Convicted of murder at 17, Joseph Hudgins now sits 250 yards from the electric chair. But his age and doubts about his guilt raise one question: Is he too young to die?
October 5, 1995
BY TINA ROSENBERG
Joseph's father, Conny, with his grandchildren Jared, 3, and Kristin, 2.
BIG DAY ON "GENERAL HOSPITAL” - the wealthy, powerful and handsome Ned, scion of the Quartermaine family, finally took his vows in a Catholic church with Lois, the rock-band manager from Brooklyn, N.Y. Joseph Hudgins savors every minute. It's his favorite soap; he's watched it since he was little. Now it cuts the boredom of his afternoons, every day from 3 to 4 on Channel 25, WOLO, in Columbia, S.C.
Mornings are better. Breakfast comes at about 7 - grits, eggs, two biscuits- pretty much the same all the time. Then Joseph can go outside. He usually plays doubles handball and talks to his friends, fellow handball players or men who read the same science-fantasy books he does. He's 3,500 pages into a series by Robert Jordan. Lunch comes at 11:30 - mystery meat, boiled vegetable, white bread.
Besides watching General Hospital there is little to do after lunch. Joseph can't go out, so he lies in bed and reads, listens to Garth Brooks or Little Texas tapes on the boombox his sister Renee gave him, or paints - eagles and deer - with the acrylic paints that she also sent along with a book on sketching. The hours until dinner comes at around 4:30 move slowly, especially in the humid summers, and he spends a lot of them stretched out on his bed, thinking.
Joseph has a lot to think about and, at the age of 20, both too much and too little time to do it. For the past two years, Joseph Hudgins has been on death row at the Broad River Correctional Institution for the murder of a policeman. When he was sentenced to death at the age of 17 on July 27, 1993, Joseph was the youngest resident of death row in the nation. He is still the youngest in the state. Now the electric chair awaits him 250 yards from his cell.
"Before I got there I had all these thoughts running through my head about prison," Joseph tells me during a telephone conversation. "And then the first thing they say is, 'Take your clothes off for a strip-search.' One guard told me, 'I used to work in law enforcement, and if we'd gotten hold of you, you'd never have made it here.' "
"When I first got to death row, I was scared of everything," Joseph says. "The judge had just set an execution date for a month later, and my lawyers didn't explain to me about the appeals process. I was scared of physical assault, sexual assault, being locked up the rest of my life, not being able to see my family again or even going crazy."
Joseph was put in a suicide-watch cell with lights and camera surveillance 24 hours a day. He was terrified. "The next morning the other inmates came by my cell, asking me if I needed anything, coffee or anything else," he says. "The inmates try to look out for me." Inmates, and even some guards, told him how things worked. His lawyers came and told him that he could file an appeal. He felt better. “It has not lived up to my fears," he says.
After two weeks, Joseph was put in a regular cell on the 49-man death row, which is segregated from the rest of the prison. His cell, 14 feet by 6 feet, contains a metal bed, a locker for his clothes (South Carolina is unusual in allowing inmates to wear their own clothes, though uniform will be required by the end of the year), a metal writing table, chair, toilet, sink and TV stand. For the first time in his life, he goes to church and Bible study, every Wednesday. “I had to learn to control my temper," he says. I used to pop off pretty much, but now if I get mad at another inmate, I stay away a few days and cool down."
On Fridays, Conny Hudgins, Joseph's father, drives two hours from the city of Anderson to the maximum security prison, usually with Joseph's sister Cathy or sister-in-law, Susan, and their kids. The prison, part of a complex of maximum- and medium security prisons, is bordered by two fences, with one coil of razor wire on the inner fence and four coils on the tall outer one. Visitors must pass through a metal detector and at least 11 steel doors before reaching the visiting cell of death row.
The cell has a Polaroid camera, and Conny's stack of pictures at home shows an increasingly rotund Joseph, a chin beard covering his acne, wearing a Hard Rock Cafe shirt or a work shirt and jeans, smiling with various nephews and siblings. At Christmas the wall behind him sports paper cutouts of Santa and his reindeer. In one picture, Joseph is holding up two fingers behind Conny's head.
I never met Joseph; the Department of Corrections would not allow the press to go into the prison to see him. We communicated through letters and the collect phone calls he was permitted to make. In one call I asked him what he missed most. "Everything," he says. "Getting to be around the kids. I'd always played with them. I had them saying 'Joseph' before 'Mommy' and 'Daddy.’ Christmas is bad, New Year's is bad. Thanksgiving is pretty bad."
One of Joseph's fellow inmates, Sylvester Adams, was put to death Aug. 18 by lethal injection, now an alternative to the chair, so the prospect of death is real enough. "The electric chair seems very concrete to me," Joseph writes. "I know it's there and worry about it all the time. Dad don't like me to talk about it or even think about it, but I do."
Family portrait: Conny surrounded by children, grandchildren and his ceramic creations.
The men on death row don't talk about their crimes much, but they do talk about their punishment. "Other people come up to me and say, 'You're so young, there's so much you haven't done,'" Joseph says. "Then I start thinking about it, and when I get depressed, I get in bad shape."
JOSEPH HUDGINS IS ONE OF 42 inmates nationwide on death row who were legally children at the time of their offenses – a number that is likely to increase dramatically in years to come. More and more states are adopting the death penalty - New York became the 38th this year - and legislatures are applying it to a broader range of crimes.
It is also being used increasingly against children. Four states permit the execution of youths who were 17 at the time of their crimes; 21 states permit it for 16 year olds. In the race for governor of Texas last year, both the then incumbent governor, Ann Richards, and George Bush Jr., who defeated her, said they'd think about using the death penalty for children as young as 14.
Until a few years ago, most people in the United States considered young people less dangerous than adults. Today that perception is reversed: Young criminals are considered crazier, with more bravado and less conscience. Although violent crime has dropped substantially nationwide, juvenile crime is rising in many places, and with it rises the national concern about juvenile killers. The justice system, once dedicated to protecting and rehabilitating young offenders, is increasingly handing children adult-size penalties.
The United States is virtually alone in the world in taking this position. In the last 15 years, only Iraq and possibly Iran have executed more minors, and only six other countries have executed even one. Some of the very qualities that make juvenile criminals most terrifying -their impulsiveness, a tendency to fall under the sway of others and a need to prove their toughness to the group - raise questions about their suitability for a punishment that the law reserves for a small group of the most morally culpable killers. Minors are thought too immature to sit on a jury, vote, buy beer or watch an X-rated movie, yet they are considered responsible enough to pay for their crimes with their lives.
The case of Joseph Hudgins illustrates all these issues. His rashness, lack of judgment and susceptibility to the domination of others might have brought him to kill 21-year-old police officer Christopher Taylor. But there is more to his story, a plot twist that raises the most basic questions about the death penalty.
It is just as likely that Joseph Hudgins' youth led him not to kill but to confess to a murder he did not commit.
ANDERSON'S MAIN ROADS AND its exits off the interstate look like an American Everycity: Wendy's, the Quality Inn, Wachovia Bank with drive-through and automatic tellers. The steakhouse on Sunday afternoons overflows with black families fresh from church, the little girls in white lacy dresses and pigtails. Anderson Mall is filled with teenage boys buying outfits for their girlfriends. But on the back roads there are still signs of hardscrabble Anderson, a poor and undereducated town south of the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills near the Georgia border. Off the interstate a sign announces that these two miles of highway are maintained by the Cathedral of Love. Fishermen and their families live in tents on the banks of Lake Hartwell. Here a man's prized possession is his set of carpentry tools, and his evenings and weekends are spent working on the house or car.
Anderson is not a place where folks sit around fretting about the moral dilemmas posed by the execution of a juvenile offender. A few years ago a man here thought his wife was messing around on him. He killed her, stuffed her body in the back seat of his car and drove her around town to show other residents what he had done. A boy of 17 is no kid here. Upon high school graduation the common plan is to marry, buy a trailer and park it on the property of your parents or spouse's parents, all the while saving up for a plot of land. At 17 you find the job at the textile mill or Bi-Lo supermarket which you will keep for the next 50 years.
A few hundred yards down South Carolina's Highway 24 from where police officer Taylor was shot, there is a cluster of stores selling liquor, fireworks, and guns and boat canvases, plus a video-game room and a pawnshop. At the edge of the parking lot there is a street, Pearl Harbor Way, that snakes around to the top of a hill and ends at the property of Joseph's father. Conny's scrubby six-acre spread comprises the main house, cars and trucks in various stages of repair, a few sheds, a barrack-like building that is Conny's ceramics shop, a gray trailer perched on piles of blocks with lumber stacked underneath and, across a small creek and into the family's adjoining three acres, a dilapidated A-frame house with a yard strung with wash. At the time of Joseph's arrest, his whole family lived on the property. His sister Renee and her husband, Oral Tollison - whom she married 21 years ago, at age 15 - lived with their daughter in a trailer while Oral finished the house he was building with his own hands. Joseph's brother, David, and his wife, Susan, lived in another trailer with their children. His sister Cathy and her husband, Micheal Greer, lived in the A-frame with their boys. The Hudgins' compound looks like a lot of the property in Anderson - except for THE DEATH PENALTY IS DEAD WRONG bumper stickers on Conny's GMC van.
Renee's and David's families have since moved to their own houses, but Cathy and Micheal still live in the A-frame, and Conny is still in the big house. He is an engaging, likable and talkative man of 59. The house is full of his ceramics: Grandpa in overalls and a bandanna sits in a rocker; an Indian stands in the corner. Unpainted eagles and Christs on the cross cram the dining table.
Amnesty International books on the death penalty are stacked on the kitchen counter, and Conny's main room is a shrine to Joseph. The walls are dotted with some of the Polaroids from the visiting-room camera. Joseph's senior picture, taken a few months before the murder, sits on the TV. His hair is choppily cut in the short-top, long-back style favored in Anderson, and pimples dot his chin. He looks about 14.
Right before Joseph's trial, Conny quit his job working breakfast at Burger King. His health, always precarious, worsened, and his diet is none too good to begin with - I've seen him eat sandwiches of potato chips on white bread, dry. Most of all, he is nervous. He lies awake nights and, when he is not working at his new job at a Speedway truck stop, he spends his days making phone calls to help his son.
Conny is a loving father, but Joseph grew up in a weird, scary and lonely house. When he was 7 weeks old, his mother, Virginia, died of a brain tumor. Conny already suffered from what Southerners call nerves - along with emphysema, brown-lung disease and back pain. With his wife's death his depression became even more intense. From 1975, the year of Joseph's birth, to 1992, Conny's medical records include prescriptions for 22 different kinds of drugs including 11 types of mood-elevating and tranquilizing pills. As a baby, Joseph would often cry, and Conny, asleep on the couch, wouldn't wake up.
When Joseph was 4, Conny married Carolyn, a widow working at the textile mill, who moved into the house with four of her children. Conny and Carolyn divorced, got back together and then split again. As of several years ago, Carolyn was still sending Conny notes through the Burger King drive-up window.
Conny and Carolyn fought mostly about religion. Since 1962, Conny had been a follower of Brother William Marrion Branham, who preached a Holiness gospel at the Branham Tabernacle, in Jeffersonville, Ind. Many weekends, Conny would pack his family in the car and drive about 400 miles each way to Jeffersonville. (Joseph tended to fall asleep during services.) After Conny married Carolyn, they went to the Light Tabernacle, a small house with beige vinyl siding in a run-down neighborhood in Anderson. Inside it one Sunday morning, about two dozen worshipers - all the women in long skirts with long hair and no makeup - sat in pews before a raised, carpeted altar with large pictures of equal size of Jesus, Brother Branham and Manuel Burdette, the church's preacher, now deceased. A young man with an electric guitar led a small ensemble with drums and piano in song and quoted Brother Branham's sermons. A table in the foyer held dozens of Branham's pamphlets for people to borrow. Holiness worshipers separate themselves from sin, "unlike the Baptists, who shoot pool, drink, cuss and let their women wear makeup and cut their hair," explains one Anderson follower. Conny has about 100 sermon tapes, which he constantly listened to when Joseph was growing up. When I visited Conny, he usually had one in the tape player.
Carolyn followed Brother Branham, too, but there were other voices buzzing in her head. "Religion sent her crazy," Joseph says of his stepmother. Family members say Carolyn used to walk around the house saying she was Joan of Arc and would be burned at the stake naked.
Before the age of 15, Joseph had spent only two nights away from home, but in high school he found friends outside his family. One day he was supervising a children's party at Burger King, where he worked some weekends and after school, bringing the kids cake and playing games with them. His way with the kids charmed the birthday boy's older sister, a pretty girl with long, wavy brown hair and glasses. She slipped him a napkin with her phone number. From then on, Joseph was over at Stephanie Spearman's house every day.
And then Joseph found his soul mate, Terry Cheek. Joseph had met Terry in seventh grade, but the two really became friends in eighth, when they were in the same homeroom. Skinny as a cat in a bath, Terry was nearly a year older than Joseph. He didn't talk much himself; but he made Joseph feel important. "He'd listen to what I had to say," Joseph testified at his trial. "If I wanted to talk about something, I could go to Terry. I couldn't go to any of my family, really."
In the summer between Joseph's junior and senior years, Stephanie left him for an older boy she met at the beach. Joseph got a handful of pills out of Conny's medicine cheat. It was Terry, who came over with his family, who coaxed Joseph out of taking them.
School was incidental. Joseph got A's when he worked at it, but he didn't work at it much. When he went, he hung out with other people, since Terry didn't go to school very often. Even after the breakup he saw Stephanie every morning. She was in his Lunch Bunch, and he'd walk her to the parking lot, where her mother waited every afternoon. Joseph liked to fix up cars, and he wrecked a couple before losing his license for accumulating too many points, mostly for speeding. Most of his time, however, went to an activity in which he truly excelled: stealing.
Joseph began stealing pencils off desks when he was about 7. By seventh grade, Joseph, Terry and some friends were going to the Jockey Lot, Anderson's huge flea market, to see who could steal the most. By 10th grade, Joseph was meeting Terry almost every night and weekend to steal. At the trial, Joseph admitted that he and Terry bought a pair of bolt cutters; Terry claimed they belonged to Joseph but that both used them to cut the locks on gates and the backs of trucks before helping themselves to the merchandise. Terry claimed Joseph used a ski mask for break-ins where there were surveillance cameras. According to one school friend, Joseph took advantage of his job installing car stereos to go to his clients' houses, break into their cars and steal back the stereos. He even figured out how to take $100 from the cash register at Burger King without getting caught.
"He'd come in every Monday and brag about what he'd stolen over the weekend," says one Westside High School friend. "People would come up to him: 'Can you get this piece of stereo equipment? I'll give you $75 for it’... He did it more for the thrill."
"I guess I bragged about stealing in school for attention," Joseph writes to me. "I knew stealing was wrong - I was taught that all my life. I guess I justified it by only stealing from places where insurance would cover it. Well, most of the time - places like car lots and businesses."
The standard view in the Hudgins family is that this was the doing of Terry and his family. “We weren't exposed to a lot of the same things other people were," says Renee. "Joseph, being very gullible, went along for the ride." Renee's husband, Oral, says that if Terry came to his shop, he would always check to see if the tools were still there afterward. Conny believed that Joseph would have spent quiet evenings at home if it weren't for Terry. "Terry would come over at 6 and pick him up," Conny says. "I'd say, 'Now, you have school tomorrow, son,' and Joseph would say, ‘I'll just be gone a few minutes.'" Conny would sit up fuming till 2 a.m., when Joseph would come back. Sometimes he wouldn't come back at all. Terry's family told me the same story with the names reversed: Terry was the quiet follower held in Joseph's sway.
But just about everyone agrees about Terry's mother, Brenda. She and Terry Sr. - by all accounts a decent, hard-working man - were one week away from legal divorce when he was found dead in his house in February 1992. The coroner's office ruled his death as suicide but officials are still investigating. Around the time of her husband's death, Brenda spoke to her friend Sherri Spearman, Stephanie's mother, of his $100,000 life-insurance policy. A few months after his death, Brenda found out that the policy was a myth. "She showed up at my house, devastated," Sherri says. It was one of the many stories swirling around Anderson about Brenda Cheek and her new boyfriend, Joey Fortner.
When Joseph and Terry were in 11th grade, Brenda began to live with Joey, a skinny man with slicked-back hair. Terry's friends could hang out anytime even during the school day to drink or have sex. According to court testimony, Joey encouraged Terry and Joseph to steal stereos and VCRs and would store the stolen goods in Brenda's rented self-storage warehouse until he could sell them. "Brenda and Joey would say, 'Get us a stereo, and we'll pay you $400 or $500," says Lora Shiflet, who hung out there and started dating Joseph after he and Stephanie broke up. Brenda once threw a fit because Joseph was getting more money from a burglary than she was. According to Joseph, Joey even helped the boys buy an Uzi; Terry claimed the Uzi was Joseph's. "Joey knew a guy who had one, and we had just sold a bunch of stolen stuff, so me and Terry bought it," writes Joseph. "Terry kept it either in his house or behind the seat in his truck" Joey would often tell the boys about his glorious days working in the marijuana trade.
The sense of freedom at Brenda and Joey's was heady. Joseph told me that Joey's praise wasn't all that important to him but admitted that the boys sought it. Joey was no fool. "Bet you can't break into that car," Joey would say, according to a member of Joseph's family. “Well, good for you! I didn't think you could!"
Joseph got into trouble with the law three times. In late 1991, he, Terry and two other friends were caught stealing hunters' deer stands from the back of a truck. Then Joseph was caught driving a motorcycle while his license was suspended. Both times, Conny paid fines of several hundred dollars. And several weeks before Taylor's murder, Joseph was picked up for shoplifting fishing gear at Kmart. The manager had seen two shoplifters but caught only the younger one, Joseph, who would not tell the police the name of his confederate. Joseph's brother, David, went to talk to him. "He's letting you take the fall," David argued. Joseph broke down and cried - but he didn't talk. Later his lawyers would seize on this and other examples of Joseph's code of silence in arguing that he was all too eager to take the rap for a friend.
ON SUNDAY, DEC. 6, 1992, AT AROUND 3 A.M., Terry and Joseph stole an Orkin Exterminating truck and parked it on a back road. Toward midnight they drove out to the truck to joy ride around again. One of the two took the .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol they shared from Terry's truck. The Orkin truck's hose was dragging from the reel on the back, and Officer Chris Taylor spotted it as he was driving down Highway 24 a few miles west of Anderson.
Taylor stopped them. Terry told him the truck belonged to his daddy. The three examined the truck, and, presumably because it was raining, Taylor asked them to sit down in the back of his patrol car. As they were standing by the vehicles, a passing driver saw them.
Less than five minutes later, the same driver returned. Seeing no one around, he stopped the car - nearly hitting Chris Taylor, who was lying stretched out in the middle of the road. The driver called 911 on his car phone. Taylor had been shot in the face. He was gasping for air as blood and membrane flowed from his nose and mouth. He was dead before sunrise.
Joseph and Terry ran to Joseph's house. Conny, waiting up as usual, found his son sopping wet. Once away from Conny, Joseph opened a window, and Terry climbed in. Joseph called Joey Fortner. "Get over here quick and pick up Terry," Joseph said. Terry waited in the rain at the edge of Conny's property for Joey to arrive.
ON VALENTINE'S DAY, CHRIS TAYLOR took Tracy Owens, his girlfriend since he was 14, on a drive out South Carolina's Highway 187. He stopped the car at a tree with a big red bow around it. "Happy Valentine's Day," Chris said. Three and three quarters of an acre - that was her present. Chris and Tracy, a beautician, had been married a year and a week when he was killed. Tracy's doctor had told her she couldn't conceive, but a few weeks before Chris died, they learned that she was pregnant, and they were thrilled. They told his parents by bringing them a present - a bib with I LOVE GRANDPA and I LOVE GRANDMA on it. Chris and Tracy had just been approved for a loan to build their house.
Chris Taylor, 21, was a weightlifter, a stocky 5 feet 10 inches with a small mustache and a bulldog face, who loved hunting, fishing and country music. Everyone in Anderson knows his daddy, Ray, a former policeman and now a game warden, and therefore one of the county's most important men. Since he was 10, Chris Taylor had talked about joining the sheriffs department, itching to turn 21 so he could become a policeman. When he was 20 he became a dispatcher in the department radio room, and the following year he was made a deputy sheriff. He was the voice of Officer Mac, the police robot that talked to young kids in schools and churches. If his baby was a girl, he'd wanted to name her Miranda, after the legal rights police read to suspects - that's how much he'd loved being a cop. No one in Anderson could recall a death that had hit the community as hard as Chris Taylor's did. All the Anderson TV stations broadcast hours of live coverage of the manhunt - the largest in the area's history with bloodhounds in the woods and helicopters overhead.
That Monday morning, Renee drove Joseph to school. The police stopped them at a checkpoint and waved them on. "Good thing you don't fit the description," Renee said. She lectured him about stealing and how it can lead to more serious crimes. "Here are two guys, stole a truck, got pulled over and panicked, and shot a police officer," she said.
"A thief is not a murderer," Joseph told his sister. He said it twice.
The next day, Joseph felt sick and stayed home from school. He and Conny watched Chris Taylor’s funeral on TV. People packed the church and stood outside in the cold. Policemen wept openly. A policeman turned chaplain came up from Charleston, S.C., to counsel the deputies. Now, if people in Anderson saw a patrol car stopped, they pulled over to make sure the officer was all right.
On Thursday afternoon, Joseph and Terry were called out of class to the principal's office, supposedly to talk about their attendance records. Eight or 10 policemen awaited them. A few minutes later the local TV stations broke into their programming with shots of the boys being escorted from police cars into the sheriffs headquarters. Some classmates had called the Crime Stoppers hot line and told about Joseph and Terry's burglaries, and the police found a fingerprint on the Orkin truck's ignition that matched Joseph's.
The city was stunned. Joseph and Terry were typical students who went to the same school that Taylor's brother, Chad, did. Neither had any previous record of violence.
At the sheriff’s headquarters, Joseph at first denied any connection to the crime. The captain interrogating Joseph told him about finding his fingerprint on the ignition of the Orkin truck. Then Joseph said he wanted to confess. They went over the statement a few times. Another officer wrote as Joseph dictated, and Joseph signed it: “We followed him back to his car, and when he opened the back door of the car, I shot him. We then ran up the hill to the condominiums...” No details were asked; none seemed necessary. By the day's end the police had found a .25-caliber in the rain gutter of Hudgins' house.
Joseph called Conny later that day. "I know good and well you didn't do this," said Conny.
"Yeah, I did, Daddy. I done it," Joseph replied.
"Oh, no, Joseph," Conny said. "Ain't no way you're gonna convince me."
Joseph and Terry were put in separate jails outside Anderson County for their own protection. Conny's children gathered and sat up talking till 5 that morning and the next. Westside High offered counseling to any student who wanted it. Students walked around in a daze. How could their own classmates -not model boys, but boys - have put a gun in Chris Taylor's face and pulled the trigger?
AMERICA'S FIRST DOCUMENTED execution of a juvenile took place in 1642. Thomas Graunger, 16, was hanged in the Plymouth colony for having carnal knowledge of a cow and a horse. About 350 juvenile offenders have been executed since that time - three-fourths of them were minorities, almost all the victims white. At least 43 of those executed were never even convicted of murder but of rape or attempted rape. None of these were white, and all the victims but one were.
South Carolina's last execution of a juvenile offender was the 1986 electrocution of James Terry Roach, who at the time of his crime was 17, mentally retarded, suffering from a deteriorating brain disease and under the domination of an older "friend" who had injected him with PCP before the crime. The state legislature was at the time considering a bill prohibiting capital punishment for juveniles; still, Gov. Richard Riley - today, President Clinton's secretary of education - wouldn't sign a stay of execution to await the vote.
Roach's history is a common one for death row. A Human Rights Watch report describes one juvenile offender on Texas' death row abandoned by his mother, skull fractured by a truck, a firstgrade dropout, brain damaged, schizophrenic, regularly sexually assaulted by his stepfather and grandfather, regularly sniffed glue - who told a psychiatrist he could not remember anything good that ever happened to him. The collective history of most juvenile offenders on death row is filled with such tragedy. It is littered with abusive parents, uninterested doctors, and neglectful or bungling bureaucrats. None of these people has ever been indicted as accessory to murder.
THE STATE APPOINTED AND paid two lawyers for Joseph: Robert Gamble, a profane,
curmudgeonly public defender in his 50s, and Bob Lusk, a young private attorney.
Gamble and Lusk pondered how to make the best of a bad hand. Death penalty trials have two phases. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, it then sits for a second trial to determine the sentence. Gamble and Lusk's strategy was to concentrate on getting Joseph a prison term instead of the death penalty.
They planned a defense revolving around Joseph Hudgins' youth: that it was his naiveté, eagerness to please, lack of judgment and child's view of loyalty that led him to fall under the spell of Terry, Brenda and Joey. They planned to argue that a boy with no history of violence deserved to live to earn another chance.
That was the strategy, anyway, until July 1993, two days before jury selection was to begin, when Joseph's defense team met in a motel parking lot to re-create the moment of the shooting. "And then we sat down with our mouths open," says Hyatt Whetsell, an investigator working with the lawyers. "Joseph Hudgins could not have pulled that trigger."
Taylor had been shot during his attempt to open the back door of the patrol car. The defense team parked two cars and reenacted the shooting, using what they knew about the position of the body (feet near the car, stretched out at a 30-degree angle from the car), the angle of the shot (slightly upward from behind Taylor's right eye) and the placement of the spent shell (next to the rear left tire). When they were finished, they concluded there was only one possibility: The shooter had to have been standing between Taylor and the rear of the car. According to what both Joseph and Terry had said and maps both boys drew, the one standing there was the one who was about to get into the back seat, Terry Cheek.
Lusk and Whetsell drove to see Joseph in jail that night. “We got proof you didn't do it," Lusk kept repeating into Joseph's face. To their astonishment, Joseph kept insisting he was guilty until Lusk told him about the witness list: Terry Cheek was on for the prosecution. "I felt betrayed," Joseph testified at his trial, explaining why he changed his story. "I mean, here I am taking the blame, and he's going to testify and try to send me to the electric chair." He told Lusk and Gamble that he and Terry, who was 18, had agreed later on the day of the murder that if they were arrested, Joseph would take the rap. "I've been in trouble before," Joseph says "But I never had any problems because I'm a juvenile." Joseph wrote to me that it wasn't hard to lie to the police: "I told them exactly what they wanted to hear ... The only thing that was going through my head was to stick to the plan we had worked out." The tough part, he wrote, was lying to his dad: "I mean, I had lied to him before, but this was hard. The good thing is Dad never believed it."
By the time the attorneys left Joseph's cell, they had a new case.
THE PUBLICITY MADE FINDING an impartial jury in Anderson County impossible. Instead of moving the trial, a jury was chosen from Lexington County - a conservative white suburb of Columbia. In its 14 previous death-penalty cases, Lexington County jurors had sent 13 men to death row.
The courtroom atmosphere left little doubt about Anderson's sentiments. Spectators wore buttons with Chris Taylor's picture. During trial breaks, people debated whether Joseph should simply be electrocuted or also tortured first. "I would go into a restaurant, and people at the next booth would be talking about killing those boys," says Charles Whiten, Terry's lawyer. "I got phone threats: 'This case won't ever make it to court.' Some people I'd wanted to testify came to my house and said they were afraid someone in the community would harm them if they showed up.... It went beyond the normal community anger. You ask people what should happen, people say they should be shot on the square."
Anderson's fury made Joseph's situation even more precarious. When he confessed, police investigators quite naturally stopped looking any further. Prosecutors, therefore, decided to allow Terry to plead guilty to accessory after the fact and gave him a guarantee that he could never be prosecuted for anything related to the murder. Although Joseph's lawyers asked the judge to allow the jury to be able to find that Joseph was an accessory after the fact, the judge refused. "Mr. Hudgins either committed this murder, or he didn't," the judge told Joseph's lawyers. He allowed jurors the options of convicting Joseph of murder or finding him innocent – they could not say, “We think Terry Cheek should be tried" or "We think Joseph had minor participation." So if the jurors didn't convict Joseph, they were telling Anderson that no one would pay for Chris Taylor's death.
Joseph, dressed in an uncomfortable looking jacket and tie, his hair freshly cut, stared ahead for most of the trial.
On the stand he said he confessed to save his best friend and said of Taylor, "I'd give my own life for his life to be back"
"I can't remember a lot of it - it's blacked out," Joseph tells me about the trial. "I was concentrating on the testimony. I was concentrating on keeping my emotions down. As soon as a recess came, my family would come up to me, and I'd burst out crying."
Stephanie's testimony was the hardest.
"You love him?" the assistant prosecutor asked, trying to discredit her testimony.
"Yes," Stephanie said. Tears welled up in Joseph's eyes. The jurors I spoke with said the most damning testimony was given by three of Joseph's Westside classmates, who all said that he told them one day in class that since policemen wore bulletproof vests, he would shoot one in the head if he got caught stealing. The best Gamble and Lusk could do in cross-examination was to get them to admit they were all friends of Chad Taylor, Chris' younger brother. I called all three. One said he didn't want to talk about it. One said he stands by his testimony. The third, reversing what he'd said on the stand, told me he'd never heard Joseph make that statement.
Jurors later told me that they had not been convinced by the physical evidence that was at the heart of the defense. Joseph's lawyers had pegged Terry as the shooter in part because a .25 ejects its shells behind and to the right - if the gun had been in Joseph's hand, the shell would have been found away from the car, not next to the rear tire. In test firings, they said, a .25 had ejected the shell 13 times in a row to the same position. But jurors did their own test. “We went into the bathroom, which had a hard floor," juror Frank Peters tells me. We dropped the shell from the sink several times. Each time it rolled and ended up in a different place." After eight hours of deliberation, the jurors returned with their verdict. Joseph stared straight ahead as they pronounced him guilty of murder.
The drama in the second phase of the trial - for sentencing - came from the emotional testimony of Tracy and Ray Taylor and one of Chris' colleagues. If the jury had any doubts about the sentiments of Anderson, it didn’t after. Tracy talked about the hundreds of letters she received and the child who made her angels to hang on the wall, and after Capt. Vick Wooten talked about the size of the funeral and the psychological counseling that deputies required. The testimony was of questionable legality - to avoid putting community pressure on juries, victim-impact statements are supposed to be limited. In theory the law places an identical value on each human life; a drug dealer's life is worth the same as Mother Teresa's, and their murderers should be subject to the same punishments, even if the drug dealer did not leave behind grieving friends and families, or a community screaming for the defendant's head.
George Ducworth, the chief prosecutor, summed up. "He had four weapons that he took with him," he said of Joseph. "Those bolt cutters, this ski mask, that gun and one more that's not so readily apparent. And that is the shield of youth. Should he receive extra credit because he was able to kill somebody at a younger age than a lot of other people are when they kill somebody?" No credit, the jury said after eight more hours of deliberation. Death.
THREE MONTHS LATER, TERRY PLEADED guilty to accessory after the fact, auto-theft and a series of burglaries and was sentenced to 30 years. He has earned his high school equivalency degree in McCormick Correctional Institution. He is taking college courses and has joined the Jaycees. He expects to be out on work release next year and is eligible for parole in 1998.
On July 24 this year, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed Joseph's conviction. Because Gamble and Lusk had failed to raise objections at the trial, the Supreme Court was barred from even considering most arguments raised by Joseph's new lawyers such as the legality of the extensive statements from Taylor's family.
Brenda Cheek did not attend her son's hearing. According to Terry's grandmother, who visits him every other week, Brenda went to see Terry in prison three times in his first two years there. Although Brenda came to Joseph's trial once, and Joey attended some days - once even sitting with a sheriff's department investigator, apparently laughing and trading jokes neither was arrested nor even called to the stand to testify. The police waited till three days after Terry's arrest to search their house. Today, Brenda and Joey have disappeared from Anderson. No one I talked to, not even Brenda's father, said they knew where she was.
Tracy Taylor still cries every time she hears Chris' name or picks up a magazine that mentions him. Her pension as a widow of a slain policeman helped her to open her own beauty shop and build the house she and Chris had been planning. On June 4, 1993, she gave birth to Christopher Taylor Jr., and they now live on the property Chris gave her that Valentine's Day.
DEATH ROW HAS BEEN EVENTFUL lately. In South Carolina, as all over the country, prisoners are losing their privileges. The state brought in a new prison commissioner from Texas, whose new rules have cut back on visits, phone calls, out-of-cell time and hair length. Joseph's hair is now Marine short. In April five prisoners (none of them on death row) led a revolt against the new hair rules. "Some of the religious segregations [sic] were saying that it was against their religion," Joseph says. The prisoners attacked five guards with kitchen knives, baseball bats and boiling water - and held three workers hostage during the 11-hour standoff. All prisoners were locked in their cells for the next two weeks.
Joseph Hudgins is still hoping the courts will grant him a new trial and still thinks about life after the row. He writes to Lora Shiflet, the girl he dated after Stephanie, and she has visited him. "Her parents only let me call once a month, but I really look forward to it," Joseph writes. “I think about her a lot."
Stephanie switched high schools, to McDuffie, in a different part of the city, where she was voted Miss McDufie. She had to get away from Westside, from the memories and taunts of "killer's girlfriend." "Joseph and Terry weren't there to face the other students, so they took it out on her," says Sherri, her mother. Stephanie visited Joseph a few times in the beginning but hasn't gone now in a year. Joseph had Conny buy her white and pink carnations for her high school graduation. “I think about Stephanie all the time, but I don't let it bother me that she doesn't come and see me," Joseph writes me. "I understand that she should get on with her life, and I just hope she's happy." He knows it's been hard for her. He knows kids can be so cruel.
TINA ROSENBERG'S most recent book is 'The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism" (Random House).