This report airs Dateline Friday, July 9 p.m. The two-hour report will not be available online.
Why is he awake? What time is it?
Machine must have malfunctioned. No. There's the forced air from the c-pap machine, still hissing past his ear; the breathing machine keeps his sleep apnea from killing him.
He looks at the clock. 3:00 AM. Something’s different, off.
Is his wife home from work early? No.
Is one of the kids up? He pulls off the c-pap mask, rolls out of bed.
Now Billy Wayne Cope is wide awake. He looks around. This is weird.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: The hall light was on, and our porch light was on. I came to the conclusion, well, maybe Amanda left these things on. Maybe she got up.
But Amanda’s door is shut… He peers into the third bedroom. Amanda's two younger sisters are fast asleep. He turns into the tiny living room, clicks on the computer.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: There was a couple of unanswered e-mails that I'd not heard of. I clicked on one, and it was a porn site.
He stares, transfixed… Then shame. He thinks about God, about his wife Mary Sue.
- Craig Strickland's Widow on Their Last Conversation: 'He Walked Out the Door, Looked at Me and Said, "I Love You"'
- Joe Jonas Packs on PDA with Former Top Model Contestant Jessica Serfaty
- White House Responds to Petition to Pardon Making a Murderer Subjects Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey
- Family of Sandy Hook Victim Commends Florida Atlantic University for Firing Professor Who Questioned Massacre
- Kylie Jenner's Lip Kit Is Ruining Lives (According to the Internet, Anyway)
But then, the whole night had been off. Earlier, with everybody awake and Mary Sue off to her overnight office cleaning job, Billy helped the girls with school assignments.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: Jessica, my middle daughter, she's always had a—a problem with her homework.
11-year-old Jessica Cope was the middle of Billy Cope's three girls. 12-year-old Amanda was the oldest. Baby Kyla was just 7.
Jessica couldn't understand the math, and was way behind. There was big pressure from the teacher. Amanda volunteered to help, which meant that the four of them would miss the Wednesday night church service they always attended.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: I agreed with Mary Sue, my wife, to let her stay up as long as it took to get it done.
KEITH MORRISON: How long did it take?
BILLY WAYNE COPE: It took till 1:00 AM.
KEITH MORRISON: So they all stayed up that late?
BILLY WAYNE COPE: No, sir, no. Just—just my middle daughter and my oldest daughter. The baby, she went to bed like nine o'clock.
Soon after 1:00 AM, lights out – they were all asleep. Humming fans shunted the air around. Billy's sleep machine churned out its steady thumping hiss.
So it had been weird, waking that way just two hours later and finding the lights on. It was after 3:00 AM now. He climbed back into bed, fell into a troubled sleep.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: I dreamed about the rapture of the church.
Billy Cope, born-again Christian, had read all of the popular "left behind" books. He believed Christ would soon come to “rapture” his church, meaning his whole family, all of them saved, would be swept up together into eternal paradise. But this dream was terrifying:
BILLY WAYNE COPE: And I dreamed I got left behind. I dreamed I heard my daughter say, "Bye, Daddy."
The dream was still fresh when the wake-up alarm sounded at 6:00 AM.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: Amanda, she didn't hear me. She didn't respond. Then I was starting to worry, especially about my dream. Maybe the rapture took place. Maybe I did get left behind. Maybe it wasn't a dream.
He passed the room where the two youngest girls slept. If the rapture had come, they'd be gone to heaven. But, there they were in their beds. It was just a nightmare.
He called again: Amanda!
BILLY WAYNE COPE: So I just turned and I pushed on her door, but it got caught behind the closet door. And I kicked the door as hard as I could.
And there she was before him on the bed. The horror: He saw the swollen body, saw the bruises. He saw the top she'd slept in, pulled up to expose her breast. He went over, covered her nakedness, felt the dead-cold skin. He went to the phone.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: Yeah, my daughter's dead, she's cold as a cucumber.
ROCK HILL POLICE DEPARTMENT: Okay, you don't wanna try to CPR or anything on her?
BILLY WAYNE COPE: No, ma'am. She's dead. She's ice cold.
Billy waited for help at his front door.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: So she's gone on to be with the Lord. She was a Christian. Please—I really gotta go.
ROCK HILL PD: Okay, all right, sir.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: Thank you, Ma'am.
ROCK HILL PD: Thank you.
The firemen arrived, their life saving gear useless. The detectives came. Billy followed them through the cramped rooms of his wildly cluttered house.
He offered, he said later, the only explanation he could think of:
JASON DILLION, ROCK HILL FIRE DEPARTMENT: I asked what happened, and he informed me that she choked on her blanket and that she had a history of rolling in her sleep.
Dozens of investigators packed the tiny house, looking for clues, but found it hard to tell what might be amiss. The family's possessions littered every room.
TODD GARDNER: It was hard to determine what was out of place and what was in place.
Clothes filled the corners, dishes crowded the sink, roaches scurried out when the freezer door was opened. Amanda lay fully dressed on top of her bed, surrounded by her books, new school pictures just back from the photographer, and her favorite green blanket.
Investigators determined she'd been beaten and strangled and, without question, sexually assaulted. They checked the windows and doors: No sign of forced entry. Billy must have been alone in the house with the girls – all night.
And, wait a minute, wasn't this the same Billy Cope who two years earlier, with his wife, had pleaded guilty to neglecting the proper care of his children? Why, indeed, it was.
They took him downtown. Grilled him. 17 hours of questions over four days. And then, the news was as shocking as a thing could be: Billy was charged.
Billy Wayne Cope has been charged with the murder of his 12-year-old daughter, Amanda.
The whole story – the strange night, the twisted blanket, the accidental strangulation – must have been nothing but a lie. He must have assaulted and killed his own daughter – must have. The police reported he miserably failed a polygraph, then volunteered four graphically detailed confessions, one of them on videotape, admitting he had killed his own child. So it was shocking, yes, but a relief, too, here in Rock Hill, South Carolina, just knowing who did it.
Except that what happened to that sweet girl here in this little white house is precisely what they did not know. The story of Billy Wayne Cope and his daughter Amanda is very strange, puzzling and, frankly, sometimes almost unbelievable. But what hangs above the whole bizarre business is one central question: If you are poor, insignificant, and powerless, what does justice look like from the house at 407 Rich Street?
Amanda Cope's death left a raw wound in the places where she'd spent so much of her twelve years on this earth, especially here at church.
It seemed that, if the doors were open, Amanda was inside, singing, playing her violin or winning gold medals as a member of the Bible quiz team. More often than not, her chief cheerleader and Bible quiz coach was her dad, Billy.
SUE ARCHIE: She had all advanced classes, very smart.
Susan Archie wouldn't believe Billy Cope killed anybody. But then, she's his sister and the devoted aunt to Amanda and her sisters.
SUE ARCHIE: She never complained. She was just a happy young lady.
– Which, given her family life, was no small achievement. Theirs had always been a precarious existence. Billy worked part-time days, delivering take-out food, while attending school. Mom Mary Sue’s overnight job meant one of them was always home for the girls. Still, the couple's small paychecks often failed to cover the bills.
SUE ARCHIE: If they did not have anything to eat, we all knew. My mother would buy their supper. They always had something to eat.
But, truth be told, the Copes – Mary Sue and Billy Wayne – were truly dreadful housekeepers. Two years before Amanda’s death, the family lived in a filthy mobile home so bad, in fact, that somebody told Social Services, which put the girls in foster care. They didn't return them until the Copes cleaned up and attended some counseling sessions.
But then? Having hit some sort of bottom, Billy and Mary Sue started turning it around. They rented a new house on the ironically named Rich Street. It was still rundown and in an iffy neighborhood, but better. And things really started looking up when Billy got his degree in computer electronics from the local technical school. And here, on a fine day in springtime, the whole family attended his graduation ceremony. All good things seemed finally possible.
SUSAN ARCHIE: They were happy. They didn't have a lot of money, but they had love.
Billy loved being daddy to his little girls. He even dressed up with them at Halloween and Christmas.
SUSAN ARCHIE: And the kids loved it. It was just something he loved doing, it was just his way of making 'em happy.
And quietly, Billy the college grad began to work on his ultimate goal: a career with his first love, the church.
SUSAN ARCHIE: He had told me that when he was very young, that he had been called to preach –
In the meantime, Billy and Mary Sue scraped by, while sister Susan helped out, fearful that even the family's new neighborhood wasn't safe for her nieces.
SUE ARCHIE: In fact, I told the kids to lock the doors.
KEITH MORRISON: Ya know, if it was such a bad neighborhood, why'd they live there?
SUE ARCHIE: That's all they could afford.
In the end, of course, where they lived had a great deal to do with the catastrophe of Amanda’s murder. And their poverty was the reason that, a few weeks after it happened, Phil Baity got a call.
In Rock Hill, S.C., private attorneys take turns defending indigent clients like Billy Wayne Cope, and now it was Baity's turn.
The case seemed horrifying but uncomplicated.
PHIL BAITY: Quite frankly, I thought he was guilty. When I first met him, he was stone-faced, he was not responsive, he showed no emotion.
So, the job ahead seemed straightforward: Get Billy Wayne Cope the best plea deal possible, and put the whole sad case to rest.
And then? Well, it wasn't the first time Baity had heard something like this before..
PHIL BAITY: Then he began to say, "I didn't do this. This—this is not me. I—I don't care—what those confessions are. They broke me down. You've gotta help me.
But who wouldn't have second thoughts, facing life in prison or possibly even the electric chair? Billy's two youngest girls were whisked back into foster care. Occasional phone calls were his only connection.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: Are you okay, Jessica?
JESSICA COPE: Yes, sir.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: I love you.
JESSICA COPE: I love you, too.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: We're gonna get through this, okay?
JESSICA COPE: Yes, sir.
Billy remained in jail as the case crawled through the system. And then, nearly a year after the murder, Baity got a call from the prosecutor's office. Would Baity come and meet with them on the case?
“Must be a deal,” thought Baity. It wasn't.
PHIL BAITY: They sat down, and they were very friendly about it, and they said we've got some information for you—and I mean it was a bombshell!
They had found DNA on Amanda’s body, said the prosecutor – DNA is the holy grail of evidence – saliva on her breast, semen on her pant leg. And guess what? That DNA did not belong to Billy Wayne Cope!
But there was more, and this was truly shocking: police knew within weeks of the murder the DNA was not Billy’s, but they didn't bother to tell his lawyer.
PHIL BAITY: And it took them months and months to– to reveal that information.
But the biggest headline of all? Police now knew whose DNA it was. And they didn't even have to look for him – that man, the one whose bitemarks, saliva and semen were found on Amanda’s body, was sitting right here in the very same jail as Billy Cope.
His name? James Sanders. And get this: Sanders lived in this house just two blocks away from Cope's place.
PHIL BAITY: He had just moved into the neighborhood. And—you know right before this happened.
And suddenly, said Baity, after that meeting with the prosecutor, he had a moment of absolute clarity:
PHIL BAITY: Really, for the first time, I became convinced that my client was truly innocent and had been telling me the truth all this time.
Case solved. Done. Nothing to do but release Billy Cope from prison… But life and the law are never quite as simple as all that.
And maybe, if Baity had known about the secrets in Billy Cope's case, he might have run from his revelation. But he didn't.
PHIL BAITY: When this case kept getting more and more complicated, this old boy got overwhelmed, and I don't mind admitting it.
So Baity called in some help: a former prosecutor and now private trial attorney, named Jim Morton.Together, Baity and Morton embarked on a legal odyssey and agreed to give Dateline behind-the-scenes access to their case and to their own investigation, too, which would reveal strange events in Little Rock Hill, South Carolina. Allegations – and revelations – beyond anyone's predictions…
There was one thing the good people of Rock Hill, South Carolina, could quite reasonably assume as they absorbed the shock of the Amanda Cope murder: Billy Cope must have killed his own daughter.
If he didn't, why in heaven's name did he confess … not just once, remember, but four times, one of them in horrifying detail on videotape?
And yet Billy’s defenders, Phil Baity and his new partner, former prosecutor Jim Morton, now knew that another man's DNA was found on Amanda’s body, which meant Amanda’s killer had to have been someone else – not Billy.
So, now, they set about trying to understand what led to those confessions. This, at least, was in the record: Billy volunteered to talk with police. Detectives recorded some of the interrogation that followed, about three hours of it.
Billy told the officers he feared Amanda accidentally strangled herself on a strip of fabric from her frayed blanket. “Impossible,” interrogators snapped back: Amanda was sexually assaulted and no blanket attacked her.
POLICE: Somebody killed Amanda last night in your house. You were the only one in the house.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: Honest to God, I cannot believe that.
POLICE: Why can't you believe it?
BILLY WAYNE COPE: 'Cause I didn't hear nothing. I didn't hear anything.
Billy told detectives about his sleep disorder and the c-pap machine that kept him breathing at night. The pump was noisy; he had to wear a mask. He and his girls also kept fans running all night in their bedrooms, and those noises could have drowned out any intruder.
POLICE: Billy, you can stick to this till hell freezes over.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: I'm tellin’ you the truth, sir, I will not change my story because I'm tellin’ you the truth. As God is my witness, I did not harm my child in any way.
God? The officers seemed to know about Billy’s faith. They used it to try to trigger an admission.
POLICE: You'll burn in hell for lying, you will, for killing your daughter
BILLY WAYNE COPE: Yes sir.
POLICE: Is that not true?
BILLY WAYNE COPE: I am not lying to you. If all this was going on, how come my other two daughters were laying in bed beside her and didn't hear anything?
The officers assured Cope they had all the evidence they needed.
POLICE: There's no forced entry into your house.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: I'm telling you the truth, sir.
POLICE: There's no signs of anybody coming in any of the windows.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: I’m telling you the truth, sir.
Investigators did not buy it. Remember, they didn't have DNA results at this point; they wouldn't be known for a month, but the officers told Billy those results would convict him.
POLICE: If that semen on her body turns out to be yours, what's gonna happen?
BILLY WAYNE COPE: It won't. It won't match. I have not ever done anything to my child like that in no way, shape or form. I loved her with all my heart.
Hour after hour, he repeated his denials, over and over... The transcript of that interrogation confirms that Billy denied killing Amanda more than 6 hundred and 50 times.
JIM MORTON: You can clearly hear on that tape that they have made up their mind that Billy Cope sexually assaulted and murdered his own daughter. And there's nothing that he can say and there is no evidence that can be found that's going to change their mind.
Then, as the fourth hour of questioning began, Billy Cope actually begged for a lie detector test. He expected he said it would set him free... He'd taken them for job applications, he said, he trusted the test.
Instead, it became the moment of no return.
The next morning, they strapped Billy in, turned on the machine, and – before long – the polygrapher had his answer.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: He slams his hands against the table, and pushes his chair back and says, "We can quit right here. He said, "We know the truth." And I said, "What do we know?" He say, "You failed it."
KEITH MORRISON: When he said that what did you think? Maybe I did do this?
BILLY WAYNE COPE: I wasn't sure I did it. But, I knew that no oth—nothing else logically seemed possible the way they were talking. I trusted—I’ve always trusted the officials.
PHIL BAITY: And the next question was, "Why don't you tell us what you think you might have done if you did do it?” So Billy goes into that. And then it goes downhill. And, the next thing you know, he's writing it up and "Sign right here."
It was the first of four confessions.
But, by the time police escorted Cope to his house for a videotaped reenactment, Billy said, the certainty that he was innocent had returned.
So what did he do? Well, this may seem strange… Listen to the reason he offers for confessing on video to what he now said he did not do.
KEITH MORRISON: Here you are in your daughter's room.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: I was tryin' to confuse 'em.
KEITH MORRISON: Why would you confuse 'em?
BILLY WAYNE COPE: Because I knew I didn't do it, and I figure – with my ignorance of the law – I didn't think a confession carried the weight unless they could prove it.
But he was wrong. Police accepted his confessions even though none of them matched.
Amanda was assaulted with a broom in some confessions, with no mention of one in others. Some confessions included a dream, but the dream was excluded, or a different dream, in others. Most remarkable: Billy’s confessions never once mentioned James Sanders.
PHIL BAITY: No mention at all, in any of Billy's confessions, that another man was there and leaving his semen and his trace in that room.
And something else didn't fit about those days of interrogation: Billy asked for, and was appointed, a public defender the day he was arrested. B.J. Barrowclough was assigned, but, when he went to the police station, attempting to see his client....
B.J. BARROWCLOUGH: They said that I would not be allowed to see him.
KEITH MORRISON: Wait a minute. You're his lawyer—
B.J. BARROWCLOUGH: Right.
KEITH MORRISON: —appointed by the court to be his lawyer—
B.J. BARROWCLOUGH: Right.
KEITH MORRISON: —on the television shows, if the lawyer comes along and says, "My client's not gonna talk to you anymore," that's it.
B.J. BARROWCLOUGH: Right. And sadly, that is not really the case in Rock Hill.
Barrowclough persisted, and still they wouldn't let him see Billy. Instead, investigators produced this note signed by Cope.
B.J. BARROWCLOUGH: He doesn't wanna see you. And I said, "I'm not satisfied by that." If I'm here to protect you from coercing him into confessing, then certainly you could coerce him to sign that piece of paper. I said, "You let me back there.” And his response was, "Well, I'm just not gonna let you do that."
Only after Billy Cope finished the reenactment and final written confession was the public defender allowed to see him...
B.J. BARROWCLOUGH: And I said, "Why did you sign this?" And he said, "They told me I would get the death penalty if I didn't sign it." And truly—that answer didn't surprise me at all.
Now, more than a year after the murder, Barrowclough’s successors Phil Baity and Jim Morton were about to discover a series of disturbingly similar crimes right here in Billy’s neighborhood and the DNA now named the suspect. Would that help the jury understand what they already knew? Billy didn't kill his daughter. Someone else did.
The confessions of Billy Wayne Cope, at least to the lawyers representing him, seemed not only untrue, but also unfairly obtained, especially in light of information that changed everything: 11 months after Amanda’s murder, James Sanders was arrested and charged with assault and robbery in four homes in or near Cope's neighborhood. And when they tested Sanders’ DNA, police discovered it matched the semen and saliva found on Amanda’s body.
Now, surely, thought lawyer Phil Baity, police would see Billy Cope had been telling the truth in those 600 and some denials. He faced the local media with something that sounded like confidence.
PHIL BAITY: We are very happy to see that an alternate defendant, an alternate perpetrator, has been identified by the police, and this is certainly consistent with the defense's view of the case.
But there was, soon enough, another sobering fact to crush any emerging bravado:
PHIL BAITY: [laughter] I went from elation to the depths of despair in—in almost seconds flat.
Phil Baity could scarcely believe it. Sanders’ DNA, police said, didn't change their mind at all about Cope's guilt – but it did change their theory. The new one? That it was a conspiracy, that Billy Cope actually invited James Sanders into his house that night for the purpose of helping Sanders kill his own child. So, police now added murder charges to Sanders’ list of arrests and added conspiracy charges for both Sanders and Cope.
JIM MORTON: My question to the prosecutor was, "What do you have to prove a conspiracy?" And he said, "Oh—we've got Sanders' DNA on Amanda's leg, and we have no forced entry into the house, so your guy must have let him in." And that's what they have.
“Ridiculous,” responded Baity’s partner, Jim Morton. For one thing, there was no evidence those two men had ever met.
JIM MORTON: The two serious problems that they have are being able to connect Billy Cope with James Sanders, who they have – have charged with conspiring together, and Sanders' record, the fact that he's just not some 17 year old kid who happened by this house.
Well, that's true. Sanders certainly wasn't some kid who just happened by. He was 42. His criminal career – breaking and entering, burglary and the like – went back more than 20 years. 11 convictions. As much time in prison as out. In fact, he even very briefly got married while in prison.
Then, six weeks before Amanda was murdered, Sanders was paroled, and a now-divorced Sanders moved into a girlfriend's house, less than a five minute walk from the cope's house.
Back at the office, a little digging told the lawyers that the 200 lb. Sanders was arrested after allegedly targeting women on a crime spree, right around the time Amanda was murdered and in close range of the Cope house. Two weeks after Amanda’s death, Sanders’ saliva placed him a little more than a mile from the Cope house, where an 60-year-old woman was knocked down and slapped around and raped.
Four miles away, less than a week later, a young mother identified Sanders as the man who slipped into her second-floor apartment and assaulted her while her three children slept and heard nothing. Three days later, less than a milefrom the Cope house, yet another female identified Sanders as the man who had attempted a sexual assault.
And finally, six weeks after Amanda’s murder, one mile from the Cope house, a woman told police Sanders surprised her in the bathroom, tackled and choked her.
This is a sexual pervert, that we can show is a—is a perverted house breaker who does this, breaks in—
KEITH MORRISON: Within that area.
JIM MORTON: Within that area. Within that time.
In every case, police reports showed sanders attacked at night, indicated no accomplice, and left no sign of forced entry.
But if Cope conspired with Sanders, as the DA insisted, why didn't Sanders’ name come up in any of those four confessions?
Cope adamantly insisted it was because he'd never met James Sanders, only saw him for the first time when they were both housed in the same jail, and even then didn't know who he was though Sanders seemed to know him.
BILLY COPE: And he said, "Yeah, I lived in your neighborhood." I said, "Do you know who did it?" And he said, "Let's just say I know you didn't do it." That's all he would say.
First, their client confesses, then DNA reveals an entirely different attacker, and then Billy Cope is charged with conspiring in the murder—helping a man kill his own daughter. But, in a case full of surprises, there was another one from the prosecutor, which was, well, how would Baity put it?
PHIL BAITY: It's illegal. It's horrible. It's unethical. It's terrible. It should never happened.
For defense attorney Phil Baity, the discovery of James Sanders DNA on the murdered body of Amanda Cope now shed new light on a troublingevent back at the very beginning of the case. It was another belated admission from the prosecutor that finally brought it to Baity's attention, something that happened before Sanders’ DNA was identified. This was the prosecutor's admission:
PHIL BAITY: It seems that a couple of the officers may have wired your client's wife for sound and sent her into the cell to talk to your client after you were appointed his counsel, without any notice to you.
KEITH MORRISON: And that is—
PHIL BAITY: That's a violation of [laughter] two or three Constitutional rights.
It was a month after Amanda’s murder and barely an hour after Baity's first jailhouse conversation with Billy. In fact, said Baity, police must have been waiting for him to get out of there before they did it, that New Year’s Eve.
What did police do? They got Billy’s wife to question her husband on their behalf.
KEITH MORRISON: The significance of that day, New Year's Eve?
Here at the Rock Hill Police Department, detectives had just received DNA results which proved that someone else's DNA – semen and saliva – was found on Amanda’s body. It wasn't Billy Wayne Cope's, and they had no idea who it was.
But Phil Baity learned that's not what they told Mary Sue. In fact, they informed her that the DNA on Amanda’s body matched both her husband, and someone else who had helped to kill their daughter.
Only her side of the conversation was on the tape ... at least, the portion given to the lawyers. But it was clear from her questions that Billy denied killing Amanda.
Mary Sue: If you're saying you didn't do it, then somebody else did. We need to find who did.
By now, Cope's defense team had grown to include his sister Susan, and family friend and fellow church member Amy Simmons.
Both women told the lawyers Mary Sue didn't want to go undercover for police, but detectives showed her the gruesome autopsy pictures and Billy's confessions, and then they threatened her, said these women, that if she didn't help them get another confession from her husband, she would be sorry.
AMY SIMMONS: That's when she said, “You don't understand, I can't win. They told me, if I do not wear a wire, and do not get Billy to confess to me what he did to Amanda, they're gonna take my kids forever and they're gonna put me in jail.”
The defense team was shocked. This was the first they'd heard that police may have coerced Billy’s wife into wearing a wire.
PHIL BAITY: Did they tell her anything about what they were going to do in the future, if they wanted to talk to her again?
AMY SIMMONS: Not at that point.
But when it was over, Mary Sue was convinced: she had learned to read him well enough, she said, that she knew he was innocent.
AMY SIMMONS: She said, "Amy, I looked him straight in the eyes, he denied everything to me." She said, "I don't believe that he did it."
Billy never saw his wife again. Six weeks after that jailhouse visit, Mary Sue died. She had been staying at Amy Simmons' house, where she'd gone to recover from a hysterectomy. Her death while in Amy Simmons' care was as baffling as it was unexpected. And Billy found consolation in Amy’s friendship, in her many letters, and, as the months passed, their correspondence grew warm…close.
PHIL BAITY: I honestly believe that he was getting real attached to her and he trusted her completely.
The whole episode with detectives wiring up Mary Sue for a fifth confession made defense lawyers wonder – what was wrong with the four confessions Billy had already made?
PHIL BAITY: And we began noticing right away that the facts of the case did not match the facts that were in the confessions.
KEITH MORRISON: What are some of the factual problems?
JIM MORTON: One of the main factual problems is, in the video reenactment, Billy says that he jumped on his daughter's back from behind and choked her with two hands from behind.
CONFESSION TAPE: Our pathologist will testify that she was choked from the front with a right hand on her neck.
And something else: in some of his confessions, Cope said he sexually assaulted his daughter with a broom handle. The state's DNA lab tested the handle of every mop and broom they found in the whole house, and not one tested positive for anybody's DNA.
PHIL BAITY: Billy Cope could not have done what he said he did on all of those confessions and not left one trace of himself in that room. He would have had to have been a ghost and that's obviously that's not what happened.
Then, pouring over dozens of crime scene photos, the lawyers noticed evidence that should have been collected...and wasn't. Right on Amanda’s bed they could see a purse. It belonged to Amanda’s mother. James Sanders was known to assault women and steal from them. Had the purse been rifled? Did Sanders handle it? Don't know – It was never tested or taken into evidence.
But then, there was some other interesting material.
JIM MORTON: Billy, if you'll notice, in his video reenactment, says, "Oh yes, I was pushing Amanda down on the bed and, yeah, that's how her lip must have been—busted was from that videogame.”
JIM MORTON: Now, for them not to have taken that evidence in, to me, is really astonishing.
In the police evidence room, the lawyers found bags of evidence , marked "not examined." Most surprising? Not one fingerprint was collected in the entire house.
PHIL BAITY: I mean, the police didn't do their job because they felt they had their man. And then, all of a sudden, a month later they realized that –oops– the DNA doesn't match. And –oops—maybe somebody else was in the house. Well, it's too late to go back and look at the crime scene at that point. It's—it's contaminated.
And there was one more police claim that now, to the lawyers, just didn't seem to add up. The police said James Sanders did not break into Billy's house, no sign of forced entry. But listen to this: when officers took Cope back for that re-enactment, Billy said one of them jimmied the ancient back door quickly and easily, without any key.
BILLY COPE: They said, “We don't have a key.” And he said, “I'll be back in a few minutes,” and he just walked around the back. And the next thing I know he's opening the door.
More than ever, the defense team was convinced that Billy had been charged with murdering Amanda based on a false confession, with no evidence to back it up.
But how could they possibly persuade a jury that a loving father would voluntarily confess four times to killing his own daughter if he didn't do it? Impossible.
Unless... There was one place to go to find out.
An air of urgency hung in the space between defense attorneys Phil Baity and Jim Morton. Dateline cameras were along as they made the long trip from South Carolina to Williamstown, Massachusetts, on their way to see the one person who might be able to solve this puzzle. Why would a man in his right mind confess four times to killing his own daughter if he didn't actually do it? Billy Cope's trial was fast approaching. They needed to answer that question.
PHIL BAITY: It's gotta be convincing and it's gotta be accurate and—and it's gotta convince a jury that the state's main evidence is not reliable.
The man they'd come to meet is one of the leading experts on false confessions. His name is Saul Kassin. He agreed to listen to their pitch – but that's all. Dr. Kassin had already made it clear that, while hundreds of lawyers ask for his help, he selects very few... Only the most obvious and provable examples of false confession. So, as they met, he sounded a pessimistic warning: if their case wasn't unusually persuasive, he would not take it.
SAUL KASSIN: You're gonna have to overcome a great deal of common sense and intuition because most people don't believe that people confess to crimes they didn't commit.
And yet, Kassin told them, he has documented hundreds of cases in which defendants did just that –gave detailed confessions, just as Billy Cope had, that were later proven false.
The most famous, perhaps? Remember the Central Park jogger case? It made headlines back in 1989, when 5 men confessed – on tape and in detail – that they attacked a female jogger. And then, as front pages shoutedthree years later, all five were exonerated when DNA identified the real assailant.
Kassin told the lawyers that scores of similar cases are on file all around the country.
But what about Billy Wayne Cope? His confession, his disturbingly detailed video tour of the murder... Would an innocent man have done this?
Kassin seemed most interested in the hours of questioning that preceded Billy’s confessions, during which he denied killing his daughter – more than 650 determined denials.
SAUL KASSIN: It provides all the cues that a trained interrogator looks for as a diagnostic of innocence.
PHIL BAITY: Okay.
SAUL KASSIN: His—his denials are adamant, they're complete, they're—they're vigorous, they're insistent, they persist through four hours of interrogation and accusation.
A big clue for him, said Kassin, was the interrogator's insistence that they – the police – could tell whether or not Billy was lying: A dangerous attitude for a policeman to adopt, he said. Dangerous and – according to the science – wrong.
SAUL KASSIN: Confessing to their crime or making something up from scratch... Cops cannot tell the difference. They're more confident in what they do, but they're not any more accurate. In fact, they're somewhat less accurate than the average college student. Because—
SAUL KASSIN: They show a bias.
As for the polygraph test that preceded the confessions, Billy’s obvious faith in such tests, combined with his own gullibility, made the result, said Kassin, unreliable.
SAUL KASSIN: Well, I can tell you that from the four hours of transcript I read. I could see he was gonna be vulnerable to false feedback on the polygraph—
PHIL BAITY: Why would he—
SAUL KASSIN: He—five times he wanted a polygraph. At one point, there's an exchange where they asked him, "So, you have faith in the polygraph?” and he said “Absolutely.”
And, in those hours of Cope's audio-taped denials, said Dr. Kassin, he heard interrogators do something else.
SAUL KASSIN: They'd started early on, tinkering with the notion that it's possible to do something like this and not realize it. The seed was being planted for the possibility that we might have scientific evidence that implicates you, despite your lack of memory.
With that seed in his exhausted and confused mind, said Kassin, the four confessions that followed weren't so very surprising. Then, the lawyers told Kassin the story of Mary Sue's jailhouse visit with Billy.
PHIL BAITY: They wire his wife, sent her into the jail.
Remember, Billy’s wife told a friend police demanded she get a fifth confession.
SAUL KASSIN: Every additional effort, to get an additional statement—is a concession about what we already don't have.
In other words, said Kassin, wiring up Mary Sue and sending her into jail to question Billy was an admission that the police didn't believe any of Billy’s earlier confessions. Nor could they, said Kassin, because it was a classic false confession. The clincher: Not just interrogation errors, but these huge red flags:
- None of the physical evidence at the scene matched Billy’s confessions.
- It was James Sanders whose semen DNA was found on Amanda, not Billy's.
- In none of Billy’s confessions, detailed though they were, does he ever mention the presence of Sanders or anybody else.
SAUL KASSIN: What he re-enacts, we know didn't happen. So, by definition, this new co-defendant renders the whole confession false. The confession doesn't match the crime.
Saul Kassin was hooked. When Billy's lawyers walked in the door, he had his doubts, but not anymore.
SAUL KASSIN: When a case comes along of this nature, I reach this threshold point of outrage over the facts of the case and this is one of them.
With Kassin on board, perhaps Billy Cope had a chance after all.
PHIL BAITY: Couldn't ask for a better reaction. Had a great meeting. Great meeting.
Probably a good thing to savor the day because, back in South Carolina, a surprise was in store.
No lawyer would ever get rich representing a man as poor and apparently doomed as Billy Wayne Cope. But he'd certainly encounter a roller coaster of emotions, and, as they would soon see, some very big surprises.
Jim Morton had just returned to South Carolina with the good news that a leading false confession expert would take Billy Wayne Cope's case. It had been three years since Amanda’s murder. His wife Mary Sue was dead after surgery, and Billy Cope was about to get an impossible choice: Involving his two surviving daughters, now 14 and 10.
JIM MORTON: We've got to decide before Monday what we're going to do here.
The decision? The state had moved to end Billy’s rights as a parent to his surviving daughters. Should he fight it in court? He would almost surely lose... But, perhaps worse, he'd have to reveal, in that open courtroom, whatever strategy he might later use in his murder trial.
PHIL BAITY: We're gonna have to show them our hand. You know? We're gonna go in there and basically try the criminal case in family court.
Unless Billy decided to give in and give up forever his claim to be Kyla and Jessica’s legal father.
PHIL BAITY: And I know that's a—that's a horrible choice for you to make. Billy, you're not doing yourself any good by trying this case in family court. You're just hurting yourself.
Billy considered the argument for a moment, and rejected it out of hand.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: I made a promise to my girls. And I—I feel like if—if I done that I'd be breaking that promise. That's the way it's going to look to me. And it's the way it's going to look to them.
In other words, said Billy, to show his daughters that he loved them, he would embrace a very risky legal strategy, jeopardizing his chances of being acquitted of murder...just as his lawyers feared.
Sure enough, as the family court hearing began, one of the criminal prosecutors slid into a back row to watch and listen to Billy’s appeal. Billy got simply this: a glimpse of Jessica and Kyla. Not in person, mind you – the girls remained in another room, their testimony projected on a concrete wall of the courtroom. But, he heard the recording made the last time he was able to speak to them, on the phone three years earlier.
BILLY COPE: Hey.
KYLA COPE: Hey, Daddy.
BILLY COPE: I love you.
KYLA COPE: I love you too. [crying]
BILLY COPE: I love you so much.
KYLA COPE: I love you too.
BILLY COPE: Are you okay?
KYLA COPE: Yes, sir.
For Billy, it was simply too much – and then he learned that his love for them was no longer returned. Since that last phone call, the girls had been shown the video of Billy’s confession, had been told about the case against him.
JIM MORTON: We have prepared him for the worse. We have prepared for Kyla and Jessica telling the judge that they did not want to be around him, that they were afraid of him.
And nobody was surprised when Billy’s daughters told the court they did not wish to have anything to do with their father, and they were taken away from him forever.
Billy's lawyers were depressed. The risky legal move had put them at a disadvantage in exchange for, it turned out, nothing good. And then? Well, bad news often comes in batches. But this? With this, the bottom fell out.
It was a simple phone call. But, if the caller was telling the truth, then the defense lawyers had been played for fools all along.
AMY SIMMONS: I had to do the right thing morally and ethically, and so, I let both the defense and the detective in the prosecution in the case know that I had received the letter.
The caller was Amy Simmons, that family friend who'd nursed Billy’s wife Mary Sue the night she died. The one who'd kept Billy going with her letters. Amy had also been attending meetings of Billy’s legal defense team and was a key supporter. She knew the whole case, and now, as Billy’s murder trial was approaching, he'd apparently confessed again to Amy Simmons.
AMY SIMMONS: I was just real shocked. Because, normally, I get letters that talk about his week, what he's done, who's been there to visit. And, this time, the letter basically said that he had been instructed by God to tell me what he had done to Amanda.
Here's part of the letter addressed to Amy Simmons.
Dear Amy, God told me to tell you that I killed Amanda. Please forgive me. God is going to remove his servant. I just felt you should know. Please don't stop writing. I have to get on with my life.
AMY SIMMONS: It's real disturbing. It brings up—makes you have second thoughts about what you've believed in. Things that people have told you. And—it—it's just real concerning. It's very confusing.
Confusing is the least of it. They'd been convinced of his innocence; now it seemed clear he was guilty. And so they rushed to see Billy in jail, where he insisted he didn't write any such letter, not ever, and certainly did not confess to Amy Simmons. It was, to say the least, an awful mess. Who could believe anything anymore?
PHIL BAITY: It is a possibility – our client could have a split personality. And that could—he could be, you know, flipping out on us. I don't know.
JIM MORTON: Why did he not tell us? I mean, we just met with him the day before that day. Then he goes and writes a letter to a—his friend? I just don't believe it.
JIM MORTON: I'm not a psychologist. But if he's a split personality, he's got a good one.
PHIL BAITY: Oh, he does. He got us fooled.
Well, someone was fooling them. But was it Billy? Or was it someone else?
The letter was bad – more than bad, it was a nightmare. Because this time, Billy’s confession appeared to be exactly what he intended. Billy Cope's defense against the charge that he murdered his daughter Amanda hinged on the claim that his confessions to police were false. But now Amy Simmons was saying she'd received this letter from him saying, "God told me to tell you I killed Amanda."
JIM MORTON: This report came back from the state law enforcement division, which indicated that their expert believes that Billy was the author.
So the letter would almost certainly kill their false confession defense.
JIM MORTON: It just sucks all the wind out of you. Our case, I think, went from having a real good shot at winning to probably now a real good shot at losing.
They poured over that letter, word for awkward word. In fact, was it too awkward to be real? Those words "I killed Amanda," for example, were followed by the banal pleasantry, "How is Brian and Jamie" – Amy Simmons’ sons. The longer the lawyers looked, the more sure they felt – the letter was fake. It was an artful forgery. Had to be.
KEITH MORRISON: Could it be that you want to believe in his innocence so much that you allowed yourself to be fooled, and he – a religious man who doesn't want to go to hell – needed to confess to somebody and, therefore, chose his friend, Amy?
PHIL BAITY: I thought Billy Cope was guilty. And the evidence in Billy Cope's convinced me otherwise. And those letters are a blip on the screen to me. They—I'm sure they're forgeries.
Letters? Plural? Oh yes. Amy said she got another curious letter from Billy six months earlier...in that one, Billy didn't exactly confess, but, well, here's a quote: "I need to tell you what I really did to Amanda." That time, the lawyers suspected some jailhouse prankster was at work – the letter seemed an obvious and poorly constructed forgery. But this new one was different.
So important that Billy’s defense team rushed to Mickey Dawson, a 25-year veteran handwriting analyst, the same man who created the state's own handwriting lab. They gave him Xerox copies of the letters and asked him – are those real or fake?
No question, Dawson said, the first letter Amy got was an obvious fake...but this new confession?
MICKEY DAWSON: As a document examiner, I’ve got to verify my evidence before I step out and give you an opinion.
The analyst was blunt. The Xerox copy showed hallmarks of authenticity, maybe he'd find something else when he studied the original letter... But he couldn't call it a forgery. Not yet. Time was the enemy now, with the trial was weeks away. If that letter was real, they were done.
Remember, Amy Simmons was a family friend. Billy's wife stayed with her, died in her house. She was a member of Billy’s defense team; she attended legal strategy sessions.
But defense investigator Pete Skidmore was beginning to have his doubts about Amy’s loyalty, so he paid her a visit and came back with news that sent the rest of them reeling.
PETE SKIDMORE: Our girl is the leak.
PHIL BAITY: Now, why do you say that?
PETE SKIDMORE: She told me.
Amy Simmons admitted that at the very same time she'd been attending the regular meetings of the defense team, she'd also been giving information to the prosecutor.
PHIL BAITY: We're talking to her, she's gonna be on our side. If she's talking to them, gonna be on their side.
Was Amy Simmons a spy for the prosecution, who'd befriended Billy only to betray him?
PHIL BAITY: Before we hog tie and throw our client to the wolves, why in the hell is she writing him all the time?
Had Amy somehow invented this new confession? No one had access to as much written material from Billy Cope as she did, and there was no doubt Billy addressed the envelopes she turned in.
PHIL BAITY: So how do Billy’s envelopes contain these forgeries, except that Amy puts 'em in there. I mean it's the only explanation that—that is simple enough to be true.
Besides, the type of paper the letters were written on wasn't even available to inmates at that prison.
Jim Morton: We started doing some research about Amy Simmons. We found out that she had been suspended from her job as a nurse for forgeries that she had committed while in her employment at a nursing home.
Plus, court records showed Amy had pleaded guilty in another county to obstruction of justice andobtaining drugs by false pretense.
She'd been under investigation since a nursing home patient under her care died of apparent insulin overdoses. Amy Simmons was in trouble with the law, and now she was helping the prosecution. Was there some connection? So went the defense team's speculation...
But then, with the trial just days away, handwriting expert Mickey Dawson told the defense team that he could not testify the "I killed Amanda "letter was a forgery. He just didn't know.
RIXIE DUNN, PARALEGAL: We were panicked.
MICHAEL SMITH AND RIXIE DUNN WERE MEMBERS OF THE DEFENSE TEAM.
KEITH MORRISON: You see that letter. Your guy thinks it's real. Did you think it was real?
MICHAEL SMITH: No, I—I don't think any of us ever thought it was real. The—the question was – how did someone else do this?
They stared at the offending letter. If Amy Simmons forged the confession letter, as they suspected, how did she do it? What was it that looked wrong about this thing?
MICHAEL SMITH: We all noticed that some of the language in this letter was—was strange. The sentences didn't seem to flow together.
RIXIE DUNN: We had decided that we probably needed to read the rest of Billy's letters. So, we started readin' through. And—certain phrases we thought sounded familiar. And then we started comparin' em.
They were stunned to discover exact phrases from the confession letter were scattered throughout the dozens of letters Billy had written Amy, word for word...and every time they found a match, they highlighted it.
MICHAEL SMITH: By the time we finished, the entire confession letter was highlighted.
RIXIE DUNN: She had mixed certain phrases together that shouldn't have been together. So, that's why it sounded strange –
It was a monumental discovery... A forgery so good it fooled one of the best handwriting analysts. Quite possibly, this was the breakthrough Billy Cope's defense desperately needed.
MICHAEL SMITH: I called Rixie. It was—
RIXIE DUNN: Yeah.
MICHAEL SMITH: —probably midnight. I called Jim, Phil. We called everyone. It—it was unbelievable.
Armed with that new analysis, Phil Baity went again to the handwriting expert...and this time?
PHIL BAITY: He said, “I think we may be making history here.” He clearly said that both letters were forgeries.
But, as the court got ready to try the case of the murder of Amanda Cope, another letter was making its way through the system. There was a second defendant, remember – the man whose DNA was found on Amanda’s body – James Sanders.
And now Mr. Sanders had written a letter. too.
It was an omen, a good one. Or it certainly seemed like it. It arrived fourweeks before the murder trial of Billy Wayne Cope. Another letter, this one from Billy’s alleged partner and co-conspirator in Amanda’s murder, the man who would go on trial with him. James Sanders had written to the prosecutor. The letter was a complaint.
JIM MORTON: James Sanders, to this prosecutor, said, "Why are you trying me with this man Cope? I don't even know a Cope.”
This letter was a gift. Sanders had never met Billy Cope...had never once even seen him? Remember, prosecutors were going to claim that Billy Cope invited Sanders into his house for the purpose of assaulting Amanda, and the two of them completed that horrible deed together. But if Sanders had never met Billy Cope, then how could Billy have conspired with Sanders? The defense lawyers rejoiced; this letter could help. A lot.
And just in time – because three years after 12-year-old Amanda Cope was brutally killed in her own bed, her father and James Sanders went on trial together, accused of conspiring to sexually assault and murder her.
Finally it was time for a prosecution, and, from day one of the trial, it was clear that James Sanders, the DNA-indentified attacker, was a bit player in a story that was mostly about his alleged co-conspirator, Billy Cope.
WILLIE THOMPSON: Billy Cope served up his daughter for his and James Sanders' own perverse pleasures and took her life.
Circumstantial evidence, assured the prosecutor, would indicate Cope opened his home to James Sanders and allowed his daughter to be assaulted.
WILLIE THOMPSON: There's direct evidence as to each of them, confession, DNA—obviously no one broke in. Someone had to be let in.
Billy Cope himself, said the prosecution, provided the clues that pointed to guilt, starting with that weirdly calm 911 call.
ROCK HILL POLICE DEPARTMENT: "You need medical?"
BILLY COPE: "Yeah, my daughter's dead, she's cold as a cucumber."
WILLIE THOMPSON: And it's from Billy Cope. He's almost completely devoid of emotion.
It was strange, according to the first responders. Cope, they testified, was asking the sort of questions a guilty man would ask.
KEVIN JONES, FIRST RESPONDER: At one point, Mr. Cope flagged me down. And he—he asked me if anything bad was gonna happen to him with his daughter bein' dead in the house.
KEVIN BRACKETT, D.A.: How was he acting? How was he behaving?
WILLIAM BURRISS, DETECTIVE: He wasn't emotionally upset or anything like that.
To underscore the police theory that Cope opened his home to Sanders, more than one investigator took the stand to report there was no sign anywhere of forced entry.
JERRY WALDROP, INVESTIGATOR: There was no signs of anybody entering any of the windows of this residence at all.
Each of the investigators said Cope offered a possible explanation for what might have caused his daughter's death. He told them he found the satin trim of her favorite blanket twisted round her neck, as if she'd strangled by accident. But one look, said the investigators, made it obvious – didn't happen.
JERRY WALDROP: She was not choked by that – selvedge. She was—she died as a result of strangulation and beating.
The state's pathologist agreed. He said Amanda was likely strangled from the back, with someone's bare hands. Just the way Billy showed in his reenactment. And he said the sexual assault injuries could easily have been caused by the broom mentioned in some of cope's confessions.
And the doctor saw something else.
DR. MAYNARD: The clothing was—was sorta placed on the body more than really dressed by her. The bra was not hooked, but just laid – over the body.
Taken together, said the investigators, the lame story about the blanket, the lack of evidence for a break-in, the pathologist's observations, looked like cope did it and then staged the whole thing in an effort to protect himself.
The confessions – four of them—came one after the other, as soon as Detective Mike Baker informed Cope he failed the very polygraph he'd begged for.
KEVIN BRACKETT: His reaction was—he wasn't surprised and showed no emotion?
DR. BAKER: That's correct. No—no emotion whatsoever. And he was—he was not surprised.
Did Mr. Cope ever ask for an attorney during this entire first process throughout the day?
CAPT. CHARLES T. CABANISS: No, sir. He did not.
KEVIN BRACKETT: Did he ever assert that he wished to remain silent?
CAPT. CHARLES T. CABANISS: No, sir. Quite the contrary.
The jury listened to details of Cope's four confessions, prosecutor Brackett read aloud.
KEVIN BRACKETT: I started strangling her with my hands. Amanda was pulling at my hands and I let go and started hitting her in the head. Then I went back to strangling her. Then she went limp.
That one video tape confession played for a packed courtroom silenced by the gruesome details.
And then, as if in anticipation of a claim that Billy’s confessions were false, the prosecutor produced that amazing letter addressed to Amy Simmons, the one she said she'd received more than two years after those initial confessions.
KEVIN BRACKETT: “Dear Amy, God told me to tell you that I killed Amanda...”
Amy Simmons, no longer Billy’s friend and pen pal, testified for the prosecution.
AMY SIMMONS: How did he sign this letter? Keep the faith always, Billy Tinker Cope.
The state's document examiner testified that the letter certainly looked real to him.
SCOTT WORSHAM: This is my opinion that—Billy Wayne Cope authored this handwriting.
Six days of testimony, 21 witnesses to testify that Billy Wayne Cope must surely have killed his daughter Amanda. The actual attacker – as identified by DNA – co-defendant James Sanders? He was all but ignored...
PHIL BAITY: They had done nothing to try to convict him. The mention of the DNA is almost in passing, parenthetically,: "Oh, yeah, James Sanders' DNA is on there."
But had the state's case persuaded the jury? It sure looked like it.
PHIL BAITY: We're bad off, I mean, the jury thinks our client did it.
They started crying during Billy's confessions. That hurt.
But hang on – remember, the defense was going to tear that prosecution case apart. But trials, of course, play according to strict rules. And the question was…what would the jury hear?
An oppressive September sun thickened the blanket of heat around the courthouse in York County, South Carolina. Inside, in the artificial cool, Billy Wayne Cope's defense team struggled to explain a difficult idea: that a father who confessed four times to killing his daughter didn't actually do it.
PHIL BAITY: Well, I submit, ladies and gentlemen, we're going to be sitting here for the next two weeks simply because the Rock Hill police department made a mistake.
He wouldn't be here on trial, said lawyer Phil Baity, if Cope's house had been clean and tidy. if he'd reacted to his daughter's death the way police thought he should have, Billy Cope would be attending the murder trial simply as grieving dad, not a co-defendant. And in their rush, said Baity, they skipped crucial police work.
PHIL BAITY: They didn't bother fingerprinting the house.
On the stand, the defense took on the state investigator.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY SMITH: Did you look to see if he had any blood on his clothing?
WILLIAM BURRISS: I didn't.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY SMITH: Did you look for any scratches or bruises or any other marks that may have been on him?
WILLIAM BURRISS: Like I said, I didn't examine him.
And, once they got those confessions, said the defense, the police didn't bother to see whether evidence at the scene matched the stories Billy told. The video game story, for example: in one of his confessions, Billy said he used the handheld game to beat Amanda, which would have made it a murder weapon. And yet?
MR.SMITH: You did not collect the video game that Mr. Cope purports to use on Amanda's face?
MR. GARDNER: No, sir. I finally seen the video game a couple days ago in one of these photographs and again in a video. And that's the first time I seen it.
Then there was the awkward business of Amanda’s injury pattern. In all his confessions, Billy said he attacked Amanda from the back, strangling her with both hands. But defense pathologist Clay Nichols said the state's own autopsy clearly showed Amanda was attacked from the front, not the back. And with one hand, not two, as the state's pathologist had testified.
DR. CLAY NICHOLS: So it appears, to me, to be a one-handed strangulation.
PHIL BAITY: Doctor, was there any evidence of an attack from the rear of this-- on this-- this poor young lady?
DR. CLAY NICHOLS: No, in fact.
Nor was she sexually attacked with any broom handle, Dr. Nichols said.
DR. CLAY NICHOLS: There's no evidence that a broom was used.
And then there was issue of how James Sanders got into the house to kill Amanda. Detectives testified there was no sign of forced entry. And yet, a lock expert for the defense told jurors that, even when the Cope house was locked up tight, it could easily be entered by simply using a credit card in the door.
Still, there was thatdamning"I killed Amanda" letter that family friend Amy Simmons claimed she received long after the murder. Now in court, the defense set out to show that the letter was a forgery...and that Amy, Billy’s former friend, was the forger. Attorney Baity got Amy to admit she had falsified patient records in her job as a nurse.
PHIL BAITY: You're also facing criminal charges, isn't that correct?
AMY SIMMONS: They're there. I have all the confidence that I won't have a problem.
She insisted, though, that didn't mean she forged a confession letter.
PHIL BAITY: I want to give you an opportunity to tell the jury that you forged that letter.
AMY SIMMONS: That is absolutely ludicrous.
As lights dimmed, lawyer Baity gave Amy a highlighter, and, when her testimony was done, virtually every word in the alleged new confession letter was yellowed, as Billy’s former friend agreed that those precise phrases existed already in a dozen other letters Billy had written her. Which is why, said the defense forgery expert...
MARVIN H. DAWSON JR.: It is most probably a simulation. Both documents are simulations.
…which were written, said the paper vendors who lawyer Baity called to the stand, on paper not even available to prisoners like Billy Cope.
Still, questions remained. If Billy Cope's confessions were false, if he was innocent, why did he fail the polygraph? Well, in fact, said the defense, he didn't. The defense polygraph expert who reviewed the raw test data from scratch said the test grade was not just a little wrong – it was 180 degrees wrong.
PHIL BAITY: Did Mr. Cope's performance on this test indicate deception or truthfulness?
DR. CHARLES HONTS: It indicated truthfulness to me. He should have been told he passed it.
So it wasn't Billy Cope who lied, said the defense, but the police – and more than once.
Proof of that? Here's the detective who secretly wired Billy Cope's wife Mary Sue a month after the crime and sent her into the jail to question him, seeking yet another confession.
DETECTIVE BLACKWELDER: Did I tell Mary Sue that their dad's DNA had been found on her daughter Amanda?
Yes, the detective admitted: though she knew perfectly well it was not Billy’s DNA they had found on Amanda’s body, she told Billy’s wife it was.
DETECTIVE BLACKWELDER: And I said yes....so I stand corrected.
But the big question, by far the most important, was this: Why would any loving father admit to killing his child if he didn't really do it?
Remember Saul Kassin, that false confession researcher? Now he took the stand, determined to convince the jury that Billy Cope's case is a classic example of a false confession.
SAUL KASSIN: Just like that in the recent Central Park jogger case –
Judge: Move on.
With that, Dr. Kassin was cut short.The judge ruled most of his testimony inadmissible. He wouldn't allow him to give specific examples of real false confessions...confessions which once sent innocent people to prison. Why?
Here's the judge's reasoning; it's a quote:
I don't want this jury put in fear that they are going to have to live the rest of their lives if they put an innocent man in jail because the joggers and all this other stuff happened.
KEITH MORRISON: So, what was left? Well, the defense still had this letter, the one from Sanders in which he says he never once in his life saw Billy Cope and couldn't understand being tried with him.
So, if Cope had never met Sanders, how was it possible for Cope to have conspired with Sanders to kill Amanda? Sander's letter was a direct attack on what police detective Cabiniss agreed was an assumption on his part that Cope had to be involved.
ATTORNEY MORTON: But, you have no evidence to link them together, physical or knowledge of each other or friendship or anything like that?
CAPT. CABINISS: No, sir.
Now would be the time to show the jury Sander's letter, saying he'd never met Billy Cope. But the judge ruled Sander's letter inadmissible. Nor would the jury hear a word about James Sander's arrest in those four other home invasions – none with any sign of forced entry – right around the time when Amanda was murdered.
PHIL BAITY: Now, you know, if the jury knew that then, they wouldn't need to hear anymore, other than the DNA. His DNA is on the body. They would know exactly why. But they don't know that. And as far as they know he's a, you know, an assistant pastor somewhere.
The rulings forced a risky decision. Billy Cope would take the stand. He could win the case....or lose it.
BILLY COPE: I picked her up and I held her. And I said, "Oh, Amanda."
He explained his lack of hysteria in that 911 call.
BILLY COPE: But I knew from past experience that you had to be real calm when you talk to 911. I used to work for the Red Cross.
He explained how the noise from hisbreathing machine and the whirling room fans kept him from hearing any sound from Amanda’s room.
BILLY COPE: I didn't know that somebody had been in my home.
He told the jury he begged for a polygraph because he was so confident it would prove his 600 and some denials were true. But when they told him he'd failed...
BILLY COPE: He said I was a liar. I couldn't think straight. I cracked. I said, "I can't handle no more.”
The details for all his confessions? Cope claimed he got them from the men questioning him about the murder.
BILLY COPE: That's what I wrote. I wrote the way they told me that it had happened.
JIM MORTON: Why did you do that?
BILLY COPE: Because I was scared. I was—I didn't know what else to do.
And then, cope addressed the man whose DNA was found on his daughter's body.
BILLY WAYNE COPE: The Bible says, "Love thy neighbor.” And love your enemies and do good to 'em. And, so help me God, I've tried. But I hate him. I hate him so bad I can't stand it.
Would the jury believe him? The false confession defense was a hard sell. They'd know soon enough.
Here in a South Carolina courtroom, just a few feet down the defense table from Billy Wayne Cope, sat a phantom: a man who seemed, at times, barely visible in the case at all. James Sanders had been charged as Cope's co-conspirator.
But, after weeks of testimony, James Sanders was stilla mystery, at least to the jury. Not a single witness testified on his behalf. He uttered not a word in court and did not try to cast the blame for Amanda’s death on anyone – let alone Billy Cope. And, when they took the stand, detectives admitted they had no evidence to show that Cope and Sanders even knew each other. But, by the time closing arguments rolled around, the prosecutor said he didn't have to prove that the two had met each other.
KEVIN BRACKETT: All I have to do is satisfy each of you that each one of them is guilty. And if they were both guilty, then they had to do it together.
And how could the jury know Cope was guilty? For a start, his calm demeanor on that 911 call, said prosecutor Brackett.
KEVIN BRACKETT: You don't hear him goin', "Oh my God! Please! Please! Hurry! Bring somebody to help her!” That's what a father would say, if he could even get that much out.
So, what should the jury think of Cope's 600 and some denials, all recorded by police? Just drivel, said the prosecutor.
KEVIN BRACKETT: This was a man who knew she'd been dead for some period of time and had been workin' on his story, cleanin' up the situation, stagin' the crime scene, fixing it up so that at 6:00 when the alarm went off, he could yell out and wake his kids up and start his show.
But the confessions that came later? Those, he said, had to be true.
KEVIN BRACKETT: No man could say this stuff, ladies and gentlemen, no man could say this. If you didn't do this, you would never admit to it.
All the jury needed to know, said the prosecutor, could be found in James Sander's DNA and Billy Cope's confessions.
KEVIN BRACKETT: These men brutalized and hurt that child. They did unspeakable things to her. Today's the day they pay. Thank you.
It was powerful stuff. Brackett poured out his scorn on Billy Cope's claims and on defense lawyer Jim Morton’s closing. Morton had claimed that the police drew a trusting man into a false confession by telling him...
JIM MORTON: We have evidence. We have pictures. We have machines that don't lie. And he began to doubt his own core, his own self.
The police jumped to conclusions far too soon, said Morton, and took advantage of a gullible man who just wanted to help.
JIM MORTON: You cooperate with 'em. Every step of the way, you insist on taking a polygraph. Is that somebody who's tryin' to hide? Is that someone who is trying to stage the scene?
So why did he confess?
JIM MORTON: He gave up. There was nothing that Billy Cope could do. He was helpless. He was destroyed.
And now the decision belonged to the jury.
JUDGE HAYNES: You may convict one and acquit the other, or you may acquit both, or you may convict both.
Billy Cope's lawyers and supporters didn't have long to wait. It took a grand total of five hours for the jury to find both Cope and Sanders guilty of all charges. The sentence followed without further ado: life without parole for both.
For police, of course, the outcome was a vindication of everything they had done. But when we asked for interviews to get their side of the story, we were again and again turned down. Even the prosecutor, Kevin Brackett, after many requests, he finally agreed to an interview – and then cancelled.
We organized an interview with the jury to learn how they evaluated the case. And when they were assembled, Prosecutor Brackett turned up with his own video camera and advisedthe jury not to speak unless he was present to approve what they said. We cancelled the interview.
But, months after the trial, our continued efforts netted two jurors who agreed to speak with Dateline out of the presence of the prosecutor.
SAMANTHA THOMAS: I even dreamed about this case. It was terrible.
Samantha Thomas was an alternate on the jury, but heard all the testimony.
BILL LEFLER: I didn't want to sit on that jury. I had no desire to, but I felt like it was my duty.
Bill Lefler, however, took part in the vote, and strongly approved of the verdict against Billy Cope. But, he told us he was deeply suspicious of us, so he brought to our interview prosecutor Brackett's video camera to record what was said.
BILL LEFLER: Maybe I'm paranoid. You guys have the final cut, and you could – that camera could make me say anything it wants to say.
It was clear the jury had no trouble, though, trusting Billy Cope's confessions.
KEITH MORRISON: Not one confession, not even two, not even three, four confessions. How important was that to you?
BILL LEFLER: Extremely important.
KEITH MORRISON: How could a man confess to killing his own daughter if he didn't actually do it?
BILL LEFLER: That was my thought, yes sir. I mean, as a parent, had I not done it, you couldn'ta beat that confession outta me.
KEITH MORRISON: What would you expect him to do in court if you were falsely accused?
BILL LEFLER: I don't care to answer that question.
SAMANTHA THOMAS: I can understand maybe one time in, you know, a moment of grief, thinkin' that it might have been his fault because he didn't stop it. But confessing four times, each time sayin' that he did it, there's—there's no way to get away from that.
KEITH MORRISON: The prosecution suggested that Billy Wayne Cope let James Sanders in. Did they show you any evidence of that connection between the two?
BILL LEFLER: No.
KEITH MORRISON: Would you have liked to have seen evidence of that?
BILL LEFLER: No.
We told these jurors what they didn't hear at the trial: James Sanders’ criminal past.
KEITH MORRISON: So if you knew that he had other robbery and sexual assaults in the neighborhood, which he was charged with right around the same time, would that—
BILL LEFLER: No.
Bill Lefler says the entire jury was certain they knew enough to hold both Cope and Sanders responsible for Amanda’s murder. Cope helped Sanders kill her, they decided. Their bigger worry? That somehow the two might still go free.
KEITH MORRISON: Was there any concern about an appeal? And what effect it may have for you folks to talk to the media?
BILL LEFLER: Yes.
KEITH MORRISON: Why?
BILL LEFLER: I don't want to do anything that would allow Billy Wayne or Sanders back on the street. I would never want to say anything that—that would give him cause for an appeal that—that would get him out. Either one of them.
But, in a case already riddled with twists and surprises, this one isn't' over.
The months have grown into years now since the jury sent Billy Wayne Cope off to prison for life. Another family is trying to make do in that little run-down house on Rich Street. Most weeks, Billy talks to one of his lawyers on the telephone, lawyers haunted by the difficult days of that trial.
JIM MORTON: I've never felt in front of a jury like we never had their attention at all. They would not look at us when we argued. They would not look at us when we interviewed or cross examined witnesses in front of them.
And Morton is, it turns out, not alone. False confession expert Saul Kassin has written about, and now teaches his students about, the Cope case as a clear example of what he believesan innocent person under stress can sometimes be induced to say.
KEITH MORRISON: Members of that jury told us, "We simply cannot believe…if I am a father, I'm not gonna confess to killing my daughter.”
DR. KASSIN: I'm sorry to shake your world but it happens. And those false confessions that have happened just like that are on the books. It's not a theory. It's a fact.
Dr. Kassin has his own regrets – that, on the stand, he was cut off before he had a chance to explain all that to the jury.
DR. KASSIN: Innocent people are cooperative. They waive their right to silence. They waive their right to counsel. They agree to take lie detector tests, so innocent people put themselves willingly and voluntarily at risk because they don't believe they have anything to fear or anything to hide.
As for James Sanders, Billy’s co-defendant?
After the trial, he pleaded guilty to two of the four break-ins and assaults for which he'd been arrested near the Cope home, just after Amanda’s murder. In one of those, Cope's lawyers believed Sanders used just the same MO as the assault on Amanda.
KEITH MORRISON: How badly did it hurt you that they were able to keep that out?
JIM MORTON: It destroyed us.
And Amy Simmons, Billy’s friend turned prosecution witness? She pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and drug charges that arose from her work at a nursing home. She was sentenced to probation, no jail time. And the investigation into the death of a patient in her care was quietly dropped without charges...
But is Billy Cope's case finally all over?
No, it isn't. On the contrary, it has attracted some of the nation’s most highly regarded teams of defense attorneys, all determined to prove Cope's innocence.
Steve Drizin is director of the famed Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. The Cope case? Drizin believes it's a classic wrongful conviction.
STEVE DRIZIN: I know of only one other case in the country where DNA evidence surfaces. It identifies a specific perpetrator—and there's no link between the man they charged and the man whose DNA they found—where prosecutors haven't dismissed the charges.
Noted appellate attorney David Bruck joined Drizin to argue Cope's appeals. The most glaring mistakes in the trial, he says: that prosecutors never proved Cope conspired with James Sanders to kill Amanda, and that the judge was legally wrong to keep the jury from hearing about Sanders’ previous crimes.
KEITH MORRISON: Errors, or judge’s discretion? Because that's what the other side will say. "The judge was perfectly right to make those decisions."
DAVID BRUCK: A judge does not have the discretion, does not have the power, to simply decide that the core of a man's defense can be withheld from the jury, covered up, not heard. And that's what happened in this case.
And for a few months last year, it appeared Billy Cope might be a step closer to a new trial. The South Caroline appeals court agreed with Bruck that the state failed to prove Cope ever conspired with Sanders to kill his daughter…but then, later, the court reversed its own ruling. So, now, Cope's defense team has appealed to the state Supreme Court.
DAVID BRUCK: There really couldn't be a worse error than to convict a man of killing and raping his own daughter if he didn't do it.
And Billy Cope… In prison, he's finally realized one lifelong dream. He's become a minister, has earned a degree in biblical studies. And he still believes that his innocence will be proven, that it will set him free.
PHIL BAITY: He's completely innocent. He is not guilty.
KEITH MORRISON: You are a defense attorney.
PHIL BAITY: Yeah, I am, but I'm also a human being. And I know that man. And I know what evidence was used to convict him. And I know what evidence was kept out to convict him. It still bothers me. It's been seven years. But it still bothers me. Cause I—I just—I know he didn't do it.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints