A 26-year-old murder case finally concluded Friday for the family of an elderly Gaffney woman who was brutally murdered inside her home.
Circuit Court Judge Mark Hayes sentenced Ernest Matthew Riddle to 30 years in prison for the murder, burglary and armed robbery of 76-year-old Abbie Sue Mullinax on Aug. 7, 1985. Riddle had been sentenced to die three times for Mullinax's murder. The S.C. Supreme Court reversed his conviction in 2006 citing prosecutorial misconduct from former Solicitor Holman Gossett after he failed to disclose pertinent information to defense attorneys. The Supreme Court's decision remanded the case to the Circuit Court for the fourth time.
The state's death penalty case against Riddle, 45, was scheduled for October, but defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed that Riddle would plea under the state's Alford rule, where a defendant does not admit guilt, but admits a jury would likely convict him after hearing evidence.
Riddle will be released on Aug. 19, 2016 since he receives credit for the prison time he has already served.
Dayna McCraw, Mullinax's great-granddaughter, has attended every pre-trial hearing and told Hayes that the case has been a long ordeal for the family and they were hopeful Friday's hearing would bring some degree of closure for all involved. McCraw said the family would not publicly comment on Riddle's sentence, the attorneys involved or the justice system and they didn't want to speak with the media.
McCraw asked Hayes for fairness and for justice, and said family members pray they'll be able to put it behind them.
McCraw said the family was certain that Riddle was responsible for Mullinax's murder, although Riddle still maintained his innocence during Friday's hearing.
We are at peace, McCraw said. We're not happy, but finally we can say at long last that we are satisfied.
Mullinax had returned to her Concord Avenue home where she lived with her step-daughter around 8:45 p.m. after church services on Aug. 7, 1985. The two had gone to bed and Marie Osment was awakened by Mullinax's screams around 2 a.m., said Solicitor Barry Barnette. The brothers escaped through a window. Detectives discovered $200 was missing from Mullinax's purse and interviewed Jason Riddle, Ernest's brother, who implicated both of them in the robbery and murder. Jason Riddle has since said that if he was called to again testify, he would change his story and would not implicate his brother. Jason Riddle is serving a life sentence for his role in Mullinax's death.
Jason Riddle's recanted story would prove to be a challenge for prosecutors at trial since there was no DNA evidence linking Ernest Riddle to the crime scene.
Defense attorneys had also filed a motion to have Mullinax's body exhumed to obtain DNA that they say could have proven that her blood was mixed with the blood of an unknown male which wasn't Ernest Riddle found on a doormat that bloodhounds had tracked to another residence that same night. That evidence, defense attorney Donna Holt said, would likely exonerate her client.
Holt said Riddle's mother died last year, and he didn't want Mullinax's body exhumed regardless of whether the judge had allowed the exhumation. That led him to consider offering an Alford plea on Friday.
Holt admonished Gossett for not initially disclosing all of the facts to Riddle's defense attorneys. Holt said that Riddle has always maintained his innocence.
Holt said that some might wonder why Riddle would issue a plea under Alford if he wasn't guilty and she said that during his 21 years on death row, he has seen many men die for crimes they might not have committed.
He feels like he has a measure of justice, she said. The death clock has ticked in his head since 1985 and it will stop today. He will strive to become a productive citizen.
Barnette said there was no negotiated sentence between the attorneys, but he agreed not to object to a 30-year sentence. Riddle was sentenced under current sentencing guidelines, so he isn't eligible for release until Aug. 20, 2016.