GREENVILLE, S.C. — Stephen Andrew Moller pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter on June 11 in connection with the death of Sean Kennedy last year. The 20-year-old defendant, a native of Taylors, S.C., will serve just three years for the slaying.

Moller attacked Kennedy outside the bar formerly named Brews on May 16, 2007. He punched Kennedy in the face and knocked him to the ground. The victim, 20 years old at the time, fell backward and hit his head on the curb, sustaining a fatal brain injury.

Thirteenth Circuit Judge Ned Miller sentenced Moller to a five-year prison term of which he will be required to serve three years. Moller previously spent seven months in jail after he was arrested. The judge also ordered Moller to undergo anger, substance abuse and alcohol management classes. Upon release from his incarceration, he will serve a three-year probation term with mandatory drug and alcohol testing.

In defense of his client, attorney Ryan Beasley told the court that this case was not an anti-gay hate crime because Moller didn’t know Kennedy was gay when he hit him. He said the driver of the car Moller left in revealed that fact when he saw a cut on Moller’s hand and said, “You know that dude is gay. What are you going to do if you have AIDS now?”
“There was no evidence whatsoever that it was any kind of hatred toward Sean Kennedy or any hatred toward gays,” Beasley told TV station FOX Carolina.

However, that contention is disputed by statements from some eyewitnesses who said Moller used anti-gay slurs before the attack.

Equally troubling is the phone call Moller made immediately after the incident to a woman who had been speaking with Kennedy. The transcript of the drunken call was presented during sentencing.

“Hey, I was just wondering how your boyfriend’s feeling right about now [laughter]. The fucking faggot … Yeah boy, your boy is knocked out, man. The motherfucker. Tell him he owes me $500 for breaking my goddamn hand on his teeth, that fucking bitch.”

Before sentencing, Moller apologized to Kennedy’s family. “I have to live with it every day,” he said. “I wish it had never happened. I’m sorry.”

Outside the courthouse, Kennedy’s mother, Elke Kennedy, called the sentence a “joke and a slap on the wrist.”
“There was no justice for Sean today,” she said. “Once again it proves that in South Carolina there is no justice for the victim and especially for a victim of a senseless, violent, bias-motivated crime.”

Elke Kennedy has maintained throughout the investigation and criminal proceedings that her son’s death was the result of a hate crime. Neither South Carolina nor federal hate crimes laws include protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In October, Circuit Solicitor Bob Ariail reduced the original murder charge against Moller to involuntary manslaughter, after “realizing the possibility of no indictment on the murder charge … would result in Moller’s release.” There is a 25-year sentencing gap in South Carolina between convictions for involuntary manslaughter and murder, accounting for Judge Miller’s sentence.

The judge said his intent was to rehabilitate Moller, who has been working and supporting a 9-month-old daughter since his November bond release. Miller added that prison would “only hurt [Moller]” and that “there are some bad people in that place, and he’s going to be exposed to things he’s never seen.”

In a statement published on the website of her foundation, Sean’s Last Wish, Elke Kennedy said, “My son was violently murdered because of hate and as his mother I wanted justice. My family will never be the same, a big part of our lives has been ripped out of our hearts.”

— contributed to this report.

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.