Rest in peace, Billy Wayne Cope (the clients we lose)

It is rough to lose the case of a client you believe is innocent. It is even rougher to lose that client to an untimely death before the innocence case has been resolved.

This has happened to me multiple times in my career. The first time, I was still a young assistant appellate defender. After the Illinois Supreme Court accepted the appeal of my client Christopher Knott, a man I continue to believe was erroneously convicted of armed robbery, he passed away in prison. Recently I reconnected with Christopher’s brother Dolby Knott, a prison ministry director, and was gratified to learn that Christopher is remembered annually with an award named in his honor.

The same fate awaited Anthony McKinney, who spent 35 years in prison until he died alone in his prison cell at the age of 53. Anthony had been granted an evidentiary hearing on his innocence claim, but as is true of too many post-conviction cases, the litigation dragged on for years—too long, as it turned out. His family was devastated by his death and then again by the denial of a posthumous pardon. To this day I wonder whether I missed any opportunities to speed up the process so that Anthony could have lived to see it through. Fortunately, I have beautiful memories of working with Anthony. Though mentally ill, he delighted in remembering how he watched his idol Muhammad Ali beat Leon Spinks for the world heavyweight championship on September 15, 1978—which was also Anthony’s alibi for the murder of which he was wrongfully convicted.

My colleague Steve Drizin worked with me on Anthony’s case. Last week Steve shared the tragic news that his long-time client Billy Wayne Cope had joined the ranks of the innocent who did not make it out of prison. Here is what Steve had to say:

People sometimes ask me — which is the worst miscarriage of justice you have been a part of? Without hesitation — and I’ve seen more injustice as a lawyer in my lifetime than anyone should have to see — I say: “Nothing compares to what the State of South Carolina — York County prosecutors, a trial court judge, a jury, and a bevy of appellate court judges and state Supreme Court judges — did to my client Billy Wayne Cope.”
Billy Wayne Cope died today at the age of 53. His legal team, which has more than tripled in size since James Morton, Michael Smith and Phil Baity represented him at trial, released the following statement:
“In the years we represented Billy, he was unfailingly polite, optimistic, and full of faith, and he maintained these qualities in the long years that followed his conviction. Our inability to save him from this fate is one of the deepest disappointments of our lives and careers.
Billy’s death marks a sad end to a horrible miscarriage of justice. Billy confessed to a dreadful crime he did not commit. When DNA later proved the actual killer was a career burglar and serial rapist named James Sanders, who had just been released from prison in North Carolina, law enforcement should have faced up to the truth and admitted they obtained a false confession from the grieving and psychologically vulnerable father of a murdered child. Instead, the prosecution concocted a fantastic new theory that Billy must have cooperated with Sanders – a man he never met – in raping and murdering his own daughter in his own home. The State, then, succeeded in convicting both, the real killer and Billy, of a crime only one person actually committed. Billy Cope lost everything –the last 15 years of his life, his family, and now any chance that this legal atrocity will ever be set right. This is a dark day for justice in South Carolina.”
I’ve been fortunate in my line of work to experience the great joy of walking innocent clients out of prison and back into the arms of their loved ones. In fact, less than 24 hours before learning of Billy’s death, I was on Cloud 9 after learning that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office had agreed to drop charges against my client (and three other Chicago teens who falsely confessed to a double murder in 1995). If you do this work long enough, you learn a sobering lesson. The wins are wonderful. You never forget them. But it’s the losses, especially the cases of Unrequited Innocence, that will haunt you until your dying days. RIP BWC.
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