Judges order new sentence for S. Carolina man on death row

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A federal appeals court ordered a new sentencing hearing for a South Carolina inmate who has spent two decades on death row.

Sammie Louis Stokes was sentenced to death in 1999 for the rape and murder of 21-year-old Connie Snipes in Orangeburg County, The State reported. Evidence at the trial showed he was paid $2,000 by the victim’s mother-in-law, who planned to take custody of her grandchildren once Snipes was dead.

Judges for the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Stokes must have a new sentencing hearing because two of his previous defense attorneys failed to present evidence of his traumatic past. Stokes’ trial attorney had the evidence but chose to withhold it from the jury, Gregory wrote.

“The jury returned a death sentence without hearing a word from the defense about Stokes as an individual,” Gregory wrote.

His opinion said a second attorney assigned to Stokes for post-conviction hearings found more information about his troubled past but failed to use it to push for a lighter sentence.

The judge’s opinion described physical and sexual abuse that Stokes suffered at a young age. Both of his parents were “serious alcoholics,” Gregory wrote, and Stokes and his sister would skip school to steal food from the neighbors in order to eat. Stokes saw both of his parents die in front of him before he age 14, and he began abusing alcohol and drugs as well as dropped out of school.

“According to the child development expert retained by Stokes’s federal counsel, these facts amount to an extraordinarily traumatic childhood that impaired Stokes’s future emotional regulation and social adaptation,” Gregory wrote.

The appellate judges set no deadline for Stokes’ new sentencing hearing, but said it must happen “within a reasonable time.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Marvin Quattlebaum said he didn’t believe the attorneys provided Stokes with ineffective counsel during the sentencing phase of his’ trial.


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