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Men behind infamous 1988 murders will get new sentencing hearings

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By Travis Jenkins

When the two young men involved in one of the most shocking and infamous murders in Chester County history were given a plea deal that spared them the death penalty but put them in prison for life without parole, family members of the victims were told that the saga was over. Now, 28 years later, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, it isn’t.

In 1990, Robert R. Moore III and Theodore Harrison Jr. were sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the murders of Renee Crowl Rollings (22 at the time) and Brian Scott “Scotty” Stephenson, 18, and additional consecutive 25-year sentences for two counts of armed robbery for having stolen the cars of the two victims. The two avoided death in South Carolina’s electric chair because while both acknowledged having been involved in the incident, neither confessed to having been the trigger man (each said the other actually shot the victims). Then Sixth Circuit Solicitor, the late John R. Justice told The News & Reporter at the time that the ages of the defendants (both were 16 at the time) might have made it difficult to have carried out the death penalty and that with both having to be tried separately, it was possible one or the other would have gotten off with a lighter sentence.

“All the jury hears is ‘I was there, but he did it,’” Justice said, adding that it would have been virtually impossible to get one of the defendants to testify against the other “without making a deal.” Some family members of the victims were comfortable with the sentence, while others “felt cheated” that the two would not end up in the electric chair. Justice said it was his decision to not seek the death penalty, but the way the sentences were structured insured that neither would be eligible for parole for 100 years, which guaranteed the two would die behind bars. He deemed that a positive outcome, but it is now possible the outcome will change.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court found in the case of Miller v. Alabama that life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile defenders, even in cases of murder. The majority opinion found that such sentences were unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment’s prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishments. In 2014, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of 15 young state inmates in Aiken v. Byars that the Miller decision applied to them. In 2016, the court found in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller v. Alabama decision had to be applied retroactively. The court found that states could undertake resentencing, which has affected thousands of cases across the country, including that of Moore and Harrison. The two will have resentencing hearings in Chester County next month.

 

Missing persons

 

Stephenson (who lived in Chester at the time) and Rollings (who had a home in Chester but was staying with her parents in Rock Hill) were reported as missing on Feb. 9 of 1988 when he failed to report for work and she missed an out-of-town appointment. Rollings had last been heard from by her mother the day before she was reported as missing. Family members initially believed “she left” because of threats she allegedly received involving “an incident involving her deceased husband” and an insurance settlement. She had been a meter reader for the Chester Metropolitan District before sustaining a back injury and had lost her husband (a good friend of Stephenson’s) a few months before her disappearance. Stephenson (who worked with his electrician father and had a weekend job at a convenience store) was last seen at The Pantry Express convenience store on the J.A. Cochran Bypass at around 9:30 p.m. sitting in his parked car (next to Rollings’ vehicle).

Stephenson’s white IROQ Camaro and Rollings’ Chevy Cavalier were found abandoned a day after the two went missing on the exit ramp near S.C. Highway 277 and U.S. Interstate 77 about four miles outside of Columbia. Then Chester County Sheriff, the late Bobby Orr, told The News & Reporter at the time that the cars were damaged and it appeared they had run into one another. That same day, Mrs. Rollings’ purse and articles of Stephenson’s clothing were found in a dumpster behind a restaurant in Winnsboro. Another purse that had been in Rollings’ car (which had been left there by a friend) was also recovered, as were personal papers, one of Stephenson’s work uniforms and some child’s clothing (Rollings had a four-year-old child).

A reward was offered for information on the whereabouts of the two by family members, who said it would be totally out of character for either victim to simply run away. Stephenson’s family was in the process of buying a store for him to manage, which he was said to be very excited about it. Rollings was said to be doing well too, with plans to buy a new mobile home in the near future. The offered money did not generate a single call.

 

It was homicide

 

In late March of 1988, an agonizing six weeks after the disappearance, a 12-year-old Rock Hill boy was looking for aluminum cans on the side of S.C. Highway 9 between the town limits of Richburg and the I-77 and Highway 9 interchange, when he found remains of two people in a thickly-wooded area about 50 yards off the side of the road. Orr believed the bodies belonged to Rollings and Stephenson because the description of clothing the two had been wearing when last seen matched that on the two bodies. One of Stephenson’s paycheck stubs was found in a wallet on one of the bodies. An autopsy confirmed Orr’s beliefs and revealed that the two had died as a result of gunshot wounds to the head from a .38 caliber gun. Orr said given the condition of the remains found, the bodies had been there a long time, likely since the night the two disappeared. The autopsy results indicated the shootings took place where the bodies were found.

Over the following weeks, law enforcement conducted over 200 interviews and undertook what was considered “the most extensive criminal investigation ever conducted in Chester County.” The families, dissatisfied with the slow pace of the investigation, actually hired a private detective at one point. The shock of the incident reverberated throughout the county for months, with rumors and speculation running rampant about the cause. There were rumors that Rollings’ young son was the target of a violent threat. Law enforcement said at the time that did not happen, but he was still removed from the nursery he attended out of concern for the safety of other children. Still, there would be no arrests and no real breaks in the case for more than a year.

Finally, in July of 1989, authorities got the break they were looking for. A jailhouse informant indicated that two fellow inmates (Moore and Harrison) had a great deal of information about the Chester County killings. After a year-and-half, the first domino had finally been knocked over and the rest fell into place quickly. Once authorities had those names, they were able to match their fingerprints against some found in the two stolen cars. They matched, and so while serving 25-year sentences for a separate carjacking, the two were arrested and charged with the murders of Stephenson and Rollings.

 

Lead-up to the trial; plea deal

 

The two men were indicted by a grand jury in January of 1990. In November of 1990, the trial of Moore was finally set to begin (Harrison’s would take place later). Justice said at the time that Moore (by then 19-years-old) would be the youngest person “in modern times” to face the death penalty and possibly the youngest ever in Chester County. Justice was set to argue against a change of venue request from Moore’s state-appointed attorneys and was prepared to bring a “good many” witnesses to testify, including officers from Chester County, SLED and family members of victims. Rumors quickly emerged that a plea deal would be struck and those proved accurate.

Before the terms of the plea deal were announced, statements made by Moore and Harrison to police were read in court. Those demonstrated that the murders were as senseless as they were brutal. Both men, sophomores at Fairfield Central High School at the time of the incident, acknowledged the murders were carried out because they wanted to steal the victims’ cars so they could drive to Florida. The stories the two told were nearly identical up to a point. Both said they had been at Mr. Quick, a convenience store on Lancaster Street, playing video games. From there, the two saw the cars of Rollings and Stephenson parked almost side-by-side. Rollings was in the driver’s seat of her car and Stephenson was beside her in the passenger’s seat. The two forced their way into the vehicle at gunpoint and ordered that they be taken toward Richburg, but then gave an order to pull over just before getting there. Justice said the victims were then “marched off into the woods by one or both of the defendants” just before their execution-style killing. That is where the stories began to diverge.

Moore’s statement said “Theo Harrison told them to get out of the car” and that he followed them at gunpoint away from the car. He said Rollings begged the two not to shoot them and was crying.

“Theo went in the bushes,” Moore’s statement said. “I heard shots. It was more than two shots.” When he came out of the woods, Moore said he asked Harrison if he’d shot the victims and was told “you’re damn right I shot them.” He said he asked why he’d shot them but got no answer.

Harrison’s statement was completely different. He said “Robert shot them…I heard a lot of shots, maybe six.”

“He said we had to do it,” Harrison said in the statement. “He said he was going to hell for what he did. I told him he was stupid as hell.”

Harrison did admit to carrying a gun in a holster underneath his jacket, but said it was a .22 caliber pistol. He said Moore was carrying the .38 used in the shootings.

Both said that after the killings, they drove back to Chester in Rollings’ car to pick up Stephenson’s vehicle. They then drove the two cars to Winnsboro, where they dumped the personal belongings in the vehicles in a dumpster, then headed to Florida. The two “accidentally” wrecked near Columbia. They left the cars, called their mothers from a pay phone to be picked up, but eventually made arrangements to stay with Moore’s sister in Columbia for the night. They made a pact to never speak of the incident again. Six months later, however, the two carjacked a Columbia couple at gunpoint. Those two victims were able to escape while Moore and Harrison stopped to gas up the car. The murder weapon was identified as belonging to a neighbor of Moore, but it was judged that both he and Harrison had access to it.

 

New sentencing

 

Now, current Sixth Circuit Solicitor Randy Newman and his office have to prepare to litigate a sentence for an incident that occurred 30 years ago. It is important to note that the facts of the matter have not changed and Moore and Harrison are not getting new trials, only new sentencing hearings. Newman said it is possible that the two will get the same sentences.

“But there is a chance they will get out of prison. That’s the worst-case scenario. We’ll fight that,” he said.

The families of the victims have been apprised of the new sentencing hearing in what Newman called “a tough meeting.” Thirty years to the month after the murders and 28 years after a plea deal that was to put them behind bars for their rest of their lives, Moore and Harrison will once more have their day in court.