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34 years ago in South Carolina
editor's notes

My parents have wisdom no parent should have, but they’re hardly alone in that regard. My sister-in-law and her ex husband have the same hard-earned knowledge. So do the neighbors across the street.

And a former co-worker and journalism mentor of mine, and his wife. And a number of other people I know. Some I consider friends, others are people I’ve met through this job, but all are parents who’ve outlived a child.

How doesn’t matter. Whether it’s to sickness, to bullying, to car wrecks, to a war now older than some high school juniors, the end result is the same. It’s a hard thing to live with, the death of a child you were put on earth to protect and raise.

In my parents’ case, it wasn’t a wreck or a war. It was to a monster who, 34 years later, still won’t go away. And of course it impacts me, too, and my sister. We lost our youngest sibling and it broke our hearts and still shapes our days - but my parents lost a third of their entire universe on May 11, 1985.

May 11 was the day before Mother’s Day, same as this year. But it was before the internet, and that’s a blessing, I think. Stories are hard to find.

Easier to locate with a few strokes of a keyboard are documents in legal archives explaining what happened after, well, after so much took place surrounding my sister’s death. Below in italics are words written 13 years later in the decision issued in November 1998 by the South Carolina Supreme Court in The State vs. James Donald Fossick, who was appealing not one but two convictions for the murder.

“Appellant (Fossick) was convicted in 1986 for the murder of Marilee Whitten. This Court affirmed by memorandum opinion in 1987 but subsequently reversed the denial of post-conviction relief. Fossick v. State, 317 S.C. 375, 453 S.E.2d 899 (1995) (counsel ineffective for failing to object to solicitor’s argument regarding lack of remorse). Appellant was re-tried in May 1996, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. We affirm.”

“The facts: Seventeen-year-old Marilee Whitten was last seen alive on May 11, 1985. Her partially decomposed and naked body was found in a wooded area of lower Richland County four days later. Appellant, who was Marilee’s co-worker, was interviewed several times by police over the next four months. He ultimately confessed he killed Marilee after forcing her into the trunk of his car, driving to a wooded area, and attempting to rape her. Appellant subsequently led police to the murder weapon, a vase-like lamp base, that he had discarded in a nearby trash heap.”

Fossick bashed in my sister’s head, left her body in a pile of leaves and went about his business. The cops who to this day remain heroes in our world told my family he was a serial killer in the making and abducted another girl he let go, but that sort of thing was inadmissible in court.

In the second trial, jurors couldn’t even know he’d already been convicted once.

And had his first conviction not been overturned, he’d served life without even getting a chance at parole and my parents would’ve been spared the yearly anguish.

Instead, after the second trial and second conviction a decade later, Fossick has a parole hearing every year under whatever law was in effect when he was convicted the second time.

The date of the hearing has varied from year to year but I honestly can’t remember the details. Sometimes it’s been late in the year, sometimes earlier.

This year it’s May 15, the day after this issue of the Bryan County News goes to press. I spent it in South Carolina, because what hasn’t changed are our trips to Columbia to oppose Fossick’s parole in front of the state parole board - comprised of outstanding citizens who have a tough job I wouldn’t wish on anyone. In recent years, the former solicitor (that’s what they call district attorneys in South Carolina) who prosecuted the case has started showing up to these hearings to oppose Fossick’s parole. His name is Johnny Gasser, and even though he went on to become a high profile U.S. Attorney and is now one of the state’s most sought after defense attorneys, he makes time to tell the parole board they don’t need to let the monster out. It lifts my parents spirits so much to see him, and mine.

What also hasn’t changed, at least to this point, is the board’s decision. Year in and year out for as long as I can recall, they’ve rejected Fossick’s bid for parole, to the great relief of all of us.

But it’s getting tougher. As my parents age - Dad’s 79, Mom’s 75 - they fret more about these hearings, worry the years Fossick has already spent in jail will lead the board to decide he’s done enough time and it’s time to make room for the next killer. And their stress becomes mine, because I don’t know what will happen to us if the monster gets out.

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