Supreme Court Of South Carolina Reverses Drug Crimes Conviction
A variety of legal issues can influence the criminal defense strategy in any drug crimes case, from suppression of evidence to technical arguments about the nature or quantity of controlled substances. A recent South Carolina case involving charges of a drug trafficking conspiracy was finally resolved based on unconstitutional limits on the defendant's right to confront his accusers.
In State v. Gracely, the Supreme Court of South Carolina overturned a conviction for conspiracy to traffic a large quantity of illegal drugs. The basis for the reversal was the defendant's Constitutional rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, which ensures that an accused person is allowed to cross-examine witnesses in criminal matters.
Pickens County law enforcement arrested the defendant after he was identified in a South Carolina grand jury investigation in 2008. The indictment alleged that he had conspired in the sale of more than 400 grams of methamphetamine in a widespread crime sting operation that led to charges of 52 distinct crimes against a variety of individuals.
The central evidence against him was testimony from seven other defendants who had allegedly received lesser sentences in exchange for turning state's evidence. The defendant's criminal defense lawyer attempted to use cross-examination to show that the offer of decreased punishment had biased the testimony from the other people accused in the investigation.
The trial court would not allow the defense attorney to ask witnesses about the mandatory minimum sentences they would have received if they had not cooperated with the prosecution. A jury found the defendant guilty, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison, and he appealed the verdict.
The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed to review the case before it was heard by the Court of Appeals based on a provision that allows it to take over cases involving "a legal principle of major importance." In a unanimous decision, the Justices reversed the drug crimes conviction due to the trial court's improper limitation of the defendant's right to cross-examine the state's witnesses.
The holding was based largely on the Supreme Court's interpretation of a 1991 case involving a cocaine trafficking defendant who had been unfairly prejudiced by a trial judge's limitations regarding cross-examination about plea agreements. In light of that legal precedent, the Court confirmed that a cooperating witness's ability to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence is the sort of critical information that a jury must be allowed to hear.
By asserting a client's rights and holding fast when unfavorable results require an appeal, a criminal defense attorney can explore every last opportunity for justice.