Murder on his Mind

Can scientific images show what's in the mind of a murderer?

Produced By Josh Gelman and Mary Noonan Robichaux

This story originally aired Jan. 13, 2007. It was updated Aug. 31, 2007.

In the summer of 2006, in what is known as low country South Carolina just north of Charleston, for a change it wasn't the heat everyone was talking about - it was the havoc one man wreaked on this small coastal community.

As correspondent Troy Roberts reports, Stephen Stanko faced a six-count indictment, including murder and kidnapping. It was the county's first death penalty case in nearly a decade and Stanko stood accused of committing some of the most heinous and brutal crimes in Georgetown in recent memory.

Prosecutor Greg Hembree says Stanko is a cold-blooded killer. "He has no remorse," he says.

It's hard to believe that Hembree is talking about the same highly intelligent, seemingly polite 39-year-old, who excelled in school and was described in his yearbook as the all-American boy.

Friends and family say it was that quiet confidence and intelligence that first attracted 43-year-old Laura Ling to Stanko when they met in the fall of 2004.

"He seemed just so pleasant. And solicitous. And just attentive to her. And just so normal," remembers Laura's sister Victoria Loy.

They knew each other just two months before Stanko moved in with Laura and her teenage daughter, and from all accounts everyone got along.

"My life with Laura was unconditional," says Stanko. "I loved her, she loved me. We never judged each other."

But then came the early morning hours of April 8, 2005, when Stanko simply snapped.

As the lead investigator on the scene, Lieutenant Bill Pierce arrived at the Ling home and learned the grisly details. "Some time after midnight there was an altercation between Laura Ling and her live-in boyfriend Stephen Stanko," Pierce says.

Stanko says Laura had slapped him and that a lit cigarette in his hand got lodged between his glasses and burned him. He says it's the last thing he remembers.

Lt. Pierce says Stanko bound Laura's hands behind her back, beat her and then turned his attention to her daughter, who was asleep in her bed.

Laura's daughter, who 48 Hours has agreed not to identify, was the prosecution's key witness. "He told me 'Scream and I will kill you both.' I wanted to get to my mom and tell her 'We have to get out of here,'" she testified.

"I first looked in my mom's room I saw her lying on the floor and I heard her moaning and kicking. She was incoherent and she was trying to say something or do something but she couldn't and the next thing I know I was hit over the head with something and I blacked out," Laura's daughter testified.

When she regained consciousness, Stanko was on top of her. "I fought him, I kicked and kicked," the teen testified. "He was so strong, he was so strong. He then proceeded to rape me."

Hembree says that at some point, Stanko turned Laura on her stomach and choked her to death. And then, her daughter testified, he held her head up from behind and slit her throat twice.

After the attacks, Stanko took a shower, where he claims he regained his memory. When he walked into the bedroom, he says "I felt for a pulse on both of them. And there was no pulse."

"I ended up packin' and leavin'," he tells Roberts. "I really wanted to kill myself."

Laura's daughter survived and eventually managed to reach for a phone to call 911.