ROCKINGHAM — After serving 27 years of a life sentence for murder in Isiah Sweeney’s drowning death, Richmond County resident S.C. Liles walked out of prison a free man.
Liles, who has maintained he is innocent in the December 1986 killing, left Anson County’s Brown Creek Correctional Institution July 25 after officials granted him parole, according to state records. He is now 64, two years older than the man whose life he is convicted of taking.
A Richmond County jury found Liles guilty of first-degree murder by premeditation and deliberation on July 23, 1987, and the presiding judge sentenced him to life in prison. He was eligible for parole because state structured sentencing laws only apply to crimes committed after October 1994.
Liles is on active parole for five years. If he does not violate the terms of his release, his parole will end in July 2019.
Prosecutors said Liles and accomplice Floyd Ingram tied up the 62-year-old Sweeney after the three friends met at Sweeney’s mother’s home to drink liquor on Dec. 17, 1986.
The men broke into a rural Richmond County house near the Pee Dee River, where Ingram said he and Liles ganged up on Sweeney. Liles struck Sweeney in the head with a board, laid him in the river and held his foot on the man until he drowned, according to court testimony as recorded in trial transcripts.
Liles testified that he wasn’t involved in the killing and knew nothing about Sweeney’s death. The N.C. Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court upheld his conviction, but Liles has maintained that Ingram framed him for the killing.
“I’m an innocent man and the only thing I’ve been convicted of is DWI,” Liles wrote in a February 1999 letter asking Richmond County Superior Court Judge Edwin S. Preston to review his case. “I’m serving a life sentence for a murder I had nothing to do with.”
Ingram pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and testified against Liles in an agreement with prosecutors.
A GRISLY DISCOVERY
In January 1987, two duck hunters found Sweeney’s decomposed body hanging over a tree limb in the Pee Dee River near Cheraw, South Carolina. His hands were tied behind his back, an autopsy report states.
Sweeney had been reported missing on Dec. 19, two days after sheriff’s deputies say Liles and Ingram killed him outside the Richmond County home.
A medical examiner noted the absence of injuries to Sweeney’s body and listed drowning as the cause of death.
Deputies investigated the death and identified Liles and Ingram as suspects. Ingram said he helped tie Sweeney up and brought Liles the board he used to knock the man unconscious, but he accused Liles of holding Sweeney underwater until he drowned.
Six people testified that Liles and Ingram were together and had been drinking the day of Sweeney’s death, but court records show that Ingram was the only alleged witness to the killing.
After meeting for drinks at Sweeney’s mother’s home on Dec. 17, the men drove off in Liles’ car and stopped at a boarded-up, one-room house about 30 feet from the Pee Dee River bank, according to trial transcripts.
Liles told Ingram to get a lug wrench and screwdriver out of the car. Ingram pried two boards from the back of the house while Liles took the lock off the front door and went inside, transcripts state.
Ingram said the men entered the house and he heard Liles tell Sweeney that he owed him money. Liles told Ingram to take bed linens, a space heater and beer from the house and put it in Liles’ car, according to Ingram’s testimony.
While still inside the home, Ingram said he and Liles bound Sweeney’s hands with string and with Liles’ belt. They then led him from the house to the river where Liles smashed him in the head with one of the boards, Ingram said during the trial.
Liles testified that he had nothing to do with the killing and points the finger at Ingram, who he claimed was mentally ill.
Motions filed during the Liles trial indicate Ingram underwent a psychiatric examination at the defense’s request. Ingram’s testimony was admitted and Liles said his story is the only evidence that ties him to Sweeney’s drowning death.
In his 1999 letter to Preston, who is now deceased, Liles claims that he was offered a lighter sentence in exchange for pleading guilty, but he refused to do so because he was not involved in the killing.
“The district attorney offered me a 15-year plea bargain, and I replied I didn’t think it was right or fair for me to plead guilty to charges I had nothing to do with,” Liles wrote. “I’ve never killed anyone in my life. I had faith in the court system. I felt justice would be served and the truth would come out when I went to trial.”
Ingram, now 67, was released from prison in October 1995 after serving eight years and one month of a maximum 25-year sentence on a second-degree murder conviction in Sweeney’s death, according to the N.C. Division of Adult Correction.
Prison records show Ingram had previously spent nearly five years in prison on a November 1978 conviction of second-degree rape in Richmond County.
After beginning his life sentence, Liles pursued appeals and sought help from anyone he believed could help him overturn the murder conviction or win a new trial.
The record of his 1987 trial and unsuccessful appeals fills a file more than 4 inches thick in the Richmond County Clerk of Superior Court’s office.
“I’ve always been a hard worker all my life, and all I want to do is get back with my family and start my life back over,” Liles wrote in his 1999 letter to the judge. “It’s hard serving time for a crime you are not guilty of, and by the grace of God, I’ve been able to make it.”
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @RCDailyJournal.