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Kelly sentenced to 50 years in prison

Will be in prison until age 72

Posted: September 29, 2015 6:20 p.m.
Updated: September 30, 2015 1:00 a.m.
C-I file photo/

Briana Rabon

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Stephen Ross Kelly, 22, will spend  the next 50 years in prison for sexually assaulting and then strangling to death 18-year-old Briana Rabon in February 2014. Kelly could have faced up to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Rabon’s family waited for more than two hours Monday to hear Kelly plead guilty to murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct and kidnapping. Kelly also pleaded guilty to a separate, 2013 criminal domestic violence charge involving the mother of his 1-year-old daughter.

About 20 Rabon family members and supporters filled the first three rows on one side of the main courtroom at the Kershaw County Courthouse in Camden while Kelly’s parents, his daughter’s mother and another man sat on the other side. Some of Rabon’s family and others attending or participating in the proceedings were told to be on hand by 9:30 a.m. Monday, but the case did not go before Circuit Judge L. Casey Manning until 12:15 p.m. Indications were the delay was due to continuing discussions between Kelly and his attorney, Bob Cook.

After accepting the conclusions of two mental evaluations of Kelly, Manning went through a series of questions with Kelly to ascertain whether or not he was pleading guilty of his own free will and understood exactly to what he was pleading.

For example, Manning asked Kelly if he understood the murder allegation -- that he was pleading guilty to killing Rabon by asphyxiation and could receive no less than a 30-year sentence he would have to spend day-for-day in prison.

“Yes, sir, I do,” Kelly answered.

Laying out the case

A few moments later -- as is customary in South Carolina courts -- Manning allowed 5th Circuit assistant solicitors Joanna McDuffie and Luck Campbell to present arguments and evidence they would have used in front of a jury.

McDuffie began with the least of the charges: the first-offense criminal domestic violence charge stemming from a May 30, 2013, incident, some eight and a half months before Rabon’s murder. She said the then-18-year-old woman was driving her car with Kelly as a passenger when they started arguing. At one point, McDuffie said, Kelly pulled up the car’s parking brake, nearly causing a wreck. His girlfriend pulled over, Kelly got out, pulled her out of the vehicle, and punched and kicked her. They got back in the car only to have Kelly cause his girlfriend to crash into a tree.

McDuffie then described the events leading to Rabon’s murder on Feb. 25, 2014.

“Briana Rabon was working two restaurant jobs but had the day off and decided to spend the morning with some friends,” McDuffie said.

One of those friends gave Rabon a new car radio, which they tried, but failed to install because they couldn’t remove Rabon’s old radio from the car. After having lunch with a friend, McDuffie said, Rabon decided to go to another friend’s house in an effort to have them remove the old car radio and install the new one. The second set of friends couldn’t get the old radio out, either.

This is where Kelly entered the picture, according to McDuffie.

She said one of the people trying to help Rabon called Kelly even though their mother didn’t want Kelly around because of his troubling reputation. McDuffie said Kelly got off from his job -- like Rabon, he worked at a restaurant -- around 4:40 p.m. Feb. 25, 2014, and went to his friends house to help deal with Rabon’s radio.

McDuffie said Kelly never went into the home, spending at least some of the time with at least one of the other young men in a car smoking marijuana and “spice.”

McDuffie said when Rabon left the friend’s house, Kelly followed her.

“(One of his friends) said they thought it was strange that he turned right instead of turning left out of the driveway,” McDuffie said.

A short time later, Rabon’s car was picked up by security cameras at a restaurant near the I-20/U.S. 601 exchange in Lugoff. Kelly’s car immediately followed Rabon’s. McDuffie said at some point Kelly got into Rabon’s car and they ended up in a wooded area just off the northeast edge of the Haigs Creek subdivision near Elgin.

“There, Stephen Ross Kelly engaged in sexual battery with Briana Rabon,” McDuffie said.

She said Kelly beat and raped her, strangled her to death and dumped her body. Residential security cameras picked up Kelly’s car as he left the scene,” McDuffie said.

“The next day, he went to work as if nothing had happened,” she said.

Rabon was able to spend part of Feb. 25 with friends from Lugoff-Elgin High School, where she graduated the year before, because threatening winter weather caused the Kershaw County School District to close schools. Around 3 p.m. Feb. 26, three high school students riding all-terrain vehicles behind Haigs Creek saw what they first thought was a mannequin laying near a power line. When they got within 10 yards, they realized they were wrong and went to get one of their fathers, McDuffie said. It was he, she said, who called law enforcement after checking for himself.

‘No one wanted to leave her’

Testifying later during the hearing, Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) Inv. Justin Dill said he and most of his team were wrapping things up for the day when they got the call.

“We all headed up there, and I briefly spoke with the children who discovered the body. I didn’t know what we had at first. We thought it was a middle school student because of the size,” Dill said.

Campbell told Manning during another part of the hearing Rabon was 5 feet tall and only weighed 100 pounds.

“No one wanted to leave her,” Dill said of himself and fellow investigators staying on the scene in order to identify her and until the Kershaw County Coroner’s Office claimed her body. “You can see in the (autopsy and crime scene) pictures, she was brutally strangled, but without seeing it for yourself, you wouldn’t know how horrific it was.”

Dill said investigators learned all they could about Rabon, getting to a point where they felt they needed to talk to Kelly.

“I’ll never forget, we had 14 officers go to his home and knock on the door. When we showed him the warrants to search his car, he didn’t ask any questions,” Dill said.

Kelly agreed to go to KCSO headquarters to be interviewed. McDuffie said Kelly’s story changed several times -- from not having seen Rabon at all to claiming she flagged him down. When confronted with the fact none of his stories were being corroborated, he asked for his attorney.

With the evidence they had, Dill said the KCSO contacted the solicitor’s office and got the go-ahead to charge Kelly.

“When I looked into his eyes and told him he was being arrested for killing Briana, he just said, ‘OK,’” Dill said.

McDuffie said the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) assisted with the case from the beginning, coming to the crime scene and processing evidence. She said they matched tire impressions to tires on Kelly’s car; matched a shoe impression on Rabon’s belt to one of Kelly’s shoes; and matched DNA samples on Rabon’s body, a spit out piece of chewing gum next to Rabon’s body and scrapings from under Rabon’s fingernails to DNA from the butts of cigarettes Kelly smoked at KCSO headquarters while waiting for Cook’s arrival.

In addition, at least one KCSO investigator realized Kelly had dumped Rabon’s body exactly where he had abandoned a truck he admitted to stealing several years before.

‘This was so brutal’

Campbell’s description of what the evidence and an autopsy showed Kelly did to Rabon appeared difficult for anyone in the courtroom to hear, with family members and even some officials wiping away tears as they listened:

• Rabon’s shirt was sliced down the front; a bra strap ripped off. The shirt was found bunched up around her neck at the scene.

• Rabon suffered finger-like contusions to her arms, as if Kelly forcibly manipulated her into engaging in sexual acts. There were also contusions to her legs.

• While one leg of Rabon’s jeans was found wrapped around her foot, the other was still on her leg, leading investigators to believe the jeans were pushed off to the side.

• Semen around Rabon’s rectum was a 99.98 percent match to Kelly’s DNA.

• Rabon’s brain showed evidence of blunt force trauma.

• The injuries to Rabon’s neck would have taken 3 to 4 minutes of constant pressure to produce, even though Rabon would have passed out in about 1 minute. There were also signs Kelly may have used Rabon’s own belt to asphyxiate her.

But, Campbell said, it appeared Rabon fought back. She said DNA evidence linked to Kelly was found under Rabon’s fingernails. Kelly suffered scratches to his arms and one hand.

“This was so brutal,” Campbell said, opening a folder, “we thought it would be appropriate to show these photographs to the jury.”

McDuffie said in addition to the forensic evidence, cellphone tower records show Kelly was in the exact spot where Rabon’s body was discovered. She also said cell mates at the Kershaw County Detention Center (KCDC) were prepared to testify he confessed to them he had killed Rabon.

McDuffie, Campbell and Dill all recommended Manning sentence Kelly to the maximum penalty possible: life without possibility of parole.

Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews did as well.

“We are a small community. We don’t have crimes like this very often. This was a violent crime for which he has shown no remorse,” Matthews said.

The families, and Kelly, speak

Rabon’s brother spoke first on behalf of the family.

“I can’t express the torture we’ve gone through. Briana was a good girl; she didn’t deserve this. I got married this year and I wanted my sister to be there, but we had to release butterflies instead,” he said.

Rabon’s mother also spoke, calling the last year and a half “a nightmare” for her and her family.

“I insisted on seeing the crime scene photos, because I thought, maybe, this was an accident,” she told Manning. “But this was no accident; he brutally murdered my daughter.”

Rabon’s mother said her daughter wanted to be a teacher and was earning money by working two restaurant jobs. She said about 1,000 people attended her funeral. She said she also feels for the Kelly family, especially Kelly’s mother.

“She’s a mom, just like me,” she said.

But, she said, she is going to miss seeing her daughter’s potential as a teacher. She asked Manning to render a life sentence so Kelly “can’t hurt anyone else.”

Speaking on behalf of his client, the Kelly family and himself, Cook apologized to the Rabon family.

“You never expect anything like this,” Cook said.

He said Kelly is a young father who dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. Cook said this case marked the third time he has represented Kelly in court.

“I’ve lived his life first-hand along with his parents. I gave them my cellphone number and have lots of late night calls with them. They are great people who have tried to give Stephen a loving family, but have had trouble,” Cook said.

He said Kelly was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and has taken various medications to deal with it, but “never got it under control.” Cook said Kelly has also dealt with anger issues, some of which were actually triggered by some of his ADHD medications.

“He also ran with a bad crowd and, sometimes, he was the bad influence,” he said.

Cook said Kelly began smoking marijuana around age 13 and, about five years ago, had to deal with the loss of his younger brother, who died in an all-terrain vehicle accident.

“It had a big impact, putting him into a significant depressions, for which he self-medicated with marijuana and pain pills,” Cook said, adding that during the last year, Kelly also began smoking “spice.”

Spice is a synthetic marijuana which, according to DrugAbuse.gov, the National Institutes of Health’s drug abuse website, usually has the same effects on people as marijuana -- elevated mood, relaxation and altered perception. However, there are some people, according to the website, who have reported psychotic effects such as extreme anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations. In addition, the Center for Disease Control has reported other effects such as agitation and combativeness.

“Deep down, Stephen is good hearted, but his life has been dominated by bad decisions due to drugs,” Cook said, indicating if it had not been for the drugs, Kelly might never have been led to kill Rabon. “But, he accepts what he did; he accepts responsibility. I’ve seen him grow while he’s been in jail the last year and a half. He’s sober, he’s clean.”

Cook claimed Rabon has, essentially, been rehabilitated through the time he’s also spent behind bars, back to “being the person his parents wanted him to be.”

“I’m not sure a life sentence would make a difference,” Cook said.

Kelly’s mother spoke on behalf of herself and her husband. Turning to the Rabons, she said there are two tragedies.

“Not a day has gone by that I haven’t shed a tear for you,” she told them.

She said there are two Stephens, a “happy go-lucky” one off of drugs and the one on drugs.

“My child became a drug addict. I want to try to find the positive in this, if there can be a positive,” Kelly’s mother said. “We need to educate people on what happens when they do drugs. We’ve got to try and stop it. I know in my heart my son is not a monster.”

She said her son “shut down” and went “further into drugs” after her younger son’s death.

Kelly spoke for himself a moment later.

“At this point, I’m numb. I apologize to the state and to the court, but most of all to Briana and her family,” he said. “I never intended on being here. If there’s anything right about any of this, it’s to let them know exactly what happened.”

Assistant Solicitor Meghan Walker, quickly conferring with the Rabon family, said they did not need to hear the details.

“I can’t imagine what they’re going through. If I’d just gone home, or if I’d just let her go,” Kelly said.

Walker said Cook’s claims that Kelly has already been rehabilitated or has any remorse for killing Rabon are simply untrue, based on phone calls Kelly made and letters he wrote from the KCDC.

“He was asking his girlfriend to smuggle drugs into jail and trying to learn how to make alcohol in jail. He wrote letters saying he was trying to find African-Americans to blame,” Walker said, and then pointed at Kelly’s girlfriend to add, “And he called her and told her she and the baby could both go to hell. In his own words, he has not shown remorse, he has not been rehabilitated.”

The sentence and reaction

Manning said he knew how difficult this case has been for everyone involved, especially Briana Rabon’s family.

“I can only imagine the pain of losing a child this way, but my job is try to come to a decision that is fair. The sentence I’m about to pass does not reflect the value of your loss,” he said to the Rabons, “nor does it reflect the value of his life. This is a devastating loss, but I hope both sides will find some sort of closure.”

With that, Manning sentenced Kelly to concurrent terms -- meaning they will be served at the same time -- of 30 years each for the criminal sexual conduct and kidnapping charges and 50 years for murder. Kelly will have to serve every day of those 50 years before he can be released from prison. He will not be eligible for parole.

Tuesday morning, Sheriff Matthews said even though Kelly will be in jail for 50 years, he was greatly disappointed with Manning’s decision not to sentence Kelly to life in prison. He said the 50-year sentence is also “annoying” because of how prepared his office and the solicitor’s office were ready to go to trial.

“We all had our act together, and our recommendations was life without the possibility of parole. He got leniency from the judge, which I don’t agree with. I think life without parole would have sent a message to the family that we do respect the life of your daughter,” he said.

Matthews said there were “no holes” in the prosecution’s case against Kelly, and is grateful Kelly decided not to put either family through a trial.

“He knew he was done,” Matthews said of Kelly. “Historically, when you plead guilty, you get a better deal. In this case, this was a not a death penalty case, so life without the possibility of parole was the best we were going to get, and we didn’t even get that.”

The sheriff said he feels the autopsy results were “very damning” to Kelly.

“But it didn’t sway the judge. It’s unfortunate. It’s something we live with everyday -- having outcomes that make us angry and make the public angry, makes them feel the system doesn’t work properly,” Matthews said.

He said he is also upset Manning was not swayed by Walker’s comments concerning Kelly’s phone calls and letters.

“Cook talked about how he knows Kelly is rehabilitated and has remorse, but his client said a lot on those telephone calls that show he’s nothing but an angry, conniving, unrepentant young man,” Matthews said, adding he was concerned Kelly’s girlfriend could have ended up repeatedly abused and, perhaps, even killed by Kelly. “It’s a terrible thing. The Rabon family lost Briana and the Kellys lost their second son through no fault of their own. There’s a lot of sadness and anguish for these two families.”

The sheriff said he heard Rabon’s mother hugged Kelly’s mother after the hearing and hoped this was a sign both families could move forward.

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