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As execution nears, authorities weigh witness confession

Updated:
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Days before Richard Charles Johnson is to
be executed for shooting a South Carolina state trooper to death 14
years ago, a woman has stepped forward to say she's guilty of the
crime.

But officials doubt her credibility and say the execution will
likely proceed as planned.

Johnson's own appeal for clemency has been joined by the state's
new Roman Catholic bishop, who wants Gov. Jim Hodges to reduce
Johnson's sentence to life without parole in light of the new
information. Johnson is scheduled to die Friday by lethal
injection.

In a sworn affidavit submitted last week, Connie Sue Hess says
she killed trooper Bruce K. Smalls in September 1985.

Johnson, 36, of Morehead City, N.C., was convicted of killing a
Virginia man who gave him, Hess and another man a ride. He was also
convicted of killing Smalls, who pulled over the motor home they
were in.

Recanting earlier testimony, Hess also said in the statement
that the other man, not Johnson, killed the motor home's owner.

Hess said she confessed to ease her conscience, and had lied
originally "because I did not want to die. The solicitor told me I
would fry if I had anything to do with it."

Johnson's lawyer has appealed to the state Supreme Court to
postpone the execution, and Johnson has petitioned the governor's
office to have his sentence commuted.

Hess' statements may be challenged because of her mental
history, the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald reported today. The
newspaper said Hess has spent time in mental institutions and
currently lives in a supervised apartment complex for the mentally
ill.

"I think that without a doubt her credibility is an issue,"
Robb McBurney, a spokesman for the South Carolina attorney
general's office, told the newspaper. He said the attorney
general's office is reviewing her statement and will advise the
court.

Attempts by both the newspaper and The Associated Press to reach
Hess and her family were unsuccessful.

Neither Hess nor the third hitchhiker were prosecuted in the
case. Whether she will now be prosecuted has not been determined,
but she could face murder, obstruction of justice and perjury
charges, McBurney said.

Hodges will not make a decision about the execution until the
case is reviewed by the attorney general and the local prosecutor's
office, said spokesman Nina Brock. And Hess' statement has not
altered preparations for the state's third execution this year.

"We're still going ahead ... until we hear something different
from the courts," said John Barkley, a Corrections Department
spokesman.


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