Trey Gowdy, the head of the select House committee on Benghazi, spent 11 hours last week tearing into Hillary Clinton over her handling of the 2012 attack on a US consulate in Libya that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. For many viewers, Gowdy’s adversarial style was proof that his committee is more concerned with partisan theatrics than with investigating the causes of the attack and the security breaches that may have enabled it. Gowdy learned this aggressive brand of questioning as a South Carolina prosecutor—a credential he cited during last week’s hearing. During his time as a district attorney—or “Circuit Solicitor” in South Carolina parlance—Gowdy became known as an effective litigator who was particularly savvy at winning death-penalty cases. When he was chosen to lead the Benghazi committee in May of 2014, a Fox News headline touted Gowdy as a “tenacious former death-row prosecutor.”
Yet Gowdy’s capital cases have not always panned out.
Last year, a South Carolina judge named Gary Hill took the highly unusual step of unilaterally reversing the death sentence of a man named Fredrick Evins, whom Gowdy had put on death row. Evins’s appeals attorneys, it turned out, had uncovered evidence that Evins suffers from a serious intellectual disability. In 2002, the Supreme Court held that executing a person with mental retardation violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
To be sure, the blame for Evins’s wrongful death sentence falls mostly with his original defense attorneys. According to several people familiar with the case, one of them has since admitted to failing to adequately represent Evins in his trial for the 2003 rape and murder of a South Carolina woman. But according to Hank Ehlies, the lead attorney on the team that won Evins’s sentence reduction and who studied events in the original trial, Gowdy too played a role.
At Evins’s original trial, an expert witness surprised the courtroom by asserting that Evins might be intellectually deficient. Gowdy, according to Ehlies intervened to effectively prevent the question of intellectual disability from interfering with his capital case. After the judge expressed concern over the new information, Ehlies says, Gowdy asked the judge to allow the prosecution to bring in an expert witness to attest to Evins’s mental fitness for the death penalty. The judge consented and the expert, says Ehlies, was a psychiatrist “known to be very favorable to the state.”
The state psychiatrist testified that Evins did not meet the state’s definition of intellectually disabled, recalls Jeffrey Bloom, a Columbia-based attorney who served as co-counsel with Ehlies and who also studied the original trial. Evins’s defense team then surrendered, says Bloom, telling the judge they would not introduce any further evidence regarding their client’s mental disability. (The defense team’s psychiatrist also reportedly agreed with the state’s finding.) The prosecution then asked the judge to make a determination that Evins was mentally fit for the death penalty, Bloom says, “and that was it.”
Bloom says that a prosecutor can choose two paths when confronted with such newly surfaced information. “He can say, ‘Oh golly this should have come out months ago, we’re going to stop now,’ or the prosecutor can push on, which is what was done here.” (Bloom later emailed to clarify that he has “no criticism to make of Solicitor Gowdy as to how he handled the trial proceeding when potential evidence of mental retardation/intellectual disability arose.”)