Update, Sept. 28, 2020: The state officially pardoned Doug O'Neal on Sept. 17, 2020.
Doug O'Neal spent 24 years in prison for the murder of a woman police still can't identify. But the evidence against him was so questionable that even the man who helped put him away says he's innocent.
In 1990, Doug and Catherine O’Neal were in their Columbia home, giving one of their children a bath, when a “friend” called and said he had something to bring over. That something turned out to be the police, who soon took Doug away at gunpoint
“The whole place was lit up like Christmas trees,” Catherine said. “This lady stopped me and told me to put my hands in the air. I said ‘What’s this about?’ She said, ‘Didn’t you know your husband is a serial killer?’”
If you were paying attention to the news in South Carolina then, you almost certainly came across the name Doug O’Neal – the professional tile worker suspected of killing two prostitutes and a 3-year-old girl over a six-month stretch of 1989.
O’Neal was swept into the criminal justice system, waiting to be tried for a trio of murders. And then, just as abruptly as those charges had been leveled against him, they were dropped for lack of evidence.
And that would have been a relief-laden ending to a bizarre odyssey if not for the fact that the Richland County Sheriff’s Office had a body on its hands. This one belonged to a woman whose remains were found in some woods in the northeast corner of the county in late 1988. To this day, the police only know her as Chris Doe – formerly Jane Doe, but the woman’s first name identifier was changed when a woman named Alice Whetstone told police she knew the woman as Chris.
Jim Morton, who was a prosecutor against O’Neal for the Fifth Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office in 1991, said Whetsone had been arrested for the death of the 3-year-old. She told police that she knew about a body in the woods – that she’d gone there with about a half-dozen men to bury her after she’d been killed in a sleazy motel room by one of the men who’d dropped “Chris” in the woods – Doug O’Neal.
The fact that Whetstone had led police to the body without having been coached – or even asked – convinced prosecutors that her testimony against O’Neal was worth pursuing, Morton said. It should be noted, however, that none of the other men she claimed were part of the woman's burial ever turned up.
O’Neal was still in a Richland County jail cell when he was cleared of the murders of the two women and the girl. But in dropping those charges they put the murder of Chris Doe on him.
The case now was almost fully based on Whetstone’s testimony – who had herself been arrested on prostitution charges and was a known drug user, according to Morton. But her testimony then, and her knowledge of the crime scene, were enough to convince Morton that he’d be putting away a violent killer for the rest of his life.
The judge and juries, after two mistrials, agreed. They declared that O’Neal needed to die of old age in prison. He was sentenced to life, but with the possibility of parole.
Morton felt pretty good about what he’d done at the time. Like a lot of prosecutors, he was happy to win and confident that he’d put a guilty man away.
That feeling lasted until 2014, when he became O'Neal's most important ally for his release.
So What Happened?
The first and most obvious question about a change of heart that extreme is: Why would anyone prosecute an actually innocent man?
And the simple answer is the one Morton will give you: “Because I thought he was guilty.”
There’s more to it than that, of course, namely: Why did Morton think Doug O’Neal was guilty to begin with? Especially because Alice Whetstone was not an ideal witness. Apart from her issues with law enforcement, Morton admits Whetstone was erratic on the stand.
So why did he believe her? Well, it starts with the relationship between prosecutors and law enforcement when someone needs to be held accountable, he said.
“They were my friends,” Morton said. He trusted them implicitly. So when the Richland County Sheriff’s Office told him that they had a guy and a believable story about that guy’s role in an especially violent death, Morton accepted that his friends had done their best work and had corralled a dangerous killer.
Plus, there’s the simple competitiveness factor, Morton said.
“We wanted to believe Alice,” he said, because "we wanted to win.”
By the time 2014 rolled around, Morton concluded that the prosecution against O’Neal was deeply flawed. There was the erratic witness, questionable details in her testimony, a lack of any forensic evidence tying O’Neal to the death of a woman he said he didn’t even know, the fact that one of the two mistrials happened because a juror had apparently slipped out to a bar before the verdict and boasted (with a slur) that they were going to put O'Neal in prison, and an unwavering denial by O’Neal himself that he had anything to do with anyone’s death, Morton said.
All of which begs a second obvious question: If the case was that flimsy, how could a jury not have at least some reasonable doubt?
Morton said it’s often hard for a jury to listen to a parade of experts and professionals and law enforcement officers, who are often held in high trust, and think they could all get it so wrong. That surely, if the entire criminal justice system says it has the right guy, it can't be that off the mark.
Neither the Fifth Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office nor the Richland County Sheriff’s Office commented for this story.
Angels and Demons
O’Neal does not hide that he was a troubled man in his late 20s and early 30s (he was 31 when he was sentenced to life). Across the other end of his couch, in the living room of his Columbia home in October, he freely admitted to consorting with prostitutes while he was married. He ran afoul of the law a few times. He said police tried more than once to bust him for being a pimp, but never could make it stick – which he attributes to his never being one to begin with.
But a killer? There was no way he’d admit to that. In fact, when he came up for parole the first time, in 2010, the parole board told him that recognizing his crime and expressing remorse were his tickets to the outside. His response: “I’ll rot in prison first.”
So O’Neal stayed in prison where, he said, he never had a single infraction on his record. Morton corroborated this.
Two years later, O'Neal came up for parole again. He again refused to admit that he was guilty.
While those two parole hearings were still a few years away, Doug O’Neal made two acquaintances. The first was a man who would become his best friend, Claude Humphries. Humphries was doing what was to be a 25-year stretch on a drug conviction. But he was only in prison for about a decade before he overturned his own case, thanks to earning a paralegal certificate while serving his time.
O’Neal and Humphries had become close confidants, and Humphries believed immediately that his friend was the wrong man serving time for murder.
“I just knew he wasn’t a killer,” Humphries said. “Not a doubt in my mind.”
When Humphries got out, he vowed to get his friend out and exonerated. And he was willing to do whatever it took. He’d gone into business fixing cars and wanted to use his money to free O’Neal.
“I was looking into selling my property to get him out,” he said. Humphries even said that had he won the lottery, he’d have spent every cent of it working to get O’Neal out of prison.
But although Humphries was low on resources, he did have a platform to speak to the public. Nearly every customer at his job at an auto shop would hear about his friend behind bars. Some listened. Most ignored or sympathized. But Mary Stewart, O'Neal's second important prison-made acquaintance, took the story to heart.
Stewart lived in Columbia at the time. Today she lives in Beaufort. She’s spent the better part of a decade piecing together facts and files from O’Neal’s trials.
“The more I uncovered with the inconsistencies and the mistakes from the legal standpoint,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it. Here I am, not an attorney and I can see this after one weekend of reading the initial briefs.”
Stewart had never met O’Neal before his second parole hearing in 2012. But by that point she’d “turned my living room into a cold case room,” lost friends because of her zeal to see O’Neal exonerated, and, admittedly, badgered everyone she could, from the sheriff’s office to the attorneys involved in the trials, until she finally got through to Jim Morton.
Stewart said she also pressured prison officials to treat O’Neal’s multiple myeloma – a plasma cancer – because she felt he wasn’t getting adequate care. He’d contracted the disease just before Stewart called him. The cancer went into full remission about six months after his release.
Stewart called Morton and asked him to take a fresh look at the case in 2012. Morton, by then a defense attorney and partner in Morton & Gettys in Rock Hill, agreed. He was sickened by a sudden thought – that he’d gotten a conviction entirely wrong.
Meanwhile, Stewart had gotten through to O’Neal in prison.
“She called me,” O’Neal said. “She told me, ‘I want you to know that I love you.’"
When he realized that this stranger on the phone was serious, and had been working to help clear his name, O’Neal nearly buckled. For the first time in … well, maybe ever by now, he had hope.
“She was my angel,” he said.
O’Neal considering Stewart an angel is barely, if at all, metaphor. While in prison, O’Neal became a devout Christian, who shouldered the weight of incarceration through prayer. He’d made friends “on both sides” of the system – with other inmates and the guards – and lived as cleanly as a prisoner can live, he said.
So the sudden appearance of a strange woman, also guided by her Christian faith, willing to give it all up to save a man she was convinced was innocent of these charges indeed seemed to O’Neal as if God had sent someone to rescue him.
But in the more secular hallways of this labyrinthine tale, O’Neal’s most important ally was Jim Morton.
“I went to the courthouse and looked at the evidence,” Morton said. It didn’t take him long to conclude he had gotten it wrong. He tried to tell the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, but they “wouldn’t cooperate at all,” he said. “They said, ‘We got the right man.’”
He's also tried for years to find Alice Whetstone, whom he said has fallen from the radar.
Morton’s biggest move was to wait until 2014, when O’Neal was coming back up for parole. He went to see O’Neal in prison – which O’Neal was not initially thrilled about.
“I had nothing to say to him,” O’Neal said.
Or, at least not until Morton told him why he was there – to speak on his behalf at O'Neal's upcoming hearing. There were plenty of tears, and O’Neal told Morton that as of that moment, “I no longer hate you, but I love you.”
Morton accompanied O’Neal before the parole board in 2014. “And I told the parole board that I believe I had prosecuted an innocent man,” Morton said.
He also told them he was so convinced of O’Neal’s innocence that he’d open his house if O'Neal needed a place to stay. But there was no need. O’Neal had a home – the same one in Columbia from which the police took him away in 1990. And, he was going back to his wife, Catherine, who, it turns out, is his ex-wife too.
About 10 years into his sentence, O’Neal ran out of appeals to overturn his conviction. Then he ran out of hope. So in an effort to unshackle Catherine from being married to a man she'd never see on the outside again, he divorced her.
“I was upset,” she said. “He told me to go on with my life. I didn’t want to go on with anybody else.”
When Doug was paroled, he and Catherine immediately remarried. Morton and his wife were in attendance.
Since his release, the couple barely spends time apart. She said she’s spent enough time without him.
Despite the years apart, though, the O’Neals forgive Jim Morton for putting Doug away. They don’t see a point in holding anything against him for doing his job, with what he was given to do it with all those years ago.
"we forgive him," she said. "We're Christians."
Morton said it has made things easier on him to know he’s sincerely forgiven. But he’s not likely to ever be fully over it.
“Two times I pointed at him and called him a murderer,” he said. It makes him shake his head.
He also holds onto something insidious about his time as a prosecutor – doubt. He wonders if there is anyone else he might have helped put away who doesn’t belong in jail.
“It gives me the chills,” he said.