ROCK HILL, S.C. -- Billy Cope has spent the past 11 years in prison, ministering to inmates and steadfastly maintaining his innocence. Cope was convicted of conspiring to rape and murder his 12-year-old daughter, Amanda, in 2001. After repeatedly denying that he had anything to do with his daughter’s death, Cope told investigators that he was guilty.
Cope’s defense attorney, James Morton, said it’s a classic case of false confession.
“In this distraught man’s mind, he thought, 'Well, I’ll just make something up. I’ll tell them what they want to hear.' But it won’t pan out because the evidence won’t show this,” said Morton.
Months after that confession, investigators in Rock Hill discovered it was not Billy Cope’s DNA on Amanda’s body. It was the semen and saliva of serial rapist and burglar James Sanders. Sanders lived just a block away from the Cope family.
Instead of dropping the charges against Cope, prosecutors accused him of conspiring with Sanders to rape and murder Amanda. They were tried together but the judge would not allow jurors to hear about Sanders’ history of attacking women.
Cope and Sanders were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2009, a three-judge panel from the South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the conspiracy conviction, ruling that the evidence did not show that Cope and Sanders knew each other.
"Without a conspiracy, there’s no case," Morton said.
When the South Carolina Attorney General appealed, the judges reversed their earlier decision, reaffirming the conspiracy conviction.
On Tuesday, Cope’s case will be heard by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
Jim Morton will be joined by attorney David Bruck -- who represented Susan Smith -- and Steve Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School.
“The prosecutor’s theory of this case is absurd. The prosecutors, having been one, are taught the goal is not just to obtain convictions, but to seek justice and I think they’ve lost sight of that,” said Morton.
Morton said Billy Cope continues his prison ministry and remains hopeful the truth will one day set him free.