Crime & Courts

Body in Lancaster, SC, found dismembered. Will the prosecutor seek the death penalty?

Peggy Rape, caretaker for Austin Steele, who was killed and found dismembered in Lancaster.
Peggy Rape, caretaker for Austin Steele, who was killed and found dismembered in Lancaster. Courtesy of Jillian Yarbrough

Legal experts say South Carolina law is clear. A murder case involving dismemberment or torture gives prosecutors the option to seek the death penalty.

Lancaster County prosecutors, for the first time in more than three decades, will decide whether to seek capital punishment in the death and dismemberment of a Lancaster teen.

Lancaster sheriff’s officials charged Christopher Holford with murder in the death of his roommate, 18-year-old Austin Tyler Steele. Police say Holford shot Steele in the neck weeks ago at a High Point Circle home in Lancaster.

“Steele survived into that night but was deceased the next morning,” deputies said in a statement. They also say Holford dismembered Steele’s body and concealed it.

Body parts were found March 1 after a call to police saying Steele was missing. Holford was arrested March 2 after giving a statement to police. Deputies have not said if Holford confessed.

Holford’s wife, Brandy Nicole Faye Duncan, 19, is charged with helping him cover up the crime.

Deputies described what they found during the investigation: “A human torso absent limbs was found buried on the property. A human skull was found outside. Bones were found in a burn barrel. Bones were found in a box under the mobile home.”

Randy Newman, 6th Circuit Solicitor who is Lancaster County’s top prosecutor, said no decision has been made on whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

“The investigation is still ongoing and it would be inappropriate right now to say what direction we will take,” he said.

Bill Nowicki, a Rock Hill lawyer appointed to represent Holford, said he has not been notified by prosecutors that the case against Holford could be a potential capital case.

He said his office has not yet received all discovery materials from prosecutors and his own investigation into the facts has just started.

“We will do our own investigation,” Nowicki said.

Lancaster County has not had a death penalty prosecution in almost 40 years.

In 1980 Louis Truesdale was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a Lancaster woman. After appeals and retrials, Truesdale was executed in 1998.

The decision to seek capital punishment is solely the discretion of Lancaster prosecutors, legal experts said. State law lists dismemberment and torture as what are called “aggravating factors” that allow prosecutors to seek capital punishment.

“It appears on its face that the defendant charged with the murder may have known the victim was still alive after the shooting, and didn’t seek help,” said Kenneth Gaines, a criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina. “That could be argued as a torture. Then from what police have said, the body was dismembered and even burned.”

It also is possible, because the investigation remains ongoing, that other “aggravating factors” could come into play. The death penalty can be sought if the murder happened during a sex crime, burglary or several other violent offenses, experts said.

Holford is a convicted child molester from Missouri who failed to register as a sex offender when moving to Lancaster in 2017, according to police and court records.

Only a jury can decide a death sentence after a guilty verdict in a trial. The death penalty is not allowed if a defendant pleads guilty to murder.

Prosecutors also must weigh the expensive cost of a death penalty case, experts said. The appeals process for a death sentence often takes decades.

Holford remains in the Lancaster County jail without bond. Nowicki said it is unclear if Holford will ask for a bond hearing in front of a circuit court judge.

“I have to speak with my client about that,” Nowicki said.

Any decision on capital punishment could take weeks or months as the case is investigated.