Justia South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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John Massey, Jr. was indicted for first-degree burglary, grand larceny, and criminal conspiracy. The circuit court granted a defense motion to quash the indictment for first-degree burglary on the basis the premises entered did not qualify as a dwelling. The court of appeals affirmed. The State contended on appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court that, beyond the fact that the circuit court did not have the authority to quash a facially valid indictment on sufficiency-of-the-evidence grounds, the court of appeals erred in affirming the circuit court's ruling on the merits. To this, the Supreme Court agreed, and reversed. The matter was remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings. View "South Carolina v. Massey" on Justia Law

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Billy Phillips was convicted of murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. At trial, a DNA analyst testified Phillips could not be excluded as a contributor to a mixture of DNA recovered from two samples taken from the crime scene. The analyst conceded, however, the statistical probability that some other randomly selected and unrelated person also could not be excluded as the person who left the DNA was, for one of the samples, only one in two. Furthermore, the State failed to explain to the trial court or the jury three fundamental concepts underlying the DNA testimony the analyst gave in this particular case. Finally, in several instances, the State presented information to the trial court and the jury that was simply wrong. Taking all of this into consideration, the South Carolina Supreme Court held the trial court erred in not sustaining Phillips' objections to this testimony. The conviction was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "South Carolina v. Phillips" on Justia Law

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Kathryn Key was convicted in summary court of driving under the influence (DUI). Her conviction was based upon the testing of her blood, which was drawn without a warrant while she was unconscious. The circuit court reversed and remanded, finding the summary court should have suppressed evidence of Key's blood alcohol concentration because the State did not obtain a warrant. The State appealed, and the appeal was transferred to the South Carolina Supreme Court. While the appeal was pending, the United States Supreme Court decided Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 139 S. Ct. 2525 (2019). In Mitchell, the Supreme Court held for the first time that, generally, law enforcement was permitted to draw the blood of an unconscious DUI suspect without a search warrant pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. However, the Supreme Court acknowledged the possibility of an "unusual" case presenting an exception to this new general rule. The Mitchell Court determined the defendant should be given the opportunity to establish the applicability of the exception to the general rule and remanded the case to the trial court for that purpose. The South Carolina Court carefully considered the Mitchell holding and concluded it would not impose upon a defendant the burden of establishing the absence of exigent circumstances. The Court held the burden of establishing the existence of exigent circumstances remained upon the State. The exigent circumstances issue in this case was not ruled upon by the summary court; therefore, it was remanded for further proceedings at the summary court. View "South Carolina v. Key" on Justia Law

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Terry Williams shot and killed Larry Moore (victim) and shot and wounded Reva McFadden. Williams was indicted for murder, assault and batter of a high and aggravated nature, and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. A jury convicted Williams of voluntary manslaughter (a lesser-included offense to murder), assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, and the weapon charge. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Williams a writ of certiorari to determine whether the court of appeals erred in affirming the trial court's ruling allowing the State to impeach McFadden on redirect examination with details of two previous instances of domestic violence between Williams and McFadden. The Supreme Court held the trial court erred in allowing the State to elicit unfairly prejudicial details of the domestic violence incidents. The error was not harmless; therefore, the court of appeals was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "South Carolina v. Williams" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Respondent Rick Quinn, Jr. was a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, representing constituents in Richland and Lexington counties from 1989-2004 and 2010-2017 and serving as House Majority Leader from 1999- 2004. He owned and operated a mail business called Mail Marketing Strategies (MMS) in Columbia, while his father owned and operated a political consulting firm, Richard Quinn & Associates (RQ&A). In 2014, Attorney General Alan Wilson designated First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe as special prosecutor to conduct a State grand jury investigation into alleged public corruption committed by current and former members of the South Carolina General Assembly. This case arose from a prior state grand jury investigation of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, which resulted in six counts of misusing campaign funds, to which he pleaded guilty. During the course of the investigation into Speaker Harrell, SLED uncovered potentially criminal conduct by Representative Jimmy Merrill and Representative Rick Quinn, and a second grand jury investigation was initiated to investigate the conduct of these individuals. The investigation focused on Quinn's practice of using his office as House Majority Leader and leader of the House Republican Caucus to direct mailing and political services to his family's businesses. Quinn only admitted to a limited set of facts supporting the indictment. Believing the plea lacked a sufficient basis, the State moved to vacate Quinn's guilty plea, reconsider the sentence, and for the trial court's recusal. The State appealed the order denying its motions. After review, the South Carolina Supreme Court determined that the State could not appeal the guilty plea, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing, and there was no evidence of judicial bias or prejudice requiring the court to recuse itself. Therefore, the Court dismissed the State's appeal of the guilty plea, and affirmed as to all other issues. View "South Carolina v. Quinn" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Wallace Perry was convicted on two counts of criminal sexual conduct (CSC) with a minor in the first degree and two counts of CSC with a minor in the second degree for sexually assaulting two of his biological daughters. Prior to Perry's trial, the State made a motion to admit the testimony of Perry's stepdaughter from an earlier marriage that Perry sexually assaulted her twenty-two to twenty-seven years earlier. The State argued the trial court should not exclude the stepdaughter's testimony under Rule 404(b) of the South Carolina Rules of Evidence because it fit the "common scheme or plan" exception. Perry objected to this testimony. The trial court initially reserved ruling on the issue, but later indicated it was inclined to allow the stepdaughter to testify. The jury convicted Perry on all counts, and the trial court sentenced him to thirty years in prison. The court of appeals affirmed. The South Carolina Supreme Court determined it was not enough to meet the "logical connection" standard for admission of other crimes under the common scheme or plan exception to Rule 404(b) that the defendant previously committed the same crime. "When evidence of other crimes is admitted based solely on the similarity of a previous crime, the evidence serves only the purpose prohibited by Rule 404(b), and allows the jury to convict the defendant on the improper inference of propensity that because he did it before, he must have done it again. ...The common scheme or plan exception demands more." The Supreme Court held State must show a logical connection between the other crime and the crime charged such that the evidence of other crimes "reasonably tends to prove a material fact in issue." The State must also convince the trial court that the probative force of the evidence when used for this legitimate purpose is not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice from the inherent tendency of the evidence to show the defendant's propensity to commit similar crimes. In this case, the State did not meet its burden. Conviction was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "South Carolina v. Perry" on Justia Law

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Appellant Larry Durant was convicted of second-degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC) for sexually abusing a teenage girl in his church office where he served as the pastor. Durant contended the trial court improperly permitted the State to introduce evidence of prior sexual abuse allegations as evidence of a common scheme or plan under Rule 404(b), SCRE, and that the State committed a "Brady" violation by failing to accurately disclose the criminal history of its witness. After review, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the admissibility of the girls' testimony. "[W]hile the State failed to disclose the criminal background information of its witness, we find this information was not material." The Court found Durant exercised his position of trust, authority, and spiritual leadership to hold private prayer meetings with teen girls who had grown up in his church. He told them he was praying for their health and good fortune, and represented that part of this process was touching them sexually and having intercourse. Durant then warned the girls of misfortune if they refused or told anyone. Moreover, he used scripture as a means of grooming the children into performing sex acts. "These facts demonstrate the requisite logical connection between the prior acts of sexual abuse and the one forming the basis of the crime charged." The Court therefore affirmed Durant's conviction. View "South Carolina v. Durant" on Justia Law

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Appellant Michael Simmons was convicted of six counts of sexual exploitation of a minor in the second degree pursuant to section 16-15-405 of the South Carolina Code of Laws. Simmons contended this provision was unconstitutionally overbroad because it criminalized conduct that was not limited to visual representations of actual minors or obscenity, and thus violated the First Amendment. Additionally, Simmons contended the trial court erred in refusing to suppress information gathered pursuant to a search warrant supported by allegedly stale information and in finding defense counsel opened the door to evidence of suspected child pornography. While the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of section 16- 15-405 and the validity of the search warrant, it reversed Simmons' convictions because the trial court erred in finding defense counsel opened the door. The matter was remanded for a new trial. View "South Carolina v. Simmons" on Justia Law

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In October 2013, a young woman (the victim) was shot by Petitioner Michael Smith in the Five Points area of Columbia, South Carolina. It was undisputed Smith did not intend to harm her. Rather, Smith claimed he was acting in self-defense by shooting at a group of men who had threatened him. Smith missed his intended target, for which he was subsequently charged with the attempted murder of the victim and a host of other gun-related charges. Smith denied the attempted murder charge, implicitly acknowledging he had an express intent to kill the men at whom he was shooting, but asserted his action were justified given his believe he faced an imminent threat to his own life. The State ultimately conceded Smith presented evidence he acted in self- defense, and therefore a jury charge to that effect should have been given. Nonetheless, the State inexplicably requested the trial court charge the jury on implied malice. The law at the time of trial precluded an implied malice jury charge (based on the use of a deadly weapon) when a viable self-defense claim existed. The South Carolina Supreme Court surmised that recognizing this, the State sought to create a new category of implied malice for "felony attempted-murder," with the predicate felony being the felon-in-possession charge. As noted, Smith had already conceded guilt to this charge. Thus, in requesting the new felony attempted-murder charge, which the trial court accepted over Smith's objection, the State essentially circumvented then-existing law expressly precluding an implied malice charge. The Supreme Court determined the trial court erred in accommodating the State's request for an implied malice charge. "The error was compounded, for the State relied on a crime—the so-called crime of felony attempted-murder—which South Carolina has not adopted." Furthermore, the Court held that trial courts could not give an implied malice charge when there has been evidence presented that the defendant acted in self-defense. Smith's convictions were reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "South Carolina v. Smith" on Justia Law

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Robert Prather was convicted of murder and strong arm robbery. The trial court sentenced Prather to concurrent prison terms of thirty years for murder and ten years for strong arm robbery. Prather appealed, and a divided court of appeals reversed and remanded the case for a new trial. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted the State's petition for a writ of certiorari, and after review, held that the trial court did not err in admitting the State's reply testimony. Prather's additional sustaining grounds were without merit. The Court therefore reversed the court of appeals and reinstated Prather's convictions. View "South Carolina v. Prather" on Justia Law