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Crime & Courts

South Carolina Murder Case: Video Evidence Contradicts Conviction

Did jurors have full, unfettered access to critical frame-by-frame recordings?

Late last month, our media outlet filed a report on alleged prosecutorial misconduct in a Sumter County, South Carolina murder case. The prosecutor at the heart of those allegations? Assistant attorney general Johnny Meadors – the man who had the last word in convicted killer Alex Murdaugh’s double homicide trial in Walterboro, South Carolina.

As noted in our coverage, Meadors was accused of suppressing exculpatory evidence in the case of Diontrae Travon Epps – thus violating Epps’ rights under the Brady rule. This landmark due process standard – which stems from a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case – requires prosecutors to turn over all exculpatory evidence to a defendant prior to trial.

Exculpatory evidence refers to information that could either prove a defendant’s innocence or materially assist their counsel in impeaching the credibility of the state’s case against them.

In Epps’ case, sources told this news outlet federal prosecutors provided Meadors with witness statements indicating the defendant acted in self-defense in connection with the murder rap he was facing.

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Epps’ murder charge was filed in the aftermath of the so-called “Sunoco Shootout” – a gang-on-gang firefight that erupted at the “Hop In” convenience store in downtown Sumter, S.C. at approximately 1:00 a.m. EDT on Sunday September 8, 2019.

Thirty-year-old Gregory “Donta” Middleton and his cousin, 30-year-old Michael Rogers – both of Sumter, S.C. – died of gunshot wounds sustained in the “Sunoco Shootout.” Middleton died at the scene, while Rogers was pronounced dead hours later at Prisma Health Tuomey in Sumter.

Epps was wounded in the shooting, as was 22-year-old Christopher Ford of Sumter.

According to Sumter police, the shooting was initiated – at least in part – by a music video entitled “Boost The Murder Rate.” This video was posted to YouTube a little over twenty-four hours before the shooting (on September 6, 2019) by a rapper named Tae Blocka.

It remains on YouTube to this day …

(Click to view)

YouTube/ ShotByNae

While this news outlet continues investigating the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct against Meadors, new evidence has come to light in the aftermath of Epps’ murder trial raising additional questions about his guilt – beyond the exculpatory statements allegedly buried by Meadors prior to trial.

Epps was found guilty of murder on September 29, 2023 by a jury of his peers. Upon conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by S.C. circuit court judge R. Kirk Griffin. Like all new inmates of the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC), he is currently housed at Kirkland Correctional Institution – an intake and evaluation center located just north of Columbia, S.C.

After Meadors was taken off of the case, Epps was tried on the murder rap by S.C. third circuit solicitor Ernest A. Finney III.

Should he have been tried for murder, though?

In the wake of our prior reporting, this media outlet obtained surveillance footage from the “Hop-In” on the morning in question depicting multiple angles of the “Sunoco Shootout” – including footage of the fatal shot which claimed the life of Michael Rogers.

Our director of special projects Dylan Nolan synced the three available angles of the shooting and the results appear to provide clear and compelling evidence of Epps’ innocence – at least as it relates to Rogers’ murder.

Take a look …

(Click to view)

(Provided)

The melee starts around the four-second mark of the synced clips (above). Epps – wearing a white shirt and white shoes – is seen on camera taking a swing at Rogers (wearing a black shirt and black shoes). The instigation of the gunfight is clearly visible in the two videos at the bottom of the frame, dubbed “Camera16” and “Camera12.”

Within two seconds of Epps throwing his punch – which Rogers appears to have dodged – the cameras show Rogers pivoting away from the defendant and discharging his weapon at him. Epps took a bullet from Rogers and can be seen on the video clutching his right side at the point of impact.

At this point, Epps retreats around the rear bed of the pickup truck while Rogers turns away from him – pivoting to his right and fleeing across the parking lot.

At the six-second mark of the video, Epps can be seen drawing his own weapon. At the seven-second mark – he fires the first of several shots toward Rogers. Only one of these shots – the first shot – appears to have been on a level trajectory. The others appear to have been aimed upward as Epps fell backward and out of the view of the camera – presumably beginning to feel the effects of the gunshot wound he sustained just moments earlier.

By the eight-second mark of the video, Epps has fallen backward out of the frame – and by the nine-second mark he has fired the final shot (or at least the final shot captured by the video surveillance).

Here is a sketch of the melee depicting Epps (in orange) and Rogers (in black) …

(Click to view)

(Provided)

As Epps was disappearing from view on the two lower cameras at the ten-second mark, Rogers was just coming into view on the main surveillance video – dubbed “Camera01.” As he comes into the frame, he is clearly visible running away from Epps with his left side presented to the defendant. Just before the video hits the eleven-second mark, Rogers is struck by a bullet that immediately drops him to the ground – mortally wounding him.

Shortly after receiving this shot, a second bullet struck him in the shoulder as he was bent over on the ground.

Again, at the moment the first (fatal) gunshot wound struck him, Rogers is clearly seen running away from Epps – presenting his left side to the defendant.

Take a look …

(Click to view)

(Provided)

Why does this matter?

Because according to medical examiners, the bullet that killed Rogers entered his body between his right nipple and right armpit and exited out of the center of back – severing his spine in the process.

Take a look …

(Click to view)

(Provided)

In other words, based on the trajectory of the fatal bullet, it would have been impossible for Epps to have fired the shot that killed Rogers. Or, for that matter, the shot which produced the subsequent shoulder wound.

Both shots were fired from the opposite direction – meaning the person who shot and killed Rogers was firing from a position 180 degrees away from where Epps was, with Rogers presenting his right side to them.

I discussed these conclusions with a forensic expert who reviewed the video footage – all three surveillance cameras – frame-by-frame. They confirmed the assessment: Epps could not have fired the shot that killed Rogers.

As if this weren’t enough, during the course of our review of these materials we learned the jury that convicted Epps was provided this same surveillance footage courtesy of revered forensic expert Kenneth Kinsey – the star witness for the prosecution at Alex Murdaugh’s trial. In this case, Kinsey was an expert witness for Epps – detailing to jurors how the defendant could not have possibly killed Rogers.

With an expert like Kinsey testifying as to the particulars of the crime scene … how could jurors have failed to reach the correct conclusion?

According to our sources, questions have been raised in the aftermath of this trial as to whether jurors had full and unfettered access to the frame-by-frame versions of the surveillance footage. This news outlet is investigating those reports along with our ongoing inquiries regarding Meadors’ alleged prosecutorial misconduct.

To be clear: Epps undeniably initiated the violent melee that resulted in the deaths of Rogers and Middleton. Not only that, in addition to attacking Rogers – he clearly fired multiple shots at him in an attempt to kill him. By virtue of his prior convictions for violent crime, Epps was also a felon in possession of a firearm at the time of this attempted murder.

Epps was – and is – a violent criminal. A gangbanger. A menace and a danger to society.

Add it all up and prosecutors could have easily put him away for at least thirty years on attempted murder and related weapons charges. Which they should have done. Indeed, Epps absolutely deserves to be locked up for decades for the role he played in this shooting. Anything short of that and my media outlet would have assailed judge Griffin for excessive leniency – with good reason.

But as it specifically relates to the murder of Michael Rogers, the evidence is clear: Not only did Epps not do it, he couldn’t have done it.

Stay tuned for much more on this story as we continue to investigate …

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Will Folks (Dylan Nolan)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.

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2 comments

Observer (the real one) October 10, 2023 at 2:46 pm

Excellent investigatory journalism!

Reply
Cranston Snord Top fan October 12, 2023 at 6:56 am

Some— not all Prosecutors encourage first Responders / law enforcement officers not to document information favorable to a Defendant
Witness statements collected and reduces to writing by Officers don’t include exculpatory witness information .

Prosecutors receive case file and the issue of exculpatory evidence is not an issue as it excluded during initial investigation .
Videos disappear or were not turned on .

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