that Sterling Spann committed that murder, too.

The evidence? A tie tack belonging to Ms. Ring, allegedly found in Spann’s pocket.

Diana Holt, defense attorney: There is no evidence of that. There’s no evidence.  There is zero evidence of that.John Blume, defense attorney: There are two booking sheets where he was booked two different times. There is no mention of that tie tack on either one of the booking reports.

Here are those two reports. Sure enough, no mention of a tie tack in either one.

And yet the prosecutor insisted the tie tack, though no one has been able to find it lately, was documented several times, policemen and investigators had testified to it in court..

Morrison: But what do you say to a law enforcement officer who says “I took a tie pin from him.  Maybe it didn’t get registered separately, but we had it. I remember it was there.”Blume: I’d say you are pretty desperate to convict somebody when you remember something like that years after the fact.Holt:  This as all been created.

Then, even though the defense  knew it might not be admitted as evidence in court Blume and Holt asked Spann to agree to a polygraph test.

Holt: Mr. Spann hit it out of the park not one time, no two times but 3 times. Three times that he passed with flying colors.

More than ever most everybody wished there had been just once piece of evidence that might have been tested for DNA.  Something to reveal the killer’s identity for sure.  Diana Holt said she asked the medical examiner  for anything he had.

Holt: Slides from the autopsy, evidence from the autopsy. Give it to us. Let us test it. It’s gone. They don’t have it.  That was the answer we got to anything that we could do DNA testing on. Anything that could clear Mr. Spann they lost.

So it looked as if it would all come down to a second set of 12 South Carolina citizens.

Three years after Sterling Spann was freed from death row to wait for a new trial 20 years after the first one, jury selection began.

Spann was anxious...but excited.

His unfailing supporter, his sister Sharon, was eager to finally see Sterling’s public vindication.

Morrison: Did you ever for the slightest moment think it was possible that Sterling had done this thing?Sharon Spann: Never. Never.Morrison: Not even a hint of suspicion that maybe you didn’t know your brother as well as you thought?Spann: Never.

Pete Skidmore shared that optimism.

Pete Skidmore, investigator: I thought it really would be just as Sterling said. 15 minutes in the jury room and back out and I’m not guilty.

And if anything worried Sterling Spann it was, simply, who would his jury be?

Spann: It was always in the back of my mind that I was gonna be stuck with an all-white jury and the result might be the same.

Then something happened in this courtroom that shocked everyone, the defense, the prosecution, all the spectators and especially Sterling Spann.

The judge announced that all the potential jurors should go home, they would not be needed. The trial was stopped.  And the reason was a jaw-dropper.

John Blume, defense attorney: It was a scene out of a movie. I went into the judge’s chambers. I heard  “They are looking for you in chambers, they are looking for you in chambers.” And they said, “well they found some slides.”

Evidence slides containing tissue samples, vagina swabs made from the autopsy of Mary Ring, Melva Neill and Bessie Alexander.

It was like a bomb had gone off in that judge’s room.

How important were those slides?  They were the one piece of evidence that might show once and for all who was and who was not a killer.

They’d been stored away for 20 years - and just now were being revealed??

John Blume and Diana Holt could scarcely believe their ears.

Diana Holt, defense attorney: I was completely stunned and outraged. I was furious what went through my mind is “They’ve had this evidence all these years. We could have cleared this up a long time ago.”

And now?  Here it was!  In fact, said the prosecutor, it was his office that uncovered the slides, and by accident.  An assistant met with the medical examiner to go over testimony, and lamented the lack of DNA testable material... that’s when somebody mentioned slides.

Betty Miller: Well, I turned my head and said, “What are we talking about?  What kind of slides?”  And they said, “Well, the slides from the autopsy.”

Medical examiner Earl Jenkins went off to look and sure enough, there they were, tucked in a corner of a file drawer... slides from all 3 women.

Miller: And I thought my heart was gonna come out of my chest.

The judge ordered the doctor to the courtroom.

Morrison: And the judge wasn’t very happy with you?Jenkins: No the judge wasn’t happy with us.  I think there was some suspicion of collusion on our parts and frankly, I was surprised because I have no reason to support the hiding of evidence or withholding evidence.

Everbody assumed those slides would become hugely important.  Testing began right away.

There was NO testable material from Melva Neill or Bessie Alexander, victims two and three.

On one slides taken from the first victim, Mary Ring, was a minuscule piece of evidence: four or five badly degraded sperm.  The only DNA test possible could at best tell if a man was NOT the person who had had sex with the victim.

DNA samples from Sterling Spann, Johnny Hullet and  his brother were rushed to an independent lab for testing.

The results were - to say the least - strange.  The 4 sperm tested proved that TWO men had had sex with Mrs. Ring around the time of her death. But answers about who those two men might be remained a frustrating shade of grey.

Johnny Hullett and his brother?

Ira Jeffcoat, lab direector: They were inconclusive is a simple way to put it.

They were inconclusive and made no concrete conclusions about those two individuals.”

And what did the results suggest about Sterling Spann?

Jeffcoat: That the defendant in this case, Mr. Spann was included as a potential contributor of those sperm cells.

A “potential” contributor -- but nothing conclusive. 

In fact, as defense lawyer Blume rushed to point out, that very limited result would have included, as potential contributors,  a large number of all men.

Blume: I think any jury would have believed is that you are no further along than you were before.

But for prosecutor Pope, the result became new ammunition in his case against Spann.

Tommy Pope, prosecutor: Think of just the bad luck Mr. Spann seems to have.  Hullett and that crowd chose to frame him, law enforcement chose to frame him and darn if another unrelated case, his DNA is included in the possible donors in there.  

And now, perhaps for the first time, Spann’s friend and private investigator, Pete Skidmore, looked at the aggressive prosecution, the new evidence... the possible connection with Mary Ring... and began to worry, what would a jury think?

Pete Skidmore, investigator: We had kinda thought that wasn’t gonna be an issue with him being involved with Mrs. Ring at all. So now you’ve got cutting the grass, you’ve got them saying something about a tie that came from his pocket, from her house.  You’ve got these slides that have semen and,  we’re looking at potentially possibly them trying to put Sterling and connect him with Mrs. Ring.

Sterling Spann, however, was still confident, and had been all along.  Several times since he was freed Spann had rejected deals offered by the prosecution. Accept a guilty plea, he was told, and he would be before very long a free man.

And Spann all along said no. 

Spann: All of the deals that was offered was wanting me to make a concession that I couldn’t and wasn’t prepared to make to plead guilty.

And so, once again, the attorneys prepared for a battle in court, utterly unaware another death was coming that would unravel everything.

It was a Friday morning in springtime. 7 a.m., 18 years to the day since Sterling Spann first entered death row.

Who knows why these things happen when they do...

His rock, his true believer, his sister Sharon, in that car with the license plate that counseled faith in what you cannot see, was driving home from her all-night job.  Tired?  Pre-occupied?

The police report said she went right through the red light.  Probably never saw the pickup truck that hit her.

Sterling would never know what she saw, because Sharon was dead.

Pete Skidmore, investigator: It crushed him. I think at that point we had 30 days to get together a trial and we had somebody that potentially was gonna testify, Sterling, that was in shambles.

Overnight, Sterling Spann seemed to change.

Sterling Spann: I just weren’t prepared emotionally to deal with it and my family weren’t either.

The defense begged for a delay, saying, under the circumstances, Spann needed some time to grieve, to pull himself together, to get ready for trial.

The request for delay was denied. And then, on top of all that, one of Spann’s best friends from death row, a man he believed to be innocent, lost his last appeal and was executed.

John Blume, defense attorney: I think Richard’s execution scared him into being afraid, thinking, “Well, geez, this could happen to me.”Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Because if this went back to the jury and the jury didn’t believe your case and didn’t believe sterling they could put him death.Blume: Exactly.Morrison: And probably would?Diana Holt, defense attorney: Probably would.Spann: I really felt that going on trial after he was executed and me being a black man, I had to look at that it could happen to me again.

And right about then, Spann got another offer of a plea bargain, and this time, it looked a lot more like a legal lifeboat..

but he’d have to make up his mind in less than 24 hours...

It was the most important decision of  his life.  And for the first time, he couldn’t ask the person who’s opinion mattered the most... his sister Sharon.

So what did he do? He went to her house, he sat down at her kitchen table, and stared at this paper napkin, at the words written there by his lawyer, the ink spreading now through the flimsy paper.

It was called an Alford plea, which meant that Spann, though he pled guilty, wouldn’t have to agree that he killed Mrs. Niell, or anybody.  And even though the prosecutor believed he was a two time killer, Spann would not be charged with killing Mary Ring.  The plea would carry a life sentence.  But there was one huge positive: 

Lawyers Blume and Holt told Spann they had already contacted prison officials, who assured them that because of time already served, Spann would be eligible for parole almost immediately.

This was the deal.  Should he take it?

Spann: I’m still grieving over my sister. You have to be focused under these circumstances and I had lost my focus.

And so on a sunny springtime morning in the man who had sworn to the world for 20 years that he was not a murderer, joined his old friend Pete Skidmore for a last big breakfast at a diner, went with his wife to put gas in the family car, and then drove to the courthouse, where he stood before the judge and said guilty.

Judge: Mr. Spann it has been indicated to the court that you are intending to withdraw your previous plea of not guilty.Spann: Yes.

There in court, in front of his supporters and those who still believe he is a killer, Spann accepted a life sentence.  The bailiff chained him, hand and foot, and led him out of court and back to prison.  His three years of freedom was over.  Was it right? Was it fair?

Tommy Pope (at a press conference): What happened here today was a guilty man got spared the death penalty.  an innocent man didn’t get saved from death row.

A saddened team of defense lawyers insisted that Spann’s plea did NOT mean he was guilty.

John Blume: I think this was the hardest piece of advice and the hardest thing I have ever done.  I will also say the guilty plea today was one of the saddest moments I’ve ever had in a courtroom. 

What about Pete Skidmore? He had committed his career, his money, years of his life.. had alienated his own community, in  a quest to free a childhood friend.  Did he feel betrayed?

Skidmore: Let me try to put this in a delicate way. I felt like somebody hitting you in your gut and not being able to catch your breath.

And yet?  Neither Skidmore nor defense lawyers had begun to understand quite how devastating the next news was going to be.

Remember that Alford plea?  The deal that imposed a life sentence but that appeared to promise an almost immediate parole hearing?

Holt: We had dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” on this issue because it was so important to Sterling that he would be eligible and at least get a chance to go in front of the parole board immediately.

But there had been a miscalculation.

It was just two weeks after Spann went back to prison.

There was a phone call from that prison official...Spann wasn’t eligible for parole after all… not now… he, the official, had been mistaken.

Blume: He’s willing to come to court and  testify. He’s willing to write a letter that he gave us erroneous information.  He’s not in anyway denying that.

But the damage was done. That promised parole had been the primary reason Spann had taken the Alford plea.

Holt: He wasn’t guaranteed the parole immediately, but he was guaranteed a chance, a chance to prove himself and to prove he deserved it, and that’s what he was robbed of hope.

And now?  The first slim chance for parole was at least a year away.

Sterling Spann returned to prison completely confident the parole board would send him back to his wife and family at his very first hearing.

After all, he’d already served almost 20 years, he’d held a job and resumed a normal life for three years before he took that Alford plea.

Besides, a couple of angels had intervened. Diane and Neil Mellen from Connecticut saw Spann’s story on Dateline and, came down with personal and legal support for his parole hearing.

Diane Mellen: We thought that if we hadn’t gotten involved, Sterling would have spent the rest of his life in prison.

And?  And the parole board took five minutes to reject his application.

Spann was stunned.  The Connecticut couple was stunned.

But these new supporters, out of their own pocket, hired fresh lawyers and a private investigator to prepare for the next parole hearing. Which... also failed.

Sterling Spann is rejected, one, two and four

Mellen: So we told him, at that point, that we would stay with this case as long as it took. 

And three years after Spann went back to prison, with optimism tempered by bleak reality, they made their case again…

The Mellens and Spann  waited for a decision and waited – 20 minutes; an hour, an hour and a half, and then...

Sterling Spann met condition of parole.

Spann: Everybody was on their feet, smiling hugging and kissing.Mellen: It was the most wonderful moment in my life. And we all jumped up in the air, and was screaming.  And we were congratulating each other, hugging each other.  And Sterling was crying and crying.  He almost couldn’t believe it. 

These days you’ll find Sterling Spann as we did—hard at work at a job he loves, traveling around SC doing maintenance on large trucks.

And Jackie, who so believed in Spann that she married him back when freedom was only a distant dream, is still his rock. 

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: You’re out, you’re finished.  I mean, the whole ordeal.  What is it like?Spann: Free to do whatever you please to do. However you want to do it.  Where you want to do it.  And make sure you do it right.

Do it right?  By that he means he wants to start a ministry to offer something like hope to those who are now where he once was.

Spann: I would say be patient.  Never give up.  And fight to the very end.Morrison: Can you tell those people in those jail cells what it feels like to win?Spann: I think they will know.  They will all know how it feel to win.  (CRIES)  They all do—they’ll know.  They’ll know.  They all know.

It is one year this week since Sterling Spann was released from prison, after serving 21 years. He's currently working to earn his high school equivalency diploma.