|Murder On His Mind
Can Scientific Images Show What's In The Mind Of A
In the summer of 2006, in what is known as low country
South Carolina just north of Charleston, for a change it
wasn't the heat everyone was talking about – it was the
havoc one man wreaked on this small coastal community.
As correspondent Troy Roberts reports, Stephen Stanko
faced a six-count indictment, including murder and
kidnapping. It was the county's first death penalty case
in nearly a decade and Stanko stood accused of
committing some of the most heinous and brutal crimes in
Georgetown in recent memory.
Prosecutor Greg Hembree says Stanko is a cold-blooded
killer. "He has no remorse," he says.
It’s hard to believe that Hembree is talking about the
same highly intelligent, seemingly polite 38-year-old,
who excelled in school and was described in his yearbook
as the all-American boy.
Friends and family say it was that quiet confidence and
intelligence that first attracted 43-year-old Laura Ling
to Stanko when they met in the fall of 2004.
"He seemed just so pleasant. And solicitous. And just
attentive to her. And just so normal," remembers Laura's
sister Victoria Loy.
They knew each other just two months before Stanko moved
in with Laura and her teenage daughter, and from all
accounts everyone got along.
"My life with Laura was unconditional," says Stanko. "I
loved her, she loved me. We never judged each other."
But then came the early morning hours of April 8, 2005,
when Stanko simply snapped.
As the lead investigator on the scene, Lieutenant Bill
Pierce arrived at the Ling home and learned the grisly
details. "Some time after midnight there was an
altercation between Laura Ling and her live-in boyfriend
Stephen Stanko," Pierce says.
Stanko says Laura had slapped him and that a lit
cigarette in his hand got lodged between his glasses and
burned him. He says it's the last thing he remembers.
Lt. Pierce says Stanko bound Laura's hands behind her
back, beat her and then turned his attention to her
daughter, who was asleep in her bed.
Laura’s daughter, who 48 Hours has agreed not to
identify, was the prosecution’s key witness. "He told me
'Scream and I will kill you both.' I wanted to get to my
mom and tell her 'We have to get out of here,'" she
"I first looked in my mom’s room I saw her lying on the
floor and I heard her moaning and kicking. She was
incoherent and she was trying to say something or do
something but she couldn’t and the next thing I know I
was hit over the head with something and I blacked out,"
Laura's daughter testified.
When she regained consciousness, Stanko was on top of
her. "I fought him, I kicked and kicked," the teen
testified. "He was so strong, he was so strong. He then
proceeded to rape me."
Hembree says that at some point, Stanko turned Laura on
her stomach and choked her to death. And then, her
daughter testified, he held her head up from behind and
slit her throat twice.
After the attacks, Stanko took a shower, where he claims
he regained his memory. When he walked into the bedroom,
he says "I felt for a pulse on both of them. And there
was no pulse."
"I ended up packin' and leavin'," he tells Roberts. "I
really wanted to kill myself."
Laura's daughter survived and eventually managed to
reach for a phone to call 911.
|Stanko stole Laura’s car, went to the ATM machine and
emptied her bank account. He then drove to nearby
Conway, S.C., where his friend and business associate,
74-year-old Henry Turner, lived.
Hembree says Stanko woke up Turner and told him his
father had died. Turner consoled Stanko and gave him
something to eat. After breakfast, Hembree says
investigators believe Stanko came up behind him and
fired one shot into Turner's back. "Turner then spun
around and Stanko fired another shot into the chest of
Henry Turner," Hembree says.
By this time, a nationwide manhunt was underway.
Stanko was now armed with a gun and more money, both of
which he stole from Turner. To further elude
authorities, he ditched Laura’s car and took Turner’s
truck. And while most fugitives at this point would hide
out, Stanko wasn’t your average fugitive.
Hembree says Stanko headed to Columbia, S.C. where he
went to a happy hour.
The next day, Hembree says, he ended up in Augusta, Ga,
on the same weekend of the Masters Golf Tournament.
That Saturday night, Stanko once again hit the bars.
This time he was mixing and celebrating with the crowds
that had gathered for the golf tournament
While out, he met a young woman, Dana Putnam. Charmed,
Putnam would testify that she spent the entire evening
with Stanko, even bringing him home and allowing him to
sleep on her couch.
That Sunday morning, the two of them went to church
together; over the next couple of days, an unsuspecting
Dana Putnam found herself being courted by a cold
Putnam was at work when she got a call from a friend,
who told her to open the newspaper, where she saw a
photo of Stanko.
She immediately went to the sheriff’s department, where
authorities tapped her cell phone and monitored Stanko’s
Just five days after killing Henry Turner and Laura Ling
and raping her teenage daughter, Stanko had romance on
his mind, telling Putnam, "I miss you. It’s almost a
physical missing you…my stomach is in a knot.”
Within hours of that call, it was finally over for
Stanko, as U.S. marshals, SWAT teams, and local
authorities surrounded him in a parking lot in Augusta.
In the opening arguments of Stanko's murder trial, his
attorney William Diggs asked jurors, "How could a human
being do this to someone that they loved, someone that
they needed, someone they depended on?"
"Laura Ling was one of maybe two people in the world who
were willing to help him at this point. It makes
absolutely no sense that he would just kill her for no
reason. What's the motivation here?" Diggs said.
Diggs had to try and defend his client against damning
As it turned out, Laura was not the first woman to
suffer at the hands of Stanko: Elizabeth McClendon first
met him 14 years ago. Soon after moving in together,
McClendon realized Stanko was not the man she thought he
"I was becoming very upset with Stephen because I felt
like I wasn’t getting the whole truth, that things were
beginning to take place that I did not like," McClendon
McClendon tells Roberts Stanko stole items from her,
including checks, paintings and jewelry.
By February 1996, McClendon finally had enough of the
lies and cons and told Stanko it was time for him to
The next morning, she says, is when everything came
crashing down. "He stood at the foot of my bed and he
had this horrible look on his face and I said 'What are
you doing?' And he said 'I’m getting ready to leave' and
I said 'What is that, that I smell? Are you cleaning the
house?'" she testified.
"At that moment, he jumped over me with the cloth that
was drenched in Clorox and 409 mixture that he'd made
up. And he proceeded to try to suffocate me," McClendon
tells Roberts. "He flipped me on my stomach. And he put
the pillow over my head and was holding me down and his
hand was here. He did say, 'I don't know why this isn't
working. It worked in the movie.' And I thought, 'Well,
he's gonna kill me. I am going to die.'"
She did everything she could to fight him off. Bound and
gagged, McClendon says Stanko dragged her into the
bathroom, made her sit on the toilet while he was in the
shower, humming, like it was just another normal
But Stanko says he has little memory of the events from
that morning, just like the black out he claims to have
experienced during the Ling attacks.
Asked if he remembered doing that, Stanko says no but
does acknowledge he restrained McClendon. But he denies
he was trying to kill her.
Stanko was arrested three days after the attack on
McClendon and pled guilty to charges of kidnapping and
aggravated assault. He was sentenced to a ten-year
prison term but was released after eight and a half
years. Just two months later, he met Laura, a librarian
and divorced mother of three.
Stanko says he was forthright about having served time
behind bars. But he was a little fuzzy with the details.
Laura was never given the full story from Stanko about
the McClendon attack when she asked him to move in with
her and her teenage daughter.
Ling's daughter says she made fun of her mom when
learning about Stanko's stint in prison. "I kinda said,
'Well, gee mom, thanks for bringing home an ex-convict.'
But you know she really liked helping people. And
Stephen seemed like this great guy that didn't have a
great past, and wanting to start over and start a new
From all accounts, Laura was happy, seemingly unaware
that Stanko was back to running cons.
He was telling people he had a degree in engineering,
was a paralegal, that he owned restaurants and even
admits that he practiced law without a license.
"Yeah, I was doin' things that I should not have been
doin' without a license. Yes, sir," Stanko tells
Hembree speculates Laura may have learned what was going
on and confronted Stanko and that this led to his
The physical evidence against Stanko was overwhelming
but the defense believes it had uncovered new evidence –
medical evidence that just might sway a jury.
His defense team, for the first time in South Carolina’s
history, would try to show jurors an actual picture of
what insanity looks like.
Growing up in Goose Creek, S.C., Stanko, along with his
four siblings, was raised under his parents’ close
supervision. His father was very strict and Stanko says
he had high expectations for his son.
Stanko had high expectations as well. His dream was to
attend the United States Air Force Academy.
But during his senior year in high school, everything
changed when he wasn't admitted to the academy. It was a
setback Stanko says he never recovered from.
After finishing high school, Stanko spent a short time
in community college. But he lost interest and turned to
a life of petty crime, small hustles, small lies and
But small time cons pale in comparison to the violent
crimes Stanko was on trial for in Georgetown.
Although Stanko has been treated in the past for
personality disorders, attorney Diggs believes his
client is suffering from a far more serious condition.
To prove that, Diggs hired a team of medical experts
from around the country. Using cutting-edge PET scan
imaging technology, they put Stanko under the
"microscope," analyzing both the structure of his brain,
and more importantly, how it functions. What they found
surprised them all.
Dr. Thomas Sachy, neuro psychiatrist and founder of
Georgia Pain and Behavioral Medicine, evaluated Stanko’s
test results for the defense.
“Mr. Stanko's brain showed decreased function in the
medial orbital frontal lobes of his brain,” Dr. Sachy
Looking at images of Stanko's brain function, Dr. Sachy
explained that one region of the brain directly above
the eyes and behind the eyebrows is less functional as
compared to a normal brain.
Asked why this is significant, Sachy says, "Well, it's
very significant, because it is this area of the brain
that essentially makes us human.”
“People with damage to that area of the brain become
anti-social," Dr. Sachy says. "They're more likely to be
impulsive. They're more likely to be aggressive and
For almost three days, the court heard from a team of
medical experts. This mountain of complicated scientific
theory eventually boiled down to one very simple idea:
“My diagnosis is Mr. Stanko is a psychopath,” Dr. Sachy
said on the stand.
Asked by the defense if Stanko chose to be a psychopath,
Dr. Sachy testified, "No. Mr. Stanko, nor the other
psychopaths that we know about, have not made a
conscious decision to be psychopathic. They have a brain
abnormality that has been forced upon them by bad luck
or God or genes or what have you.”
According to the expert witnesses, Stanko suffered
medical complications shortly after birth, including
jaundice and a blockage in his airway that may have
deprived his brain of oxygen. "I suspect that, at that
time, the damage was done and his brain, though he
appeared to develop normally, this particular area of
the brain did not,” Sachy says.
Diggs is convinced that all the evidence presented
amounts to an extremely persuasive argument.
“He was insane. That is the only verdict that’s
justified by the evidence in this case,” Diggs told the
Prosecutor Greg Hembree dismisses Stanko’s defense with
just two words: "junk science."
"I've seen the images. And I'm not persuaded. But I'm
not persuaded not because of what I can see, but because
of what other experts look at and tell me," Hembree
Although they were looking at the same PET scan results,
prosecution experts did not see what the defense says is
very clearly a brain abnormality.
A prosecution expert testified Stanko's brain scan was
perfectly normal and that there were no signs of mental
disease or a mental defect.
Hembree now tried to score points by cross examining
defense witnesses to prove these complications at birth
had nothing to do with his crime spree 38 years later.
For two days prosecution witnesses testified that
although Stanko had some serious problems, insanity
wasn’t one of them. A prosecution expert diagnosed
Stanko with a personality disorder.
Roger Turner, the son of Stanko's last victim Henry
Turner, believes the insanity defense is simply Stanko’s
final con. "He had planned this, okay?" Turner says. "I
think it is so outlandish, it’s so preposterous that
Turner and Stanko spent a lot of time together and
Stanko says he was a friend and a "quasi-father" to him.
Stanko refused to discuss the details surrounding the
Henry Turner shooting, since he has yet to be tried for
Asked what provokes him to act out violently, Stanko
says, "Usually it's when I'm confronted with violence. I
mean, the only times that it's ever happened is when I
was confronted with violence.
Stanko maintains that both Elizabeth McClendon and Laura
Ling provoked him before their attacks.
But Laura’s ex-husband Chris Ling has his own theory:
that Stanko is simply just a bull. "Stephen Stanko is
insane when he knows that he's dealing with young women,
women and old men," he says.
To back that up, Chris Ling points to Stanko’s prison
record. "During his incarceration, he was considered
somewhat of a model prisoner, never got in many fights.
And the reason for this is because he's a coward," he
"I have thought about why I didn't kill somebody in
prison," Stanko says. "The one thing I never did in
prison was fight somebody when nobody else was around."
Stanko told Roberts he had 39 fights during his time in
prison, but when 48 Hours checked, there was no record
of any such violent behavior.
The murder trial has never been about who committed
these heinous crimes, but rather if Stanko should be
held responsible for them. And as they made their final
arguments, the state and the defense had very different
opinions of who this man is.
"His brain made him do it. It's on its own. Just goes
and does things. And well I'm over here. My brain's out
running around murdering and raping people,” prosecutor
Hembree told jurors during closing arguments.
"That’s where the brain defect, the mental defect is.
That’s where the ability to distinguish between right
and wrong is. He doesn’t have the brain function to do
that, to make that distinction!" defense attorney Diggs
Now, 12 jurors had to decide if Stanko was of sound mind
when he killed Laura Ling and raped her teenage
daughter; and if he was, should he die for it?
After deliberating just two hours, the jury rendered a
verdict, finding Stephen Stanko guilty of killing Laura
Ling and raping her teenage daughter. Jurors had
rejected the insanity defense.
Stanko, who never took the stand, showed no emotion as
the guilty verdicts on the other counts were read.
Just one week after finding Stanko guilty of killing
Laura, the same jury had to rule on whether Stanko would
live or die.
"We've already won. Stephen Stanko is never gonna be a
free man. He may victimize someone in the prison system
but he'll never victimize another free citizen," Hembree
Once again, after two hours, the jury returned,
recommending the death penalty.
Laura's ex-husband Chris Ling didn't mince words, when
he reacted after the sentence in the hall. "The process
works and we’ll be putting down someone that victimizes
old men and little girls. I’ve got the most courageous
daughter in the world and I love her. Thank you.”
After the trial, 48 Hours brought together some of the
jurors, who had no regrets about the decision, including
forewoman Pat Lawford.
"I had a lot of peace about the decision we made. I felt
it was the right decision,” says Lawford.
Asked whether they were all at peace with the decision
to find Stanko guilty and sentence him to death, the
entire assembled group nodded.
"Could a sane person someone who possesses all the
mental faculties carry out this crime?” Roberts asked.
"Yes,” one of the jurors replied.
"I think it is possible to commit this sort of crime and
not be insane,” Lawford said.
The jurors also explained why they rejected the brain
"Well, I’ll be honest with you when we went in
deliberation with that PET scan and all that
computerized stuff they did, I said 'I felt like I’d
been dazzled by brilliance and baffled with b.s. That’s
how I felt. I found the state’s witnesses much more
credible than the defense," juror Donald Horton says.
What the jurors did believe and found most compelling
was the testimony of Stanko’s two victims - the
traumatized 16-year-old who lived to make that 911 call
and take the stand and the testimony of her murdered
“When the forensic doctor who performed the autopsy on
Laura Ling came down from the witness stand, she had a
diagram of a woman's body. And, had outlined every
single injury that she had to her body," one juror
explained. "And, I thought, 'You know, Laura Ling's not
here to speak for herself. But, she has spoken.'”
Although in the end, they failed to prove their case,
lead defense expert Dr. Sachy still believes in the
“Mr. Stanko had no defense except science," Sachy says.
"Mr. Stanko had a defense that was at the cutting edge
of science and far beyond, where the laws of this
country are right now.”
Asked if he sees long term value in this science, Dr.
Sachy says, "This will be the standard of forensic
investigation and medical care in this field in the
But left to deal with the present is Laura Ling’s
daughter, who clings to the good memories of her mother.
“She was smart. And she was funny. She was beautiful.
She was the kind of girl you wanted to be friends with.
She was just warm and inviting,“ she remembers.
“I don't know if I'll ever forgive him for what he did
to my mom, but I've come to the point where I can
honestly say that I do forgive him for what he did to
me," Laura's daughter adds. "I refuse to let him take
away anything more than what he's already taken. And I
refuse to sit here and hate him and never be able to
move on and never be able to move past this. And I'm not
gonna do that.”
Stanko must still stand trial for the murder of Henry
Turner. A date of execution has been set for October,
2007. He will have a choice of the electric chair or