Kimberly Grant thought she had finally seen justice served two years ago after watching the man who killed her husband convicted for the second time and sentenced to life in prison.
James Summersett Jr. had won a second trial after appealing his first conviction in the fatal shooting of Julian Grant in West Ashley in April 2002. When that proceeding ended with much the same result, Kimberley Grant and her daughter thought they could rest easy knowing Summersett would remain behind bars.
Grant learned last week that the formal record of the second trial had gone missing, potentially opening the door for Summersett to seek yet a third trial in her husband’s killing. She felt like the room was spinning around her as she tried to grasp the possibility of reliving the events of that awful spring night once again.
She since has heard that some tape from the proceeding has been found, but whether that will forestall Summersett’s bid for another go-around remains to be seen. A hearing on the matter is set for Dec. 7.
“I don’t know how I would go through a third trial or prepare myself for that,” Grant said. “It’s like being in a car on the edge of a cliff. You don’t know what to do, what your response should be or what you should do to survive.”
Summersett, 41, has not disputed that he shot his boyhood friend during a brawl on the street where they grew up. Julian Grant, 27, was shot as he tried to stop Summersett from pistol-whipping another man with a cocked gun. At both trials, Summersett maintained that the 9 mm pistol accidentally fired when he and Julian fell over.
In 2003 a jury found Summersett guilty of murder, but the state Supreme Court later tossed out that conviction, citing errors by the trial judge. At his second trial, in 2010, a judge found Summersett guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
That charge carries a maximum 30-year sentence, but Summersett ended up in prison for life under the state’s “two strikes” law because he had a previous conviction for assault and battery with intent to kill.
He is now housed in Lee state prison in Bishopville. He is not eligible for parole.
The reason Summersett is before the courts once again is because he filed an application for post-conviction relief after his 2010 trial. He alleges that his lawyer for the second trial was ineffective and failed to advise him of the risks of having a judge decide his case instead of a jury.
Inmates often file such applications in an effort to shave off time and wriggle out of lengthy prison terms. It’s sort of a legal version of a Hail Mary pass when the chips are down late in a football game.
At a Nov. 5 meeting on the case, lawyers learned that the court administration could not locate a transcript for the trial to document what transpired, authorities said. Without that document, it would be very difficult for the judge hearing Summersett’s application for relief to rule on the merits of his arguments.
Summersett’s current attorney, Tara Shurling of Columbia, is asking the court to set aside his conviction and grant him a new trial, said Mark Powell, communications director for the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, which is working to uphold the conviction. “We have not received the motion yet, so I cannot comment on that,” he said.
Shurling could not be reached for comment Wednesday, nor could William Thrower, who represented Summersett during the second trial. Summersett’s parents did not return a call to their home.
Kimberly Grant met in Columbia Tuesday with lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office. She said she was told that the transcript of the trial disappeared when the court reporter who documented the proceeding retired.
The court reporter has since been located and has been subpoenaed to testify at the Dec. 7 hearing, Grant said. Court officials have apparently located an audiotape of the trial as well, though some parts are said to be inaudible. Grant said she is hoping the tape will be enough to defeat Summersett’s attempts to win another trial.
“The situation is more hopeful than it was,” Grant said. “I’m just trying to stay focused, trying to stay positive.”
Powell, from the Attorney General’s Office, would not comment on Grant’s account of Tuesday’s meeting, saying it would be inappropriate for him to discuss the matter before the Dec. 7 hearing.
Prosecutors from the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office tried Summersett both times. Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she recently learned of the issue with the missing transcript, which she described as unusual but not unprecedented. She referred further questions to the Attorney General’s Office.
Grant, who works in the billing office of a local hospital, said she is doing her best to stay strong for her daughter’s sake.
Her daughter, Desaree, was just 8 years old when her father died. She is now an 18-year-old college student. Julian is never far from their thoughts, and each year they mark the day he died and his birthday, Nov. 11.
Julian’s relatives still live next door to Summersett’s family on Hazelwood Drive. Julian’s grandmother planted a bush between the two homes years back to block her view of their home. But the leafy shrub can’t hide the pain and bitterness that lingers.
“Time has been passed, but this is something you never get over,” Grant said. “It’s been like an never-ending nightmare.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.