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S.C. town wonders: Why did two little boys have to die?

By Mallory Simon, CNN
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A community deals with tragedy
  • Deaths of two boys, allegedly at mother's hand, shock Southern town
  • The accused, Shaquan Duley, is distraught and praying in jail, lawyer says
  • Attorney Carl B. Grant says there's more to Duley's story
  • He says details of what led to the tragedy may be heard at a bond hearing

Orangeburg, South Carolina (CNN) -- Ramona Milhouse awoke to the wail of sirens as the morning mist rose off the murky waters of the Edisto River last Monday. Within minutes, police and rescue workers crowded her backyard overlooking the river.

Milhouse, 81, looked out the window and saw the top of a sedan in the river. She assumed the car was empty. What she saw next still plays vividly in her mind and has shaken the city of 12,000 people where Milhouse has lived all her life.

"They took a little boy out, they had a floating stretcher and they laid him on it and he was limp, but I still didn't have any idea that he was dead. I thought that he was unconscious," she recalled. Then she saw another rescue worker with another child.

They cradled the boys against their chests as if they were holding babies -- but these babies already had been dead for hours. Only later would Milhouse learn how the bodies of two little boys wound up in the river behind her house.

It began more than 10 miles away, early in the morning on August 16, at the Trumps Inn Motel on the outskirts of town.

Owner Renu Patel said Shaquan Duley appeared "nervous" when she asked for a room. She slipped a $100 bill through a glass window to pay for the night and walked toward Room 31, the farthest room from the office.

Police say Duley suffocated her two boys, Devean and Ja'van Duley, inside Room 31. They say she admitted it to investigators. She is now charged with murder.

Patel never saw the children, but she is horrified by what police say happened behind the maroon motel door. She and other motel workers won't enter the room.

Inside Room 31 where boys were allegedly killed

Video: Funeral for boys
Video: Mother accused of murder
Video: Killings reminiscent of Smith case
Video: Defending mom accused of murder
  • South Carolina
  • Crime

Police say Duley suffocated the boys by pressing her hand over their mouths. She then strapped her dead sons, ages 2 and 1, into their car seats, drove across town to a boat ramp, put the car in neutral and sent it into the river.

Word spread quickly through Orangeburg, sparking both outrage and a quest for answers to difficult questions. What would make a mother kill her own toddlers? Why would she drive 10 miles with their lifeless bodies in the car, and why would she pick this particular spot to send her car into the river with her boys' bodies inside?

The answers, if there are any, will emerge later, said Duley's friends and family, as well as her lawyer. They said anyone who is quick to judge Duley should take a step back.

"Even though these are allegations and charges that just shock the absolute conscience of the average man, again, I say, hold your horses, wait until you see what all the evidence is," defense attorney Carl B. Grant told CNN. "Wait until you see what the facts and circumstance truly are surrounding what really happened."

Duley has not yet entered a plea, although she appeared briefly in court and told a judge she was not doing well.

"She's been tearful at times I've spoken with her, as anyone would be who is facing these charges and these types of allegations, and she's been very, very, very - I'm talking absolutely destroyed about what's happened," said Grant, who has visited Duley in jail.

Authorities said Duley, a 29-year-old unemployed single mother, may have been fed up with criticism from her mother, Helen Duley, and that her increasing frustration could have led to the killings.

"Her lawyer's saying she's innocent. How could she be innocent when she admitted she did it?" Milhouse asked, echoing the sentiments of many in town. A great-grandmother, Milhouse said she couldn't understand why Duley didn't seek other, less extreme, options.

"It sounds like she had plenty of relatives, plenty of friends, why didn't she call any of them for help?" Milhouse said. "If she was upset she could have just went to a friend or relatives, it looks to me like. I just don't know."

The inclination of some people to judge and condemn Duley is exactly what Grant said he is trying to combat for his client, to ensure she gets a fair trial. Inside his office, located in the center of town, local newspapers are spread across a wooden desk in the waiting area. All are different front pages from throughout the week - and all have his client's mug shot splashed across them.

Grant cautioned that Duley's statement to police may be excluded from any trial if she was under duress or not in the right frame of mind when she was questioned. To those who feel the case is open-and-shut, he emphatically urged they keep their minds open.

"Do not rush to judgment. Do not feel that just because a person is charged with killing their own children that, my goodness, just throw them under the bus," Grant said, his voice rising with emotion.

Grant was asked to represent Duley by her family. He was familiar to the family because he defended Duley's first cousin more than a decade ago in a high-profile murder case where police said they had a confession and an eyewitness. In that case, the lead investigator was Larry Williams, who is now the sheriff.

A similar rush to judgment swept over the town before Maurice Duley's trial, Grant said. He had just set up his law office in town when the Maurice Duley case began.

Grant won an acquittal for Maurice Duley, and it is memorialized in the entrance to his office with a plaque and a newspaper article. According to the local account, the lawyer attacked the credibility of the prosecution's star witness, who said Duley killed a man during a grocery store robbery they committed together in 1993. Duley said he wasn't there, and ultimately the jury had doubts about the prosecution witness.

As residents struggled to understand last week's tragedy, streams of cars stopped by the lake, leaving teddy bears, balloons and other mementos at a makeshift memorial floating in the river. Some got out of their vehicles and stared into the water. Others just sat inside their cars for a few minutes before leaving.

Emotions are running high in the town, just 109 miles away from the site of another nationally infamous case in which a mother took the lives of her small children. The circumstances are eerily similar to the 1994 case of Susan Smith, who rolled her car into a lake in Union, South Carolina, with her two boys still alive inside and claimed they were killed by a carjacker, an account ultimately exposed as a hoax. People were horrified and she is serving a life prison sentence.

Susan Smith prosecutor: Duley case 'brings it all back'

Grant said there was much more to Shaquan Duley than what was printed in newspapers and broadcast on TV, as media outlets from across the nation descended on the town during the early days of the case.

"Shaquan Duley did not have any criminal record at all. She was definitely a good mother and a loving and kind person," he said. "So this allegation, these charges, this horrible incident was a complete shock to anyone who knew Shaquan Duley."

What drives a mom to kill?

Nyaisha Miller, 26, didn't know Duley or her family but stopped by the riverside memorial on Thursday after hearing about what happened. She clutched the hands of her children, ages 2 and 4, as she stood at the water's edge, where the words Orangeburg County have been etched into the concrete, and looked out into the distance.

"I'm emotional, sad, for the two little kids," she said, shaking her head. "We'll probably never know what was going on inside" Duley's mind, she added.

Dozens of residents said they would have gladly taken Duley's children if only she had asked for help. At a gas station in town, clerks and regular patrons echoed the sentiment -- and could only repeat the same question: Why did it happen?

Menia Lee has known the Duley family for 29 years. She sat inside a packed church Friday at the funeral for the two boys, where hundreds of friends, family members and churchgoers passed by two small, white open caskets, flanked by white and blue flowers. Inside, the boys were dressed in full white tuxedos and held toy cars.

Lee said she came to support the family, especially Shaquan Duley's mother, Helen, who had been like a second mother to her.

"This has been very difficult to kind of comprehend, all the events around this tragic situation," Lee said. "They are a very good family, a very close family. And for those that don't know them, it kind of may be unspeakable and incomprehensible, but it really is just a tragic situation, and I think there is a lot more that will come out and let the world know that this is a very good family."

Lee's thoughts echoed an emotional plea that Helen Duley gave in an interview with CNN affiliate WLTX, when she said her daughter was someone who just needed help.

"There's nothing you would ask Shaquan that she wouldn't do," Helen Duley told WLTX. "I'm asking the people not to judge her for what she's done, but understand that we all have problems and never know when things might get out of hand."

WLTX: Shaquan Duley's mom, sister speak out

That message was driven home during the funeral service, where a passionate and emotional Nathaniel Rhodes, a deacon, urged the mourners to take a lesson from the tragedy. They should now think back to days gone by, he said, a time when neighbors and friends looked after one another and were always there when someone needed them, in hopes such a tragedy never happens again.

Family, friends say goodbye to slain boys

Though Shaquan Duley was not allowed to leave jail to attend the funeral service, Grant said she has been distraught when he's visited her in the county jail and is trying to lean on her faith until trial.

"She's a soft-spoken person who -- she fears God, I can tell you that," Grant said. "She and I have actually prayed together we have talked about this case, there have been tears, and she is so concerned about her entire family as well as herself."

Grant said that while emotions are clearly running high and the nature of the case is disturbing, he hopes people will reserve judgment. He said he plans to lay out what he believes to be all of the mitigating factors in the case at an upcoming bond hearing.

After that, he believes, people will finally have a better idea of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Duley's sons. He is hopeful that there will be a turnaround in public opinion and that his client can get the fair trial she deserves.

The alternative is unfathomable to him.

"I have often said in cases like this, where the emotions of the masses have been aroused so high, there is a thin line, truly, between a lynching and a trial."