COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A Columbia man convicted of murder 24 years ago was granted parole. After serving more than two decades, the assistant solicitor who won that conviction, now believes that man is innocent.
Former Assistant Solicitor Jim Morton says evidence in Doug O'Neal's case was a problem. The claims about the crime didn't surface until a year and a half later and evidence from the hotel where the murder allegedly happened was gone. Still O'Neal was convicted of murder and dumping the body of a woman who has yet to be identified.
24 years later
In 1990, O'Neal's wife was convinced her husband was innocent.
"He didn't do that," said Kathryn O'Neal. "And if they do something to my husband, they ain't got no business to do, they doing wrong."
Wednesday when O'Neal appeared before the parole board, he didn't express remorse, which is usually what the board wants. He again told them he wasn't responsible for the murder for which he served 24 years. But this time, he had Morton backing him up.
"I'm convinced I prosecuted an innocent man, and I think he's served 24 years as a result," Morton said.
Something changed Morton's mind.
"He had no prior record. He was essentially plucked from his home with his wife and children based on the testimony of a drug-addicted prostitute," Morton said. "Not that drug-addicted prostitutes can't be credible, but this one's credibility was always suspect."
That witness was Alice Whetstone. She was arrested for dropping 3-year-old Tierra Washington off at the hospital.
"They charged her with assault on this poor little girl who was now dead," Morton said. "During her incarceration, Alice Whetstone began pointing the finger at a man name Doug O'Neal. And then claim, not only did she think he was involved in the murders of Tierra Washington and the other two prostitutes, there was a fourth lady, which she said had been hit in a hotel room a year and a half previously and had fallen and hit her head. And her body was buried.
"This was a lady who during the trial fainted at one point," Morton continued. "She was arrested for drug possession during the trial for another point. She locked herself in our office and wouldn't come out to resume her testimony at one point. It was a very difficult witness upon who this case primarily rested."
Morton says there was a rush to justice.
"There was a lot of pressure to find the murderer of those prostitutes, as well as this 3-year-old little girl who had been abused and burned and scalded and beaten to death," Morton said. "There was a lot of pressure to solve that. There was a lot of pressure on the sheriff's office. In turn, there was a lot of pressure on the solicitor's office."
It wasn't just Whetstone who withdrew her statement.
"She called one of Doug O'Neal's lawyers a few years back and said she had made it all up," Morton said. "There was another witness. We had developed a witness from the jail – a snitch – as we call it, who had come forward and said that Doug O'Neal , a man that he was not a friend with who happened to be at the same Richland County Detention Center with him. Doug O'Neal told him the snitch that Doug had hit this woman accidentally and killed her, and he has recanted."
Getting an exoneration based solely on the recantation or withdrawal of the previous testimony isn't easy. Judges question when that witness is telling the truth – now or 24 years ago. They'll request a hearing asking to test the clothing of the woman found dead in the woods. Police never identified the woman's body found in the woods.
DNA evidence was just emerging 24 years ago when O'Neal was tried. The clothing was never tested. Whetstone was put in witness relocation and her charges were dropped.
Now, O'Neal has a blood cancer.
Anyone with information on the case is urged to call Morton at 803-366-3432.