“Music is the only sensual pleasure without vice.”—Samuel Johnson
These are the facts of the case:
On the night of October 30, 1978, a 29-year-old hustler named Ricky Lee Seagraves entered a convenience store on U.S. 78 in Ladson, where he was confronted by two men who pistol-whipped and abducted him in a pickup truck. Shots were fired in the confrontation.
Ricky Seagraves was not seen again for three years, when authorities, acting on a jailhouse tip, dug up his bones in a shallow grave in the woods off S.C. 61.
The tipster was lugubriously named Danny Hogg, serving time on an unrelated charge. Hogg told authorities that he had abducted Seagraves on the orders of an associate named Paul Mazzell. Hogg said he brought Seavraves to Mazzell, who killed and buried him.
Based almost exclusively on Hogg’s testimony, Solicitor Charlie Condon charged Mazzell with Seagraves’ murder and won a conviction three years later. But the conviction left more questions than answers.
Hogg was given immunity in the case, even though he failed a lie detector test when asked if he had killed Seagraves. Witnesses who had heard Hogg brag of killing Seagraves were not allowed to testify. Even Hogg’s wife gave the FBI a statement implicating Hogg as the killer. The presiding judge gave improper instructions to the jury and Mazzell’s attorney failed to challenge the instructions. One juror was an uncle of a State Law Enforcement Division agent who worked on the case.
Despite these questionable circumstances, Mazzell drew a life sentence. Had he been convicted as an accessory after the fact of murder — which he has never denied — he would have gotten no more than 15 years. He went to prison swearing he was an innocent man — innocent, at least, of killing Seagraves. By his own admission, the Dixie Mafia kingpin was no saint, telling The Post and Courier, “I ran some clubs, some gambling, and a little prostitution.”
For 23 years Mazzell claimed his only connection to the death of Ricky Seagraves was to bury him.
“There is no way in the world you would have ever got me over there if I had knew he was dead,” Mazzell told the P&C in 2003. “I came there expecting to see a live man, and he was dead. I know he was dead. I buried him and he was stiff as a board.”
Aiding Mazzell during his years in prison were two unlikely allies, a retired SLED agent and a retired Hanahan police chief, both of whom felt there had been a grievous miscarriage of justice. Former agent L.C. Faircloth and former chief M.C. Bellew collectively spent many hundreds of personal hours reinvestigating the murder and cataloguing the flaws and inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case.
“He is a crook and he is a criminal,” Faircloth said of Mazzell, “but I believe if they went in front of any other jury in the world, Paul Mazzell would not have been found guilty.”
Yet the state was not interested in reopening the case. “There’s never been any doubt,” said Richard Stoney, a former prosecutor who tried the case. “He was a bad guy who needed to go to prison … and that’s where he needs to stay.”
Mazzell was turned down for parole five times and suffered three heart attacks while serving his years at Lieber Correctional Institution, in Ridgeville.
Then, last month, the state parole board relented. Citing Mazzell’s age — he’s 76 — and failing health, the board gave conditional approval for his release. On the day before Thanksgiving, Mazzell walked out of prison and went to his sister’s home in Hanahan, where, presumably, he will live out the rest of his days.
Charleston can be a tough town. Did it unjustly convict and sentence a man for a crime he didn’t commit? Was Paul Mazzell simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was he a stepping stone in the career of Charlie Condon, one of the most ambitious and unprincipled politicians this state has ever seen? Only Paul Mazzell, Danny Hogg, and maybe a couple of Hogg’s associates know the answer to that question. Whether or not Mazzell committed the crime, he certainly did the time. That much we all know.
Will Moredock’s biggest vice is fighting the good fight in South Carolina.