Manners guilty

Man will serve 2 consecutive life terms for murder plus 30 years for arson

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Joseph Manners was sentenced to two life sentences and 30 years, to be served consecutively, on Thursday afternoon after he was convicted for a 2013 arson and murder of his grandparents, James and Joann Topper.

Manners was convicted of setting fire to his grandparents' house on Barnwell Drive on June 1, 2013, killing the couple.

Circuit Judge Jeffrey Young said he has presided over many trials, but this murder trial was the most horrific. He said the acts involved are beyond his comprehension.

He called Manners an unrepentant, cold-hearted murderer who cremated two people whom he said loved him.

Young sentenced Manners to spend the "balance of his natural life" in South Carolina Department of Corrections facilities for both counts of murder and 30 years for first-degree arson. It is the court's intention that Manners never walks as a free man, he said.

Before the jury, consisting of four women and eight men, presented its unanimous guilty verdicts to the court, Assistant Solicitor John Meadors brought in a 10th and final witness, Joseph Powell, an arson and explosives analyst with the Sumter County Sheriff's Office.

Meadors introduced Powell as an expert in petroleum accelerants.

Powell said he found gasoline present in three of the fire debris samples collected from the Toppers' house in June 2013.

Meadors later pointed out that the three samples had been collected near James Topper's body; one sample was taken from part of the underwear that was found partially undamaged under his body.

Defense Attorney Timothy Griffith asked Powell if ethanol from alcoholic beverages was found in the debris samples. Powell said he looked for ethanol in the samples because it is a type of petroleum, but none was found.

Griffith asked if any debris samples were taken from a storage space under the stairs, where alcoholic beverages could have been stored. Powell said, "no."

Manners refused to testify during the trial, as was his right provided by the fifth amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to Young.

During closing arguments, Griffith asked the jury to consider every piece of evidence presented by both sides.

The defense attorney presented the two consent forms signed by Manners - one with an uneven signature that Manners signed after being read his Miranda rights in a hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June, 3, 2013, and the other signed about a month later with a leveled signature.

Griffith asked the jury to consider whether his client was capable of understanding what was being said during his interview with Sgt. Jennifer Mitsch with Cincinnati Police Department because he had started to fall asleep during the interaction.

Manners had taken too many pills and was in the hospital for an overdose, Griffith said.

During the prosecution's closing argument, Meadors paired the gasoline detected in the debris samples with the audio recording of Manners telling officer Mitsch that he had poured gasoline in the hallway of the Toppers' house in order to solidify the state's claim that Manners was coherent during the interview and did in fact start the fire.

While firefighters, police officers and other investigators rushed to the house to help, Manners drove away, he said. "Flight is evidence of guilt," Meadors said.

Near the end of his argument, Meadors picked up an evidence can containing James Topper's false teeth and shook it before the jury. This is what's left of Mr. Topper, he said.

Manners had a total disregard for human life after he hit James Topper, knocking out his teeth and leaving him to burn in the fire, he said.

Outside of the courtroom, while the jury deliberated, one of Manners' relatives said he was usually not a violent person. She said he was pushed to do what he did because of a problem with alcohol at the Topper house.

After the guilty verdict was announced, Manners' mother said she would spend the rest of her life advocating against alcoholism and for mental abuse awareness to prevent those things from destroying another person's life. "I also want people to know that my son's only judge is the Lord," she said.

James Topper's niece spoke before Judge Young before the sentencing. She said Manners made the choice to take two lives and she hoped that Young would give him the harshest sentencing possible so that he could not walk in public again.

After learning the conclusion of the case, Joan Keller, Joann Topper's daughter, said Meadors and his team did an excellent job. "We're thrilled justice has been done," she said.