The 12-year-old girl with dreams of playing violin and becoming a veterinarian did not die from cancer or some other disease.
Amanda Cope was a seventh-grader at Sullivan Middle School in Rock Hill in 2001, brimming with hope despite living in poverty and squalor. Despite sleeping in a bed that had a fan blowing over it in the cold nights of November – a fan to keep the cockroaches away.
The home was so bad, Amanda and her two younger sisters had to navigate pathways forged through the household garbage to get from one room to another.
That year, state Department of Social Services investigators already were looking into the Cope family’s situation for two reasons. First, Amanda’s parents had pleaded guilty just two years before to allowing Amanda and her sisters to live in a mobile home that was even worse. It had no toilet. Buckets of urine and feces filled the space. Rotted food. Vermin.
DSS intervened, cops charged Billy Wayne Cope and Mary Sue Cope with unlawful neglect in 1999, and they pleaded guilty, promising to change.
Over the next two years, Amanda’s sisters told The Herald last week, Billy Wayne Cope remained cruel and abusive, using a paddle – nicknamed “Lucy” – to discipline them. Once, they said, Amanda was beaten black and blue.
Early in 2001, someone noticed cockroaches crawling from the clothing and bookbags of the Cope girls, and DSS was alerted again.
Amanda’s mother worked the overnight shift at a factory. Her father, 385 pounds, with money for computers, worked part-time delivering chicken.
Amid all that, Amanda was learning to play the violin at school.
“I remember her walking into class, the smile so inquisitive, a girl who wanted to know more with each passing day,” said Jacob Dakon, a violinist himself who taught music at Sullivan Middle in 2001. “Amanda wanted to know more about the world. She wanted to make a unique impact on the world. She would have, too.”
But Amanda would not get that chance.
On the night of Nov. 29, 2001, Amanda was raped. She was sodomized. She was strangled.
“She was a beautiful child,” said Dakon, now an assistant professor of music education at the University of Kansas. “She is one of the reasons I continue teaching.”
Amanda Cope died, by all accounts, an unspeakably horrible death.
In a written statement to The Herald, her sisters said the Cope children had to live in filthy homes – their father making sure his computer and desk were in good shape while the girls at times lived without a toilet.
A pathologist testified in 2004 that Amanda had been subjected to repeated sexual abuse.
She was, without a doubt, the victim that terrible November day in 2001, prosecutors and police say. Her sisters say that, too.
But not her father, who insists to this day that he is the victim of a merciless justice system that locked onto him as a fat, sexually twisted pervert who must be guilty despite the presence of DNA from a sexual predator on Amanda’s clothes and body.
Billy Wayne Cope claimed when he was arrested in 2001 and when he was on trial in 2004 – and his lawyers continued that claim last week, as their latest attempt to appeal his conviction was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court – that Cope slept through the rape and sodomy and strangling of his daughter by a pedophile ex-con named James Edward Sanders.
Before Sanders or his DNA ever came up, though, Cope confessed to the crimes, to staging the scene to make it look like Amanda strangled herself with a blanket, to sexual abuse of all three of his daughters.
Then he recanted it all.
His lawyers said Cope’s confessions were false, coerced because police told him he had failed a polygraph exam that he actually had passed. Cope and the lawyers still say he is “innocent” and did not get a fair trial. No fair trial, despite four courts’ – now including the highest court in the land – saying otherwise.
Cope and Sanders both were convicted in 2004 of Amanda’s rape and murder.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Cope’s appeal. He now seems destined to die in prison, serving life without parole.
Cope’s lawyers vowed to fight what they called “an appalling miscarriage of justice” against their client. The presence of Sanders’ DNA proves he is the sole culprit, they say.
A 2010 Dateline NBC report, several law professors and a few others have raised concerns in court documents and media reports that Cope did not get a fair trial. Prosecutors say the TV special was one-sided in favor of Cope.
Cope’s surviving daughters say their father was selfish and controlling, despite any attempts by his lawyers to portray him as loving and a victim of a justice system out for his hide.
Sanders’ lawyer stated in court during the 2004 trial that Billy Wayne Cope had sexually assaulted Amanda for a long period of time, in a relationship so twisted that Amanda had become Cope’s regular partner.
Prosecutors also scoff at Cope’s claims of being a victim, saying Cope confessed because he was guilty of the worst crime imaginable – the rape and murder of his own child. Worse, prosecutors say, Cope shared the awful deeds with Sanders.
“This was at the hands of her father, the one person in life that is supposed to protect you from the predators of the world,” said Kevin Brackett, the 16th Circuit Solicitor who prosecuted Cope and has never wavered in his commitment to keeping Cope in prison for good.
Amanda’s death was a “shock” to her teachers. She never told the adults at school about what she had to endure at such a young age. Even with the DSS investigation at the time, the sexual abuse that Amanda’s autopsy showed, and the allegations that the two younger sisters had been sexually assaulted, too, were still a secret.
“If anything was going on, I never knew it – none of the teachers did,” said Dakon, the music teacher.
Amanda carried the secret of being abused until she died.
Cope and his lawyers deny that he sexually assaulted his children. They deny that he killed Amanda.
Police and prosecutors say Cope and Sanders worked together in the sexual assaults that ended with Amanda’s strangulation.
Prosecutors also charged Cope with sexual assault against both of Amanda’s sisters but dismissed the charges with the right to restore after he was convicted of rape and murder in Amanda’s death and sentenced to life in prison.
Amanda’s sisters declined to be interviewed, but they provided a written statement about the case and their reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision not to accept Cope’s continued appeal. The Herald is not naming the sisters, now adults, because both were sexual assault victims – victims, they still say, of their father.
“In Billy’s last confession, he stated that not only did he sexually molest Amanda, but us as well,” the daughters said. “This statement is true.”
The surviving daughters dismissed their father’s claims of being a victim of injustice.
“During the past 13 years, Billy has told a string of lies that has shaped him into the victim,” they said in their statement. “The world is forgetting that a 12-year-old child lost her life. She is the victim, not him. What the world didn’t get to know was that Amanda was an intelligent and loving girl whose passion for God was remarkable.
“All Amanda Cope wanted in life was to be happy. She wanted a farm and horses and to be a large animal veterinarian. She touched the hearts of many with her beautiful abilities to sing and play the violin, and eventually wanted to marry, have children, and to travel the world. She had a contagious laugh which she used to make everyone who knew her smile.
“She is the one that missed out on life, not Billy Cope.”
The Supreme Court’s decision that ended Cope’s appeal and made it likely that Cope will spend the rest of his life in prison will allow them some healing, the daughters wrote.
“Since November 2001, a part of our lives has been placed on hold,” they said. “We feel like now (that) the U.S. Supreme Court has made their decision, we can begin to move on with our lives – leaving Billy in our past and Amanda in our hearts.”
The Cope case became a sensational trial of depravity and remains so as the appeals wind down and Cope’s options to try to reverse the conviction seem slim. He still has backers, while others say his crimes were so horrible that he should be buried under the prison.
Amanda Renee Cope is buried at Rock Hill’s Grandview Memorial Park. Money to pay for the burial and grave marker came not from her father but donations from her classmates and teachers, the community, the outraged people of Rock Hill. Her bronze tombstone has a picture of an angel on it.
In the middle of the tombstone, the image of a violin.