After 3 years, family waits for justice in girl's killing - FOX Carolina 21

After 3 years, family waits for justice in girl's killing

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From left to right: Ricky Blackwell and Brooke Center (Spartanburg Co. Sheriff's Office/The Center Family) From left to right: Ricky Blackwell and Brooke Center (Spartanburg Co. Sheriff's Office/The Center Family)
SPARTANBURG, SC (FOX Carolina) -

Three years after an 8-year-old girl was shot to death, the man accused of killing her remains behind bars but has yet to go to trial.

Brooke Center was killed July 8, 2009, outside of a Chesnee home. Spartanburg County deputies arrested Ricky Blackwell, 53, not long after the shooting and charged him with murder and kidnapping.

He has been held at the county jail since his arrest, but has yet to go to trial.

FOX Carolina spoke with prosecutors about the delay and discovered that Center's family is not alone in their wait for justice.

Deputies said Blackwell shot Center to get revenge on his estranged wife, who was dating Center's dad. They said Blackwell invited Center and his estranged wife, Angela Blackwell, over to his home in Chesnee to swim.

When the two arrived, deputies said Blackwell grabbed Center and shot her multiple times.

Angela Blackwell told FOX Carolina that she was actually taking Center to Bobby Center's home to go swimming and had stopped to pick up her grandchildren from Ricky Blackwell's home, but he was not supposed to be there.

When deputies closed in on Blackwell, they said he shot himself in the stomach, but survived and has since been held in jail.

Angela Blackwell spoke with FOX Carolina on the phone after the shooting and demanded her estranged husband pay the ultimate price for what he did.

"It will never bring her back, but it's the only way any kind of justice for that precious little life to be done. The only way," said Angela Blackwell.

Less than a week after the shooting, then 7th Circuit Solicitor Trey Gowdy announced he would be seeking the death penalty. Officials said Blackwell would likely go to trial within two years.

Capital cases take time to reach trial stage

But now, three years later, that has not happened.

The solicitor now handling this case declined comment before the case goes to trial, but former 13th Circuit Solicitor Bob Ariail said he is all too familiar with the difficulties in getting cases to trial, in particular, capital cases like Blackwell's.

"It happens to all cases but murder cases in particular because they are so complex," said Arial. "You have DNA, lots of co-defendants and because the penalty is so severe everybody is ramped up on preparation."

During his 14 years trying cases in Greenville and Pickens counties, Arial said it wasn't uncommon for homicide cases to take years to get into a courtroom, but he said capital cases were usually tried within two years of the crime during his time in office.

The 7th Circuit Solicitor Office's gives some reasons why cases often take a while to go to trial online including, "The Solicitor's Office strives to move cases through the system in a timely fashion but there are factors that influence the pace of movement. There is a limited amount of court time every year. A large number of criminal defendants request jury trials. Complicated cases take more time to prepare."

Ariail said those answers make sense to lawyers like him but not to a family like Center's.

"The lay person just doesn't understand and trying to explain those is difficult and frustrating for that victim," said Ariail. "The victims get extremely frustrated."

So for Center's family and many others, they continue to wait for justice in the form of a trial. Center's father Bobby Center told FOX Carolina he was frustrated with how long it was taking for Blackwell to go to trial.

The 7th Circuit Solicitor's Office said Blackwell's trial has now been set for October.

Solicitors work to move cases to courtroom

Glenn Murray with the 7th Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office told FOX Carolina that their office has disposed of 32 murder warrants in the past 18 months through trials, guilty pleas and in cases where the defendant pleaded to other charges.

Murray said homicide cases typically take one to two years to reach the courtroom, but with capital cases, a different process is followed that often takes longer.

Since Oct. 7, 2008, the General Sessions Court Docket of Spartanburg County was turned over to the 7th Judicial Circuit as part of a pilot program. Murray said the new system has produced remarkable results, with the backlog of pending criminal cases dropping by 3,000 cases.

The 7th Judicial Circuit led the state in the number of admissions to the Department of Corrections in the past year, Murray said.

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