We all played our roles but outcome was already decided

6 mins read

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment in a series of three essays on the State v. Plath and Arnold trial that happened in 1979. The first part can be found at https://yourislandnews.com/looking-back-on-the-tragedy-of-april-12-1978/. The second part can be found at https://yourislandnews.com/facts-of-gardner-case-twice-lead-to-death-sentence/


Writers cannot escape their own history. We write what we know, what we have experienced.

In 1979 I was eight years out of law school and still believed the system in South Carolina was fundamentally fair. Yes, there were colorful characters like Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh; and irascible judges like Clyde Eltzroth, but the legal system delivered fundamental, if imperfect justice to the citizens of this small, misunderstood State.

The Arnold trial taught me about the far from equal battle that takes place in our courts every day — the State gave us a whopping $3000 to fund our months-long case. It was an awakening regarding the “presumption of innocence” — piously repeated by every judge and largely ignored by every jury.

But beyond these revelations, this trial reinforced the vague notion that certain people — given their biology and the circumstances of their birth — never have a chance.

In the 60s and 70s, there was a theory that men born with an extra Y chromosome were prone to aggression. At the time of the trial my father was an immunologist at MUSC, and I convinced him to take a tissue sample from John Arnold’s cheek.

If he had tested positive for the extra chromosome, we intended to argue that John Arnold was biologically prone to violence. But he didn’t have that extra chromosome, and we didn’t make that argument. Eventually the extra chromosome theory was debunked.

Now the genetic basis for criminal behavior is well established. Recent studies, especially among identical twins, show that identical twins are more similar to each other in terms of violence than fraternal twins.

A landmark study in 1984 showed that children (in Denmark) adopted from parents with a criminal record are more likely to be criminals themselves.

Brain imagining studies have found that murderers tend to have poorer functioning of the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that regulates impulsive behavior. Other studies have found that psychopaths have an 18 percent smaller amygdala — the part of the brain where moral decisions are made.

I believed then, and believe today, that Arnold’s grotesque face, along with the blood-red birthmark, was a source of constant humiliation. I believe that this rejection, together with an unscanned brain deformity, was part of the reason he did what he did on that afternoon in 1978.

There is, however, no rational defense for the blows that he stuck, the stabbing and the killing of Betty Gardner. The only question to be decided was whether or not he should forfeit his life for what he did.

The death penalty, like the existence of God, is something one believes in or does not believe in. When it is discovered that an innocent man has been wrongfully executed, the death penalty falls out of favor. It is put on hold for a year or two while there is a renewed, national debate about its use in the United States.

But when you have a killing, like the Betty Gardner killing, many rational people believe the only response is execution. That Old Testament thinking was in vogue — in South Carolina in 1979 — and remains in place today. It remains in place despite evidence that points to biological imperatives beyond the conscious control of the killer.

State after state, most recently Maryland, have come to the conclusion that there are too many scientific variables, too many unknowns, to give this life or death decision to a jury. South Carolina is not one of those states.

At the end of the first trial Judge Eltzroth called me into his chambers, put his hand on my young shoulders, and said, “You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken shit.” And for a number of years I walked around with that rationale in my head.

But as I have aged, I’ve wondered what I might have done differently. Was there some expert I might have called that would have saved the life of John Arnold. If we had been given more than $3,000, could we have mounted a better defense?

But in 1979, I was caught up in a drama that was beyond my pay grade; that I could not control; where the outcome was pre-ordained. I played my role, the judge and jury played theirs, and Beaufort County and the State of South Carolina moved on.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

Latest from Blog


Woman’s love of Beaufort redeemed I love Beaufort, because of the people. My daughter and I…