No sentence reduction for accomplices in 2001 murder of federal prosecutor

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On the night of Aug. 20, 2001, four teens drove around Richland County leaving violence, fear and death in their wake.

By the end of the night, U.S. Attorney Michael C. Messer, a 49-year-old father of three in Columbia from Illinois for a training seminar, was dead from two gunshot wounds. Messer’s colleague was wounded, and five other people were held at gunpoint.

The teens would make off with a total of $35.

On Tuesday, more than 23 years later, a dispute over the punishment given two of the teens was finally resolved.

Cichey Mayo, then 17, and Willie Murphy, then 18, were charged with murder, attempted murder, armed robbery and conspiracy for shooting Messer and his colleague, Gillum Ferguson, 52, on Greene Street, in the heart of Five Points. The pair then fled in a gray Volvo driven by Abram Braveboy, then 18. Bryan Murray, then 16, was also in the car, acting as a lookout.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese dropped charges of murder and attempted murder against Braveboy and Murray, who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as part of a plea deal. In exchange, they expected to be sentenced to 30 years each for armed robbery, which would run concurrently with both a 20-year sentence for attempted armed robbery and a five-year sentence for conspiracy.

But at sentencing, Circuit Court Judge Henry McKeller ruled that the sentence for conspiracy should be served consecutively, meaning the pair would serve 35 years.

On Tuesday, Braveboy and Murray received a hearing 21 years in the making, as Judge Jocelyn Newman heard a motion, first filed days after their sentencing in 2002, asking for the the court to reconsider their sentences.

“Twenty-one years is an unreasonable delay. I don’t know what happened here or why it fell through the cracks,” Newman said. But the delay alone, or even some indication that McKeller may have been rethinking his sentence, was not enough to sway the judge, who denied the defendant’s motions.

“I just don’t think that the remedy is a time served sentence or granting the motion, necessarily,” Newman said. “I think the only thing for me to do is to leave the sentence as is.”

The motion was filed by Braveboy’s attorney, Michael McMullen, on June 7, 2002. But it was brought back to the court’s attention after Murray sent a letter in July to Judge Robert Hood asking that his sentence be reconsidered too, even though his attorney at the time never submitted a similar motion.

Leading up to sentencing 21 years ago, McMullen said he and Murray’s attorney, Bill Nettles, understood that their clients would be receiving identical 30-year sentences.

But there was no transcript or any other record of this agreement.

When he heard the judge sentence his client to five more years than expected, “I didn’t jump up like I should have and said (to the judge) ‘can we approach?’ but I should have,” McMullen said.

Resolving what McKeller actually intended was made even more complicated by the sentencing sheet, where McKeller appeared to have checked and then scratched out a box that indicated the five-year conspiracy charge would run concurrent to the 30-year sentence for armed robbery. The box marked consecutive was then checked.

“I think respectively we’re entitled to the 30-year sentence. The conspiracy charge should always have been written down as concurrent,” McMullen said.

“This case is still important for this community,” said 5th Circuit Deputy Solicitor Dan Goldberg, who argued that absent any other written proof of the judge’s intention, “All we’re left with is the sentence that was handed down June the 4th.”

Newman agreed. “That suggests to me that it was intentional. That means he intended on this day, at the time that sentence was imposed, for the time to be consecutive.”

McKeller, who is now in private practice, was not called to appear before the court.

Judge Newman also agreed with Goldberg’s argument that Braveboy and Murray had already received a “huge break” in the case. While Mayo and Murphy will have to serve their full sentences, Braveboy and Murray have projected release dates of 2029, according to the South Carolina Department of Corrections, meaning they will serve roughly 27 years of a 35-year sentence.

Braveboy and Murray are required to serve a minimum of 85 percent of the 30 year sentence before being eligible for parole in 2027. Inmates in South Carolina are also able to earn credit towards their sentence through work and by taking classes.

“It’s not inappropriate, its not an illegal sentence and I can’t find an error on the sentencing sheet,” Newman said. “If I were weighing in on it, I would still believe that this charge is appropriate,” Newman said.

A Wolf Pack

As the four teens drove around in Braveboy’s grey Volvo the night of Aug. 20, they complained about how times were hard and needing money, McMullen said.

The teens then decided to go to Five Points “to get paid.” After shooting Messer and Ferguson, the teens committed three other robberies on Alpine Road, Essex Road and Mallet Hill Road.

They were like a “wolf pack,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

The crime spree shocked Columbia, and a multi-agency effort involving the FBI, Columbia Police Department and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department quickly mobilized to track down the killers.

The day after the robberies, Lott was personally responding to a report of a bank robbery when he collided with Braveboy’s grey Volvo, although Lott didn’t know at the time that the driver was connected to the previous night’s crimes. Braveboy drove away from the scene, but when his mother saw the car’s damage, she brought Braveboy and his car to the sheriff’s department to file an accident report.

One of the sheriff’s department’s lead investigators on the robberies happened to look out of his office window and see the gray Volvo. When investigators asked to search the car, they found spent cartridges and arrested Braveboy, who soon confessed to his role in the crimes.

Throughout negotiations, McMullen said that he understood Braveboy and Murray would be receiving 30-year sentences in exchange for their pleas. McKeller said he was clear that the pair, who both had murder and attempted murder charges against them dropped, would receive the same sentence.

There was pressure to get a plea deal, said Johnny Gasser, the deputy solicitor who prosecuted the case. “We had to send a message. This was just an incredible crime spree that affected a large number of victims for the rest of their lives.”

But the deal as the attorneys understood it may have changed suddenly during sentencing. “There was a lot of emotion in the room,” McMullen said. Messer’s widow delivered an emotional statement, telling the court “my life as I know it has also ended.”

Braveboy also gave what those present recalled as a bizarre statement about demons and evil.

Immediately following the sentencing, McMullen said he spoke with McKeller about the concurrent sentence, who told him “I don’t know why I did that... Your man started talking about demons and stuff and I just checked consecutive instead.”

“I know judges who upon hearing something, might check the box off and then changed their mind,” Gasser said. “I think that’s what happened here.”

McKeller then indicated that he would be willing to honor the original deal, McMullen said.

He said if you get me a new sentencing sheet, I’ll sign it. I did and he didn’t sign it,” McMullen told the court.

Later that year, Gasser left the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s office to take a job with the U.S. Department of Justice and McKeller retired from the bench. Over more than two decades, McMullen said that he continued to follow up, without success.

“Sentencing is probably one of the most difficult things we do as judges,” Newman reflected, saying that “sometimes” when judges leave that courtroom, they think that they should have done something different, Newman said. “And then sometimes you think about it a little long and you say ‘oh no, I did the right thing.’”