Sumter woman's ex guilty of her murder, gets life in prison

BY KEN BELL
Special to The Sumter Item
Posted 4/14/19

Ten years and one day after James Ginther III married his high school sweetheart, Circuit Court Judge Ferrell Cothran Jr. sentenced him to life in prison for killing her.

A jury of seven men and five women deliberated for almost an hour on Friday …

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Sumter woman's ex guilty of her murder, gets life in prison

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Ten years and one day after James Ginther III married his high school sweetheart, Circuit Court Judge Ferrell Cothran Jr. sentenced him to life in prison for killing her.

A jury of seven men and five women deliberated for almost an hour on Friday at the Sumter County Judicial Center before finding James Ginther guilty of his ex-wife's death.

Ginther was also found guilty of kidnapping 27-year-old Suzette "Suzy" Ginther. Cothran vacated that sentence because of the murder charge. In South Carolina, there is no parole for a life sentence.

Suzy Ginther's body was discovered buried in a shallow grave on Nov. 16, 2017, in the woods about 215 feet off Burnt Gin Road in Sumter County by a hunter who was searching for a place to put up a camera. The hunter had been in the area the day before and noticed a recently dug hole. When he returned the following day, the hole had been filled in, a human shoe visible.

Her abandoned vehicle was located in the Cherryvale area, and authorities quickly connected it to the then-missing woman. Co-workers at PetSmart in Columbia called her boyfriend, Billy Parker, who reported her missing when she failed to show up for work.

Ginther, 28, was arrested in Louisville, Kentucky, by Louisville Metro Police about 4:30 a.m. the following Monday morning when he reportedly fell asleep and his vehicle struck a guardrail.

He was taken into custody after the officer discovered he was wanted in South Carolina on murder and kidnapping charges.

Ginther waived extradition and was returned to South Carolina. He has been held in the Sumter County Sheriff's Office Detention Center since his return.

Deliberations began Monday on the case.

Before bringing the jury into the courtroom Friday, Cothran excused a juror because she had a relative working in the solicitor's office. On Thursday, another juror called in sick. So, both alternate jurors were called into service on the case.

Third Judicial Circuit Solicitor Ernest "Chip" Finney III began his closing arguments Friday by thanking the jurors. He told them he appreciated them listening to all 25 witnesses who testified.

"Everyone came through," he said. "That's not an easy thing to do. But it means you have the whole picture."

Finney credited the hunter, David Gayle, with finding the hole and noticing it had been filled in the following day.

"And there was a shoe sticking out of it," Finney said. "He could have simply ignored it, but he didn't."

Finney told the jury why Ginther was discovered beside his wrecked vehicle in Kentucky.

"He was going to take I-64 west to Wyoming," he said. Earlier testimony showed he had left notes behind when he left telling then-girlfriend Rachel Salak to meet up with him six months or eight months to the day at city hall in the western-most city in Wyoming. Salak testified that Ginther had asked her to claim responsibility for the killing, but she refused.

Ginther's defense attorney, Jason Bridges, a Sumter County assistant public defender, reminded the jury that the burden of proof was on the state of South Carolina to prove Ginther's guilt.

"When you look at the facts and look at the evidence, there are more questions than answers," he said. "There are a lot of questions about how the van got to where it was discovered. The autopsy also raised questions. How did this kidnapping happen? There are real gaps."

The jury began deliberations at 11:58 a.m. By 1 p.m., it found Ginther guilty of both charges. Ginther showed no reaction as the verdict was read aloud.

John Bates, Suzy Ginther's father, spoke on behalf of the family just before sentencing.

"Nov. 16, 2017, is a day that forever changed our entire family," he said. "The biggest impact was on her children. On Nov. 18, we had to tell them that their mother was not coming home.

"There are no words for the pain we are going through. But there must be stability for the children."

The two elementary school-aged children are living with their grandparents.

Bates asked the judge to sentence James Ginther to the maximum sentence possible.

James Ginther's stepmother, Teresa Ginther, spoke on behalf of his family.

"We grieve for Suzy," she said. "We've not had a chance to grieve. Neither has James. He has no criminal record, and he served military service. He has three children. We understand that you consider that. We ask for the court's leniency."

Judge Cothran paused before he spoke.

"This case is difficult," he said. "I've never had a case with this much calculation and planning. There is pain on both sides. There is nothing I can do to relieve the pain."

The judge again paused before sentencing Ginther to spend the rest of his natural life behind bars.

Sobs broke out from the side of the courtroom where his family sat. Deputies quickly warned that they would have to leave if they couldn't control themselves. Suzy Ginther's family had tears and shared hugs, but there were no outbursts of emotion.

James Ginther then spoke.

"While I realize this is not the place to assert my innocence, I am not bitter. I apologize for what happened to Suzy. Yesterday would have been our 10th wedding anniversary," he said.

Finney said a lot of careful planning goes into this kind of crime.

"It's necessary because he's trying to cover his tracks," Finney said. "The circumstances had to break our way. We certainly have a great amount of good fortune from the hunter finding the body so quickly and police doing such a thorough search in getting the shell casing and connecting it to the gun.

"It's hard to think of everything you have to do to keep things covered up. Plus, Suzy was well-loved. People were looking for her right away. That's not something (James) Ginther counted on happening."

Bridges said there are still avenues of legal challenges ahead.

"Our official position is James (Ginther) maintains his innocence," Bridges said. "We will be pursuing an appeal. Our thoughts are with the family on both sides. It's a tragedy for all of the families on both sides."