May 28, 2022

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Fake Uber trial: Rowland guilty of murdering USC student

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Nathaniel Rowland Trial

Former USC student Samantha Josephson thought she was getting into the Uber she booked in March of 2019. The car she got into went in the opposite direction of her apartment – and she wasn’t seen alive after. Nathaniel Rowland is on trial for her kidnapping and murder. Here are updates from the trial.

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It took less than two hours Tuesday for a Richland County jury of seven women and five men to find Nathaniel Rowland guilty of murder, kidnapping and using a weapon in a violent crime in the 2019 death of University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson.

State Judge Clifton Newman sentenced Rowland, 27, to life in prison with no parole. The sentencing took place after an hour of statements from Josephson’s family and her family, as well as Rowland’s mother and father in a packed courtroom.

“The sentence in this case is that you be committed to the state Department of Corrections for life,” Newman told Rowland, who stood before him.

He added the fatal stabbing of Josephson in the back seat of Rowland’s car, which she mistakenly believed was her Uber ride, was “the most severe murder” he has ever seen.

“I have dealt with the heartless, and you fall into that category — a person without any remorse whatsoever … a depraved heart,” Newman told Rowland. “This is the first time I have ever presided over a case where the victim was stabbed over 120 times.

“The evidence in this case — I chose the word avalanche — was so overwhelming. Law enforcement in this case did the best job in investigating this case that I have seen in the past 30 to 40 years,” said Newman, a 21-year trial judge.

With such a massive amount of evidence, Newman told Rowland, “There were 1,000 roads (to guilt). Each road led to you. A thousand trails. Each trail led to you. All the evidence … points to your guilt.”

Just before sentencing, Rowland told the judge he had gotten a “raw deal.”

“I know I’m innocent, but I guess what I know or I think really doesn’t matter,” Rowland said. “I just wish the state would have done more in finding out who the actual person was instead of being satisfied with detaining me and proving my guilt.”

But Rowland’s words, which bore no relation to the evidence in the case, had little effect on most people in the courtroom.

“You took her life — only an animal or monster does that,” said Seymour Josephson, Samantha’s father, who just before sentencing had asked Newman to give Rowland life in prison.

Josephson, who clutched what he described as a book of some 90 impact statements from Samantha’s friends and relatives that detailed the anguish and loss over her killing, said his grief is at times so overwhelming he has come close to suicide.

“I still to this day can’t watch videos of Samantha,” Josephson told the judge. “I have repeated visions of him, the monster, stabbing her… I have visions of her screaming and fighting… I have such hatred running through me.”

Marci Josephson, Samantha’s mother, told the judge of her love for her 21-year-old daughter and their closeness.

“Her dreams were my dreams, and her death was my death… She never hurt anyone. Such a heinous, vicious crime — why?” she said, describing Rowland as “pure evil.”

Before Newman passed sentence, Columbia police Chief Skip Holbrook also spoke, asking the judge to hold Rowland accountable and to make sure he “never hurts anyone in this community again.”

Minutes later, 5th Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson also asked the judge to give the maximum — life in prison.

Judge Clifton Newman calls Nathaniel Rowland “heartless” after Rowland was convicted of murdering Samantha Josephson. Tracy Glantz

Rowland’s family speaks out

Rowland’s mother, identified only as Mrs. Rowland, was allowed to speak to the judge and asserted her son was innocent.

Judge Newman interrupted: “Ma’am, I’m not going to hear any claim of innocence — he’s convicted.”

Newman told her if she had evidence of his innocence, she should have testified. ”He is guilty of murder. He is guilty of kidnapping.”

Defense attorney Tracy Pinnock told Judge Newman that she wants the judge to know that Rowland has a loving family who supports him and, “Mr. Rowland maintains his innocence.”

Pinnock, who worked on the case with fellow public defenders Alicia Goode and Robert Pillinger, also said that Rowland has no criminal history, that he is still young and a sentence less than life is appropriate.

Minutes earlier, when the jury came back to the courtroom and delivered its collective verdict, Pinnock asked that jurors be polled individually if that was their verdict.

One by one, jurors — identified by number — stood. And after being asked about their verdict by deputy clerk of court Jacqueline Pendergrass — each answered with a definitive “yes.”

Closing arguments tie up the case

In an argument to the jury Tuesday morning, prosecutor Dan Goldberg told the jury if it used its collective common sense, it would easily find Rowland guilty of Josephson’s kidnapping and murder — a case that has drawn national headlines.

“There is only one reasonable conclusion,” said Goldberg, “and that conclusion is that Nathaniel Rowland is guilty.”

Goldberg’s 75-minute closing argument was based on more than 300 pieces of scientific, video and other evidence that prosecutors had introduced through 33 witnesses since testimony began July 20.

He stitched a macabre narrative with Rowland, 27, cast as predatory killer and Josephson as the innocent victim.

“She was a daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, future law student; she was someone who had her whole life in front of her,” Goldberg said. “Samantha Josephson deserved a chance to live her life, and this man took that chance from her.”

Goldberg’s story began on March 29, 2019, around 2 a.m. when video surveillance tapes in Five Points, a nightclub area near USC’s main campus, captured Josephson getting into Rowland’s 2017 black Impala Chevrolet sedan. It had been cruising Harden Street, where Josephson waited outside the Bird Dog club for an Uber she had just called and doubled back to pick her up.

“After this video, she is never seen alive,” Goldberg said.

Prosecutor Dan Goldberg points to defendant Nathaniel Rowland’s car circling the block as Samantha Josephson waits for an Uber while delivering closing arguments during Rowland’s trial, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Richland County Circuit Court in Columbia, S.C. Rowland is accused of killing Samantha Josephson after luring her into his car in Marc 2019. (Tracy Glantz/The State via AP, Pool) Tracy Glantz AP

A look at the evidence

With no human witnesses to continue the story, Goldberg reminded the jury of the numerous pieces of scientific evidence and witness testimony, introduced by many of the state’s 33 witnesses over the past week, that documented Goldberg’s narrative of what came next.

An enormous amount of blood was found in the car’s back seat by law officers who stopped Rowland driving in Columbia the next day. DNA found in that blood matched Josephson’s.

The car itself “was an actual crime scene,” Goldberg told the jury.

Rowland’s Impala was equipped with rear seat child proof window and door locks activated by the driver, Goldberg said. “There was no way out.”

Cell phone tower data and a “Find My Phone” social app on Josephson’s cell phone tracked the two phones moving together away from the brightly lit Five Points area toward dimly lit Shandon and Rosewood residential areas. Josephson’s cell phone’s app went dead after about 20 minutes, but cell phone towers continued tracking Rowland’s phone for hours.

From Columbia, Rowland’s Verizon phone traveled along U.S. 378 east toward Sumter County and finally into Clarendon County where the phone went into a remote rural area called the New Zion community. It was where Rowland had grown up, a place where he would be familiar with the back roads. The body was dumped in woods accessible only by dirt roads.

“No one would go there if they weren’t a local,” said Goldberg. “They wouldn’t know how to get there.”

More cell phone evidence showed Rowland’s cell phone moving back towards Sumter, where it stopped near a Wells Fargo Bank. Video from an ATM showed a man resembling Rowland. In the video, he is seen wearing a hoodie that he also was arrested the next day trying unsuccessfully to access her account.

Other cell phone tracking data showed Rowland going to another ATM in Columbia, to the house of his girlfriend, Maria Howard and later in the morning to a cell phone repair store on Monticello Road. The store’s video captured a black Chevrolet Impala in the store’s parking lot and a man resembling Rowland inside the store. The man tried to sell a rose-pink Apple phone to the store operator but they couldn’t agree on a price. The phone turned out to be Josephson’s.

Text messages from Rowland’s girlfriend from the early morning of March 29 show her asking him where he was. He was supposed to be taking her to her job at McDonald’s. When he finally showed up to take her to work, she noticed blood in the backseat and asked where it came from. “Mind your business,” he told her.

Later that day, Rowland began to try to clean his car with bleach. Garbage bags with bloody clothes and the two-bladed utility tool used to kill Josephson were later found in a trash can at his girlfriend’s house. The bags, with clothes and the weapon inside, were introduced at trial. Rowland’s DNA was found on the knife tool.

On the afternoon of March 29, two turkey hunters were walking through the woods near Josephson’s body looking for birds to shoot. Earlier they had been about 10 miles away, near the town of Turbeville, where they weren’t finding any birds, so they decided to go to a remote section around the New Zion community. One of them spotted a tangle of bloody clothes off a dirt path. It was Josephson’s body.

“If (the hunters) had been successful in Turbeville, there is no telling when or if Samantha would have ever been found,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg also cited evidence gathered by State Law Enforcement Division crime scene, DNA and cell phone tower location analysts, Josephson’s autopsy by Medical University of South Carolina pathologist Dr. Thomas Beaver and the traffic stop of Rowland by Columbia police officer Jeffrey Kraft that resulted in Rowland’s arrest 24 hours after the abduction.

Defense attorney’s closing argument

In her argument to the jury, Rowland’s lawyer Pinnock spoke for 50 minutes, reminding the jury of questions defense attorneys had asked prosecution witnesses throughout the trial, questions Pinnock asserted would show the jury that there were reasonable doubts that Rowland was the killer.

Rowland had no marks or scratches on him, for one thing, Pinnock told the jury. If he had really been in a fight with Josephson, those would have been visible.

The murder weapon — a two-bladed utility tool — also had other people’s DNA on it, indicating someone else could have been the killer, she said.

“The state has failed their burden of proof,” Pinnock said.

But Judge Newman, after the verdict, described law enforcement’s work as nearly perfect. With modern technology and science, virtually every minute of the 24 hours between the time Josephson was abducted and Rowland was arrested had been reconstructed, the judge said.

In a press conference after the trial, Solicitor Gipson told reporters he was “pleased” with the trial and its verdict.

Asked about why the death penalty wasn’t sought, Gipson indicated there were a series of complex reasons he declined to go into at the press conference because he wanted to emphasize that Tuesday was about the verdict and justice for the Josephson family and the community.

“The family is very satisfied that he will spend the rest of his life in prison,” Gipson said.

He stood with his prosecutorial team facing a bank of cameras — deputy solicitor Dan Goldberg, deputy solicitor April Sampson and assistant solicitor Amanda Gaston.

“They (the family) were pleased with the outcome. But nothing that happened in that courtroom could bring Samantha back — that is what we all would have wanted.”

The motive for the crime remains unknown. “It’s a question Mr. Rowland will have to answer at some point in time. We just know what the result of his activity was,” Gipson told reporters.

Another unknown was where, exactly, Rowland killed Josephson.

“The thing we are absolutely clear about is it all took place in the car,” Gipson said. After leaving Five Points, the car traveled into some “darker areas of city. It could have happened there,” Gipson said.

All the evidence was important, but perhaps the cell phone location evidence and the DNA were the most important, Gipson said.

The case was one of the highest profile murder cases in the Midlands for years. It led to a national discussion of increasing safety for rideshare users. Court TV livestreamed the case to a national audience.

John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including those of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof, serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins and child killer Tim Jones. Monk’s hobbies include hiking, books, languages, music and a lot of other things.