Beaufort News

Bluffton man sentenced to 15 years on arson, burglary and grand larceny charges

A 31-year-old Bluffton man who confessed to starting a fire at a fan store as a cover for a jewelry store break-in nearby was sentenced to 15 years in prison Wednesday following his conviction on arson, burglary and grand larceny charges.

Andre Leon DeCosta was sentenced to a 10-year term on the grand larceny charge, and 15 years each on burglary and arson charges. Those terms are to be served concurrently, said Judge Thomas Cooper, who sentenced DeCosta after a bench trial.

DeCosta was accused of setting fire to Dan's Fan City at 22 Plantation Park Drive Nov. 29 and, moments later, breaking into Ligato's Fine Jewelry at nearby 80 Baylor Drive.

"The defendant was found in possession of stolen property that was later identified by the owner," Cooper said in explaining his ruling. "Police also found an ax with glass embedded in it ... video surveillance at the jewelry store showed individuals wearing dark clothes similar to the clothes the defendant and co-defendant were wearing ... "

Anthony Terrell Hamilton, 21, of Walterboro, also faces charges in connection with the arson and robbery. His trial date has not been set.

Earlier in the day, Cooper ruled confessions DeCosta made to Bluffton police and SLED officers in separate interviews were made voluntarily and that DeCosta was aware of his Miranda rights.

Matthew Walker, DeCosta's public defender, had argued that the defendant only confessed after a lengthy interrogation by at least four police officers, one of whom -- Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister -- told DeCosta that he would write a letter to a judge asking that the then suspect receive probation. Police also admitted to lying to DeCosta in saying that samples from swabs of his hands matched accelerants found at Dan's Fan City.

In convicting DeCosta, Cooper said he did not consider the defendant's confession to Blufton Police because there was enough evidence from the car, a 911 call allegedly made by one of the suspects, and the SLED confession to remove any reasonable doubt about guilt.

Earlier Wednesday, Cooper called the interrogation tactics used by Bluffton police "troubling." He said, however, that he allowed the confessions to be admitted into evidence based on the law, and not on how he "felt" about the techniques.

"The promises of leniency aren't sufficient to render a confession invalid. Those types of deceptive techniques are deplorable, but other appellate courts have continued to allow them," he said. "The Bluffton Police confession is additional evidence, but I don't need to consider that evidence and I don't want to."

After the trial, 14th Judicial Circuit Deputy Solicitor Sean Thornton declined to comment on whether the case hinged on DeCosta's confessions.

Thornton also said he felt he had enough evidence without having to call co-defendant Hamilton as a witness.

"We're happy he'll be in prison for the next 15 years," he said.

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Related content:

Judge to review confessions of accused arsonist; trial expected to conclude Wednesday, July 26, 2011

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2 arrested for string of Bluffton arsons; another man to be freed, Nov. 29, 2010