Trial begins Monday in murder of USC student who jumped on suspected Uber ride | Colombia News

COLUMBIA – The murder of Samantha Josephson two years ago after hopping in a car she thought was her Uber shocked the nation and prompted ride booking companies and state legislatures to change the rules.

Now, the trial for the murder of a Clarendon County man in the stabbing death of a University of South Carolina senior is scheduled to begin July 19 in Columbia.

Josephson disappeared from outside a Five Points bar on a cold evening in March 2019 and was found dead hours later 65 miles in a field by turkey hunters. Security cameras caught Josephson entering the backseat of a black sedan which authorities said was a trap because the child safety locks had been activated.

Nathaniel Rowland, 27, is charged with murder in the murder of the 21-year-old from New Jersey. She was heading to law school this fall. He was arrested after police spotted a car matching the description Josephson entered was seen the night after his disappearance from Five Points.

Blood matching Josephson’s was found in the car, authorities testified at a 2020 hearing in which Rowland was denied bail.

Josephson’s debit card was used twice at ATMs after his disappearance, and someone tried to sell Josephson’s phone in a store for $ 300, prosecutors and authorities testified at the hearing in 2020.

Rowland has denied his accusations and his family has maintained his innocence. He has no previous convictions.

Prosecutors will not seek the death penalty, a process according to legal observers rarely justifies the time and expense.

Josephson’s death made national headlines as it raised concerns about ride booking services, although no one has said Rowland worked for one.

Uber and Lyft have adopted policies to make it easier to confirm that a ride is one of theirs. States have passed laws requiring more external identification of trip booking cars. And Josephson’s parents started a non-profit organization to raise awareness about the safety of grocery reservations.

The suspect will not face the death penalty

A jury could hear horrific details about Josephson’s death.

Josephson’s mother said during the emotional connection hearing in 2020 that her daughter had been stabbed more than 30 times and was unrecognizable when her parents attempted to identify her body.

But the 5th Circuit DA’s office has confirmed it is not seeking the death penalty against Rowland. Murder convictions and guilty pleas in South Carolina carry a 30-year life sentence.

A death penalty trial would have required formal notification of prosecutors’ intent, former prosecutors noted. Death penalty cases are much longer and more expensive for taxpayers defending an accused through a myriad of appeals, they said.

A death sentence requires additional circumstances beyond a murder charge, such as sexual assault or kidnapping, or whether the victim is a child or a law enforcement official.

“It’s not your routine armed robbery where someone panics and shoots someone,” said Dick Harpootlian, Democratic state senator and lawyer from Columbia who has prosecuted and defended sentence cases of death. “It must be statutory aggravating circumstances, and the kind of case where people say this conduct deserves the ultimate punishment.”

Mitigating circumstances, such as whether the accused person does not have a violent history, their age and mental condition are also taken into account when deciding on the death penalty, in accordance with state law.

Minority Parliamentary Leader Todd Rutherford, another former Columbia prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, and Harpootlian said Richland County jurors are less likely than other areas of the state to sentence an individual to death. convicted murderer.

African Americans make up the highest percentage of the county’s population, and black jurors are less likely than white jurors to support the death penalty, “for obvious historical reasons,” Harpootlian said. He recalled less than a handful of death sentences in Richland County since the United States reinstated the death penalty in 1976, a fraction of neighboring Lexington County during the same period.

Rutherford said he was curious what evidence might come to light as to why Rowland wanted a trial and the risk of life behind bars instead of pleading guilty and asking a judge for 30 years in prison.

“What does he think the evidence will show that would cause him to be found not guilty?” Rutherford asked.

Daniel Goldberg, with the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, will pursue the case. Rowland will be defended by lawyer Tracy Pinnock, a lawyer from Richland County.

what changed

Since their daughter’s murder, the Josephson family have advocated openly for ride reservation services to make it easier for passengers to confirm their driver.

Josephson’s parents, Seymour and Marci, started the #WhatsMyName foundation to amplify safety messages on board.

” What is my name ? Refers to the question passengers should ask a ride reservation driver before getting in the car to make sure it is the one assigned to them for their trip. Music star Darius Rucker and comedian Bob Saget are among the celebrities who have recorded public service announcements for the foundation.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in South Carolina quickly passed a law after Josephson’s death requiring license plate numbers to be displayed on the windshields of ride-booking vehicles. Laws have also been passed in North Carolina and New Jersey. And bills have been introduced in Congress.

Seymour Josephson declined to comment ahead of the trial.

SC Rep Seth Rose, the Democrat from Columbia who sponsored the bill and whose district includes Five Points, said he had noticed more effort from drivers and customers to ensure that everyone knew each other.

“I think legitimate carpool drivers and customers of these services have learned to be safer as a result of this incident,” said Rose, a lawyer and former prosecutor.

Rose also pointed to planned security improvements not directly related to Josephson’s death, such as security camera upgrades by the City of Columbia and the nearly $ 5 million included in the state’s current budget for improved roads on Harden Street at Five Points aimed at making the area safer for people on foot.

Uber announced changes to its app from the USC campus shortly after Josephson’s death. The push notification asks drivers to verify the car’s license plate, as well as the make and model, as well as the driver’s photo. The same reminders are displayed on the app when the driver is heading to the pick-up site.

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