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Split verdict in Lugoff murder trial

Stapleton acquitted; Watson sentenced to 45 years

Posted: November 19, 2010 8:06 p.m.
Updated: November 22, 2010 5:00 a.m.

Thursday morning, defense attorney John Delgado asked a Kershaw County jury why his client, 25-year-old Joshua Stapleton of Lancaster, would admit to being in Derick Lee’s Cricket Hill Drive mobile home on Aug. 9, 2010, when the third-degree black belt was killed.

“Why would he say something that wasn’t true?” asked Delgado.

And then the lights started going out.

A set of wall-mounted lights dimmed and then winked out. Delgado’s closing argument was delayed some 30 minutes as courthouse staff worked to get them back on.

But the partial power failure wasn’t a bad omen for Stapleton, who was acquitted Friday afternoon of Lee’s murder.

After a total of nine hours of deliberation over two days, a jury split their verdicts between Stapleton and his co-defendant, Christopher Watson of Elgin. They found Stapleton not guilty, but found Watson guilty of murder.

Circuit Court Judge G. Thomas Cooper sentenced Watson to 45 years in prison.

Watson, 22, and Stapleton, 25, were accused of plotting to steal Lee’s collection of firearms and to kill him in order protect themselves from Lee.

A third co-defendant, Carl Mendez, 22, of Elgin, recently worked out a deal with solicitors to testify against Watson and Stapleton in exchange for the lesser charge of being an accessory after the fact. He did so Tuesday, saying he drove Watson and Stapleton to the scene, but never entered the house. Mendez said they told him just before they reached Lee’s house that they planned to rob and kill him and admitted to killing him afterward.

The 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office argued that, because of Lee’s martial arts background, Watson and Stapleton were afraid Lee would not only be able to identify them, but possibly kill them. Solicitors and Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) investigators said during the trial they believed that while Lee was cleaning a gun and checking on something in his freezer, Watson and Stapleton shot him twice in the head.

In turn, Stapleton’s step-niece Lori Vernon, 14; her friend, Bianca Valdez, 15; and his stepfather, Henry Vernon, 62, claimed Stapleton was home all day with the exception of a brief period around noon when he picked up Valdez so she could visit with the family. They also testified that no one else -- neither Carl Mendez nor Christopher Watson -- visited the home that day and that no one brought guns to the home. They said they remembered that day vividly because the next day was Stapleton’s 21st birthday.

On cross examination, 5th Circuit Assistant Solicitor Ron Moak asked all of the witnesses why it was that they remembered the events of that day so differently from Stapleton’s own video recorded statements.

Under Delgado’s direct examination, Henry Vernon was able to account for Stapleton’s whereabouts on an hour-to-hour basis. But when Moak asked him if he remembered whether his stepson testified Monday to being in Lee’s home on Aug. 9, 2009, Henry Vernon said he couldn’t.

Moak also questioned why none of the Vernons or Stapleton ever went to law enforcement with information that Stapleton was in Lancaster that entire day. Moak asked him again why Stapleton said he was in Lugoff if everyone else said he was in Lancaster on the day of the murder.

“Because Josh isn’t one of the most strong-willed people I’ve ever met,” Henry Vernon answered.

At that point, Delgado rested his case; Public Defender Neil Riley offered no defense for Watson.

In closing, 5th Circuit Assistant Solicitor Lir Derieg explained much of the law jurors would have to use to determine their verdict -- and examples to go with them. Derieg asked jurors to pay attention to what was similar in the defendants’ recorded interrogations rather than what was different.

“Joshua Stapleton asserted in his testimony that he wasn’t there, but he said he was there on the video. We have to prove to you that his alibi isn’t true, but Joshua, himself, proved his alibi wasn’t true,” said Derieg.

He also claimed Henry Vernon was not a credible witness.

“I will put Henry Vernon’s credibility up against Carl Mendez’s anywhere, any day of the week,” countered Delgado as he began his closing argument.

He later assailed Mendez’s credibility by asking jurors who had the most to gain from testifying against his client. Delgado then asked why Stapleton would say he was at Lee’s home instead of Lancaster where his family and friends said he was.

“Henry Vernon said it’s because he’s not strong-willed,” Delgado said when the lights came back on. “But he never admitted any intent to rob or kill Derick Lee. He didn’t admit to anything.”

Delgado then slammed his hand on the jury box counter; several jurors flinched. He said that was an example of how KCSO investigators Jamey Jones and George Marthers “bullied” his client.

Pointing at Stapleton, Delgado said, “So this poor simpleton admitted to anything.”

While not used directly as a defense for either Stapleton or Watson, several witnesses attested to the fact that all the defendants were special education students.

“There are two indictments … (but) you can choose to only find one guilty. You can choose to find Josh not guilty. Even though he said he was (there), you can choose to return a verdict of not guilty,” said Delgado.

Delgado continued to assail KCSO investigators for the way they conducted their interrogations. He mocked their use of game show sounds to negate his client’s assertions.

“Be proud of your verdict,” he told jurors. “Justice is always served through your service and justice will be served by finding Josh not guilty.”

In his closing, Riley characterized Mendez as a co-defendant who told the state what it wanted to hear in exchange for the hope of probation. Riley also attacked Jones and Marthers’ tactics in the interrogation room.

“Chris and Josh (were) both special education students. Neither one of them were allowed to talk,” said Riley. “They didn’t give them the chance to say what they wanted to say. Every time Chris spoke up they called him a liar. He was emotionally broken down.”

Riley also noted the disappearance of the bullets and shell casings from the KCSO evidence lockers, pointing out the jury didn’t get a chance to hear testimony from a S.C. Law Enforcement Division expert.

Moak, speaking last, said the case wasn’t about either Watson or Stapleton, or even Mendez.

“There was one witness who couldn’t raise his right hand, but possibly gave more evidence in this case and that was Derick Lee,” said Moak. “He couldn’t raise his right hand, but he gave up that right hand.”

In a dramatic recreation, Moak had Jones stand near him, as if peering into a freezer.

“Boom!” called Moak from behind, and Jones fell to the floor, his left hand near his cheek. “They didn’t have to leave him there to die. They finished him off … (with) the second bullet going through his brain.”

Moak also defended Marthers and Jones.

“They’ve got a dead body. They’ve got an individual who said ‘They did it.’ If you know what someone’s saying isn’t true, aren’t you supposed to confront that?” asked Moak. “Are they supposed to say, ‘Sorry to bother you?’ or let them know in no uncertain terms they know it’s not true?”

At 3 p.m. Friday, the jury returned its verdicts. Delgado and his co-counsel, Amy Zmroczek, hugged members of Stapleton’s family as he was removed from the courtroom to be processed out of the county jail. Watson, on the other hand, began wiping tears with his fingers and then his shirt collar, accepting a box of tissues from one of his lawyers. Four jurors returned to hear the sentence.

Moak asked for a life sentence.

Lee’s twin brother, Isaac, addressed the court, as well as their older brother, Billy, and friend Taufiq Abdul. Isaac Lee said he and Derick’s birthday was Aug. 3.

“It was the worst day of my life,” said Isaac Lee. “My brother came down here for a better life and he got with bad, low-life people who shared his fascination for weapons. I believe the other guy would have been found guilty if the evidence hadn’t been lost, but I can’t blame anybody; things happen.”

Billy Lee said his family is torn between Watson’s guilt and Stapleton’s acquittal.

“But people will be judged again,” he said.

Watson continued to deny he had killed Lee before Cooper passed sentence.

“If I had testified, maybe the right person would be going to prison,” Watson said. “I wish I had testified. Maybe it would have come out better, maybe it wouldn’t.”

Cooper told the young man he had nearly a year and a half to talk to somebody about doing that and sentenced him to prison for 45 years.

Watson hugged his parents and grandmother before being led away by deputies.

Afterward, Delgado praised what he called “an extraordinary jury.”

“They were a hard-working, detailed jury … which honored its oath of service,” Delgado said.

He said the key to Stapleton’s acquittal was his family’s alibi testimony.

“It was insurmountable,” said Delgado. “It wasn’t just that they were family -- they were honest and forthright. They just told the truth.”

Moak said Cooper will inform his office when he is ready to pass sentence on Mendez, who could face up to 15 years in prison.

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