Death sentence appeal in judge's hands

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The families of three men killed in 2004 by Stephen Corey Bryant have stayed close in the four years since Bryant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death.

They came together again this week in solidarity at the Sumter County Courthouse as Bryant asked 3rd Circuit Judge R. Ferrell Cothran to overturn that sentence.

"When you go through something like this, you do get close," said Mildred Tietjen. The mutilated body of her husband, Willard "T.J." Tietjen Jr., 62, was found Oct. 11, 2004, in their Cane Savannah area home, the one Mildred still calls home.

"There are a lot of good memories there, and I'm at peace there," she said Wednesday after the final day of a three-day hearing initiated by Bryant to have his death sentence revisited. Bryant pleaded guilty in 2008 to the murders of Tietjen, Clifton Gainey and Christopher Burgess, as well as the wounding of Clinton Brown on the Wateree Bridge just over the Richland-Sumter County line.

Bryant's attorneys, Heath P. Taylor and Lisa Armstrong, argued throughout the week that Bryant's initial defense was ineffective during his plea and sentencing proceedings, and that key computer information was withheld.

"We have seen testimony this week that has shown that SLED (the State Law Enforcement Division) had key evidence of an Internet history that corroborated (Bryant's) statements of having discussed pornography with Mr. Tietjen before committing the murder," Taylor said during closing arguments on Wednesday. "This was information never given to the defense, because it was information that was never received by the prosecution, who had the duty to provide it to the defense.

"Through no fault of his own, former Solicitor (Kelly) Jackson failed to turn over that key piece of evidence. I believe he would have had he had that evidence, and fellow solicitor (Dudley) Saleeby (Jr.) testified (Wednesday) that he would have done so."

Dr. Donna Marie Schwartz-Watts, a forensic psychiatrist initially retained by Richland County for assault charges on Brown and retained again by Bryant's initial defense attorney, James Babb, testified that such an Internet history would have corroborated Bryant's statements to her that his own sexual abuse as a child was a contributing factor to the murders.

"Finding that out now, that's consistent with my observations of him for the past seven years now," said Schwartz-Watts, whose trial report diagnosed Bryant with post-traumatic stress disorder secondary to severe sexual abuse. "It was severe (PTSD), one of the worst cases I've ever seen. He was forthcoming with me about the abuse after I saw him numerous times. You have to build a relationship with him. There are very paranoid tendencies there. He's slow to trust someone."

On Wednesday, Armstrong revisited prior statements from Edward L. Gause while questioning attorney Joseph L. Savitz III, Bryant's attorney on direct appeal in 2010. Gause, a former Charleston police officer who now lives in Sumter County, testified Tuesday that he saw a shirtless and shoeless Bryant roughly a month before the killings. Bryant allegedly told Gause that he was "thinking some strange thoughts" and that he "needed help." Gause says he approached a sheriff's deputy, who then spoke to Bryant. Gause did not come forward until August 2008, the day after Bryant pleaded guilty. The case was not reopened for Gause to testify at that time.

"I don't know what I thought at that time (in 2010) about (Gause)," Savitz said Wednesday. "For me, I thought that it was vague and unconnected to ... the crime, but I didn't abandon it out of legal strategy."

Senior Deputy Assistant Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka argued that Gause's testimony was immaterial.

"Dr. Schwartz-Watts in her earlier testimony said that she had prior knowledge that Bryant had sought help from mental health professionals," Zelenka said, referencing a comment by Schwartz-Watts that she had access to Bryant's medical records, which included prior consultations with psychologists.

"The petitioner (Bryant) wants to argue that Gause would have shown (Bryant) reaching out for help to mitigate this sentence," Zelenka said. "But we already had knowledge of that from the doctor's own statements and report."

Cothran said Tuesday that he has until Dec. 4 to make a decision on the case. Should Bryant prevail, the state Attorney General's Office would review the case and decide either to appeal Cothran's decision or proceed with a new trial with 3rd Circuit Solicitor Ernest "Chip" Finney III. Currently serving a life sentence for burglaries committed during the murders, Bryant would not be released from prison. He can also appeal Cothran's decision if the judge rules against his motion.

"We just hope he doesn't win this," Mildred Tietjen said. "We hope the judge goes our way and he'll (Bryant) stay where he's at."

She doesn't look forward to the possibility of a new trial. It would be like "reopening an old wound," she said. This week was hard enough.

"(I got ready) with a lot of prayer," she said. "If I didn't have a faith, I couldn't get through this."

Reach Robert J. Baker at (803) 774-1211.