Nichole Monroe Bell reports for the Charlottesville Observer regarding a capital murder trial in South Carolina. Excerpt:
YORK – The judge handling the capital murder retrial of Sterling Spann is considering a motion to admit the results of two lie-detector tests that defense attorneys argue show their client is innocent.
According to documents filed in S.C. Supreme Court, Spann’s attorneys contend he has passed two polygraph examinations administered at the request of the defense lawyers. Since his arrest in 1981, Spann has maintained he is innocent in the rape and slaying of 81-year-old Melva Harper Niell of Clover.
Polygraph tests monitor a subject’s breathing, sweat glands, blood pressure or heart rate to indicate whether the person is telling the truth. Although police routinely use polygraph tests to investigate criminal cases, results of the tests historically have been deemed inadmissible in court because some experts question their reliability.
Circuit Judge J. Derham Cole hasn’t yet ruled on whether to allow jurors to hear the results of the test. Cole has issued a gag order barring lawyers from discussing motions in public and has ordered that the motions be sealed in Circuit Court. The seal does not apply to records in the S.C. Supreme Court.
Spann was convicted of murder in 1982 and sentenced to death, but the S.C. Supreme Court granted him a new trial, saying evidence not available during the first trial might have changed the outcome.
Spann, who spent 17 years on death row before his release on bond three years ago, is scheduled to receive a second trial beginning March 4.
He faces the death penalty if convicted.
Defense attorneys stated in court records that they believe the polygraph clears their client and should be admitted. Spann’s attorneys have argued that another man killed Niell.
“There simply is no doubt that the results of polygraph examinations, especially favorable results, are admissible in South Carolina…” a letter from defense attorney Diana Holt said.
Prosecutors disagree, according to court records.
“Polygraph tests have never been admissible in the criminal courts of this state,” they argued. “The only clear result of this motion is to place in the public record the results of an irrelevant test.”