South Carolina

In one of the deadliest bank robberies in recent memory, man sentenced in Conway murders

A federal jury sentenced Brandon Council to death for shooting and killing two employees during a robbery at the Conway, South Carolina, CresCom bank in 2017.

The jury — of eight women and four men — delivered its sentencing verdict Thursday morning after nearly three weeks of trial. The same jury convicted Council on murder and robbery last week.

Council showed no emotion as the verdict of “death” was read on two accounts. Members of the victims’ families also showed little reaction to the verdict, though a few sobs could be heard in the room.

On Aug. 21, 2017, Council went into the 16th Avenue branch and approached Donna Major at the teller counter. He waited about 45 seconds before pulling out a gun and shooting Major twice.

Katie Skeen screamed in her nearby office, and Council ran to her. Council shot Skeen from point-blank range and killed her.

Council then ran back to Major, who was on the floor behind the counter, and shot her in the head. He then robbed the bank.

Council stole Skeen’s car from the parking lot and fled to North Carolina, where he picked up a prostitute and stayed at a hotel. The next day, he used a person he just met to buy a car using money from the robbery.

On Aug. 23, police arrested Council outside of a Greenville, North Carolina, hotel. FBI investigators spoke to Council, who detailed his crime spree and his reasoning.

Prosecution’s case

The state presented an overwhelming amount of evidence in the case, including video from the robbery that showed Council committing the murders. When police arrested Council, they found the clothes, note, gun and money from the robbery.

“Justice only means one thing when you evaluate all the evidence in total. That is the most significant penalty,” prosecutor Nathaniel Williams said during his closing arguments on Wednesday.

It took the jury about 25 minutes last week to find Council guilty of charges related to the robbery and murders. Prosecutors and defense attorneys then spent a week trying to convince the jury whether Council should receive the death penalty or life in prison.

Federal prosecutors presented aggravating factors, basically items that make Council’s crimes worse than others. The jury found that Council killed multiple people, it was part of an escalating criminal spree and Council showed little remorse.

The jury rendered its sentencing verdict after roughly five hours of deliberations over two days.

Defense arguments

The defense presented dozens of mitigating factors, which are reasons why he should Council should not be put to death. At least one juror found that 27 of the 50 factors carried weight in their deliberations. Those included:

  • Council’s mother expressed little love.
  • His grandmother was his primary caregiver and Council was deeply affected when she died.
  • There was abuse at a prison-like school where Council spent his early teen years.
  • Council offered to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison.

“What they were taking these kids through was hell,” defense attorney Duane Bryant said of the prison-like school.

Ten of 12 jurors also found that “all life has value,” but the mitigating factors were not enough to stop them from sentencing Council to death.

Reactions to death sentence

Federal prosecutors said after the verdict that Major and Skeen were “exceptional” people who made a difference in the community.

“These were intentional and senseless murders,” Williams said.

Defense attorneys asked for additional time to file post-trial motions and then appeals, but the judge rejected those efforts. Council must file his first appeal within the next two weeks.

Major’s daughter Katie Major was one of the family members who addressed Council during formal sentencing.

“The thought of seeing you again makes me sick to my stomach,” she said. “I don’t feel bad for you. I feel sorry for you.”

Council also spoke for the first time during the three-week trial and expressed remorse for his actions and the pain he caused. He said he will continue to ask God for forgiveness and hoped the family could forgive him one day.

“I know because of my actions the world is without two spectacular human beings,” he said.

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Alex Lang is the True Crime reporter for The Sun News covering the legal system and how crime impacts local residents. He says letting residents know if they are safe is a vital role of a newspaper. Alex has covered crime in Detroit, Iowa, New York City, West Virginia and now Horry County.