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Death penalty trial begins in Florence County

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Posted: Sunday, October 6, 2013 5:11 pm | Updated: 8:42 pm, Mon Oct 7, 2013.

FLORENCE — A Darlington man accused of a September 2009 double murder in Florence County will go to trial for his life on Monday.

Fonnelze Travis Delaine, 26, is charged with two counts of capital murder in the deaths of 32-year-old Talya Poston and 26-year-old Billy L. Hall. If convicted of the crimes, he faces a possible death sentence.

Prosecutors say Delaine masterminded a plot to get rid of Poston and Hall, who he concluded were confidential informants after he was arrested on drug distribution charges. As part of the court process of disclosure in the drug case, prosecutors were forced to show Delaine and his attorney surveillance video of the controlled drug transaction.

Despite the fact the video had no audio, prosecutors believe Delaine — who was out on bond on the drug charges at the time of the slayings — was able to figure out who the informants were by a handicap tag in the vehicle that was visible in the video.

The state alleges Delaine then hired two men to kill the couple, who were fatally shot Sept. 1, 2009 along Isaiah Street, a dirt road just off of Flowers Road near Pamplico Highway.

Delaine’s codefendants pleaded guilty in circuit court earlier this year.

Montez Barker, 28, entered an Alford plea to two counts of murder, larceny more than $5,000, third-degree arson and criminal conspiracy. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole plus 25 years on all counts.

Laross Antonio Graham pleaded guilty to two counts of murder, grand larceny more than $5,000 and criminal conspiracy, while 33-year-old Anthony Wingate pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact of murder and criminal conspiracy. Wingate and Graham will be sentenced at a later date.

During those plea hearings, Twelfth Circuit Solicitor Ed Clements III said Graham sold drugs for Delaine and was enlisted to kill Hall and Poston, confidential informants for local narcotics officers who were scheduled to testify against Delaine in a drug distribution case.

Graham has told investigators Delaine hired him to do the job, but he didn't think he could actually carry out the killings so he recruited Barker. Barker had no connection to Delaine but was recently out of prison and wearing an electronic monitor at the time as part of his parole.

According to investigators, on the orders of Delaine, Barker and Graham got Poston and Hall to pick them up on Sept. 1. The four rode around in Poston’s Ford Explorer for awhile and eventually ended up on Isaiah Street, a dirt road just off of Flowers Road near Pamplico Highway.

Prosecutors contend Barker was in the back seat and shot Hall, who was sitting in the passenger seat, in the back of the head. Poston also was shot but got out of the Explorer, ran down the road and attempted to call 911. She can be heard on that 911 call right before she died, Clements said.

“Talya Poston was shot, running down the road, trying to talk to 911 on her cell phone,” Clements said. “At some point, Barker gave Graham the gun and told him to go after her and finish her off. Graham said he followed her but shot into the ground, that Miss Poston was already fatally wounded by that time.”

In Poston's dying call, she said she was shot at Isaiah Street and Flowers Road — precisely where the GPS on Barker's electronic monitor placed him at the same time, Florence County Sheriff's Office investigator Thomas McFadden testified.

Barker and Graham then left the two dead on the road, took the Explorer and later burned it. The Explorer was found soon after the murders, parked off of First Street in east Florence and burned nearly down to its frame, Clements said.

Prosecutors say Delaine brought Wingate into the plan after the murders, ordering him to pick up Graham from the crime scene and dispose of the gun. Wingate eventually led investigators to where he hid the gun and ammunition, under some straw in a wooded lot near a house off Hoffmeyer Road. But investigators said Wingate’s cooperation came only after he was arrested, three years after the crimes.

This is the first capital murder trial in Florence County in more than a decade and the first capital murder case of Clements’ career. Former Twelfth Circuit Solicitor Dudley Saleeby, who tried several death penalty cases in his long career as a prosecutor, is assisting Clements in the Delaine trial.

Delaine has two death penalty-certified lawyers, Jim Hoffmeyer of Florence and Paul Cannarella of Hartsville. He’s also had unlimited access to investigators to prepare for his trial.

When announcing the capital murder charges, Clements said he doesn’t take the death penalty prosecution lightly.

“This evidence we think is very strong. I am one that thinks the death penalty should be sought very, very, judiciously and we think the evidence is strong and warrants the state seeking the death penalty in this case,” he said. “... We thought about it, we prayed about, we investigated it long and hard, and we believe this is what the state should do, and this is what we are pursuing.”

Under South Carolina law, there must be statutory aggravating circumstances for a murder to qualify as a capital crime. One of those includes that the murder of two or more persons were by one act or pursuant to one scheme or course of conduct. Another allows for the death penalty to be sought in the murder of a witness or potential witness committed at any time during the criminal process for the purpose of impeding or deterring prosecution of any crime. Clements has said both of these apply in the Poston/Hall case.

However, conviction does not mean an automatic death penalty. If Delaine is found guilty, the court will hold a separate sentencing hearing. During that phase, if an aggravating circumstance is proven, the defendant can be sentenced to death or life in prison. If an aggravating circumstance is not found, the defendant must be sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

Jury selection in the Delaine trial is slated to begin at 9 a.m. Monday at the Florence City-County Complex. Circuit Judge Thomas C. Russo is presiding.

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