Guilty plea pre-empts Belcher murder retrial

A Laurens County murder case that found its way to the South Carolina Supreme Court on appeal and set a new precedent for prosecutors came to an end Monday in General Sessions Court at the county’s Hillcrest Judicial Complex.

Johnny Rufus Belcher, of Gray Court pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the 2004 death of Fred “Sammie” Suber. Suber was shot twice and killed at a Memorial Day party in 2004.

Belcher, 51, initially was convicted by a jury of murder and received a 30-year sentence following a 2006 trial. His legal team, led by Greenwood defense attorney Rauch Wise, appealed the verdict to the state Supreme Court, claiming the jury was unduly prejudiced by prosecutors who told jurors that they could infer malice from the use of a deadly weapon. Defense attorneys claimed that it was “no longer good law” when evidence is presented that would “reduce, mitigate, excuse of justify the homicide.”

Legal experts have since claimed the successful appeal has changed the way “prosecutors convict criminals, attorneys defend clients and jurors hear cases.”

Following Monday’s acceptance of the plea arrangement, 8th Circuit Judge Donald B. Hocker sentenced Belcher to 48 months – time already served – for voluntary manslaughter and two years parole. If Belcher violates his parole by getting into legal trouble, then his sentence is activated, and he will spend at year behind bars, according the 8th Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

Eighth Circuit Solicitor David Stumbo, who was not in office when the initial conviction occurred, said he was disappointed in the ruling of the Supreme Court justices, and believed the plea arrangement was the best course of action for prosecutors.

“After consulting with the family, and in light of the high probability of either a hung jury or an acquittal on a retrial, my prosecutors and the (Laurens County) Sheriff’s investigators believed this to be the appropriate resolution of the case.”

Former Laurens County Sheriff Ricky Chastain said his investigators found two guns following the Memorial Day incident in 2004, which included a fight that broke out around 8:30 p.m. At that time, media outlets reported that the guns belonged to Suber.

“We believed that closure for this family and some measure of accountability was preferable to no accountability at all, and allowing Belcher to plead guilty to a manslaughter charge was completely appropriate under the facts of this tragic incident.”

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