ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina man who vigorously maintained that DNA evidence cleared him of raping and killing his 12-year-old daughter has died while serving a life sentence in prison.
Billy Wayne Cope, 53, died in state custody Thursday, apparently of natural causes, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said. An autopsy has been ordered by law.
Days after the 2001 killing, Cope confessed three times to investigators. Prosecutors charged him with murder and rape. But when DNA tests came back, the only genetic material on the girl's body was from a neighbor down the street.
Prosecutors then said Cope allowed James Sanders into his home knowing he was going to attack his daughter, and that Cope had attacked the girl previously. Both Cope and Sanders were convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Cope's attorneys said prosecutors were just molding the evidence to send an innocent man to prison and Cope had mental problems and was so devastated by his daughter's death that investigators were able to manipulate him into confessing to a crime he did not commit.
Bu the state Supreme Court upheld Cope's conviction in 2013 and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case.
Cope's attorneys said that their inability to get Cope out of prison was one of the most disappointing parts of their careers.
"Billy's death marks a sad end to a horrible miscarriage of justice," the defense lawyers wrote in a statement to The Herald of Rock Hill (http://bit.ly/2lwq3y6).
Prosecutors said the Cope home was locked and secure when the girl was found dead, so someone had to let Sanders in. Defense attorneys countered that the home's lock could be easily picked with a credit card or driver's license.
The home was also filled with buckets of human waste, trash and other filth, making it impossible for a stranger to navigate the mess in the dark, said prosecutors, who also presented evidence Cope had sexually assaulted his daughter before the night she was killed.
"Billy Wayne Cope was a cruel and selfish individual who elevated his own sick desires above the welfare, happiness and ultimately the life of his own daughter. Today I only feel sorrow for his two surviving children," prosecutor Kevin Brackett said after learning Cope had died.
Bracket created a website after national stories argued Cope's innocence where he posted his evidence at http://www.billywaynecope.com/
Cope's supporters had their own Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FreeBillyWayneCope
Information from: The Herald, http://www.heraldonline.com