ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Weeping and saying she’s sorry, a mother admitted in court Friday that she killed her two young sons, put them in a car and rolled the vehicle into the North Edisto River during the summer of 2010.
Shaquan Duley’s guilty plea caps an emotional two years in this small town and soon will bring closure to a case that has drawn national attention for its similarity to South Carolina killings in 1994.
Duley, 30, will be sentenced in two weeks for killing her sons, 2-year-old Devean and 1-year-old Ja’van, following an argument with the boys’ grandmother. She faces 30 years to life in prison for two counts of murder.
“I’d like to ask for forgiveness,” Duley told a judge, her voice breaking as distraught family members watched from the gallery at the Orangeburg County Courthouse.
“I want you and everyone else to know that I loved my [sons], I loved them dearly and that my heart hurts every single day because I don’t have them anymore.”
The Orangeburg County murders in 2010 ignited passions across the country because they were much like those in Union – another small South Carolina town – 16 years earlier. In that case, Susan Smith strapped her two young boys into their car seats and rolled them into a lake.
In the Duley case, she suffocated the children at a motel by holding her hands over their mouths, after fleeing her mother’s house following a heated disagreement about the children’s care. She then pushed her gray sedan into the North Edisto River with the children’s bodies strapped inside.
Duley later wandered a country road, where she told a motorist she’d been involved in an accident at the river. Authorities quickly debunked her story that the car had crashed into the river, because Duley’s clothes were not wet. Under questioning, Duley confessed to killing the boys.
Orangeburg County prosecutor David Pascoe told Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson the case was particularly sad because Duley’s family grieved for the children — and for their relative who killed them.
That’s part of the reason Pascoe said he did not seek the death penalty, as well as the fact that Duley had no previous criminal record.
As Duley faced the judge, her mother and sister cried while her father sat stone-faced in the gallery. Her mother, father and sister had asked the judge for mercy in sentencing Duley.
In “this case, the people that loved Devean the most, and no question the people that loved Ja’Van the most, are with the defendant,” Pascoe said. “I can’t imagine how difficult their position is.”
Duley’s attorney, Carl B. Grant, in 2010 filed a notice of intent to rely on an insanity defense. He also asked Pascoe to reduce the charges from murder to manslaughter or another lesser charge, Pascoe said.
“I just can’t in good conscience do that,” Pascoe said. “We had an intentional killing.”
Pascoe said there’s no doubt Duley knew what she was doing and was not insane at the time she killed the children. A mental evaluation for the prosecution reflected that, he said.
Duley, a 1999 graduate of Orangeburg Wilkinson High School, has been described by neighbors and family as a quiet, nice person who never caused her parents trouble. But she was having difficulty after high school finding a job and was recovering from bone cancer.
Hours before the killings, Duley’s mother called 911 to express concern about her daughter’s care for the children. An officer arrived at the home they shared, but it was after Duley had left with the children, Pascoe said.
Duley’s lawyer said his client was clearly under mental duress that night. And a mental evaluation prepared for her defense said so, Grant told the judge.
Grant said his client was so distressed following the dispute with the children’s grandmother that she tried to take her own life. She used a box cutter on her wrists, Grant said, noting that it was found in the submerged car.
“That is a sign that somebody is going through some kind of emotional disturbance or some kind of depression,” Grant said. He argued for the lightest sentence possible, in part because she still has a 7-year-old daughter and because Duley had no previous criminal record.
Ultimately, however, Grant said Duley chose to plead guilty to murder.
“This was a very tragic, tragic situation, no doubt about that,” Grant told reporters later. “She decided to accept responsibility, plead guilty and get this matter behind her.”
All agreed, however, that Duley’s actions — like Susan Smith’s — can never be forgotten.
“This is one of the saddest cases because it involved two innocent children,” Pascoe said. “They didn’t deserve this.”