South Carolina Manslaughter Conviction Reversed Due To Self Defense
While the prosecution has the burden of proof in any case involving a criminal defendant, affirmative defenses can be an important part of a criminal defense strategy. In cases involving charges of violent crimes, including assault, domestic violence and homicide, the defendant's ability to argue self-defense might be crucial to dismissal of charges or an acquittal at trial.
Sometimes achieving a positive outcome requires appeal in a state or federal appellate court. The South Carolina Supreme Court recently issued a favorable decision to the defendant in a criminal case involving a Columbia man. Five years after the defendant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the state's highest appellate court held that he was entitled to a directed verdict acquitting him of the felony charge on the ground of self-defense.
The case involved a security guard at the Cornell Arms apartments near the South Carolina State House. The man was also a resident of the apartment tower who had a concealed weapons permit and carried a loaded pistol, though it was not required by his employer. He was on duty one evening when a resident reported a drunk and enraged guest who was banging on apartment doors in the building.
The security guard asked the drunken man to leave, but he refused and slammed a door in the guard's face. The security guard called Columbia police and then followed as the man and a friend voluntarily left the building and walked halfway down the block. The guard testified at trial that the man shouted threats at him and turned and advanced on him, pulling what turned out to be a liquor bottle from his shirt. The security guard drew his weapon and killed the man with three shots.
The Legal Standard for Self-Defense in South Carolina Homicide Crimes
A Richland County grand jury indicted the security guard for murder, and his criminal defense lawyer moved for dismissal of the charge based on South Carolina's Protection of Persons and Property Act, which had been passed several months before the trial. That law, based on the common law Castle Doctrine, recognizes that law-abiding citizens have a right to protect "themselves, their families, and others from intruders and attackers without fear of prosecution or civil action for acting in defense of themselves and others."
The trial court ruled that the new law did not apply to pending cases and denied the motion, as well as subsequent motions for a directed verdict based on self-defense. The jury convicted the security guard of the lesser-included charge of voluntary manslaughter and he was sentenced to 16 years in prison. On appeal, the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, holding that the evidence did not support a finding of self-defense, the elements of a voluntary manslaughter had been properly established, and retroactive application of the Castle Doctrine would have been inappropriate.
The South Carolina Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the conviction, holding that the state had failed to disprove the elements of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. The court's analysis recited the factors that justify a person's use of deadly force in self-defense under South Carolina law:
- The defendant did not bring on the difficulty;
- The defendant believed he or she was (or actually was) in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, and a reasonable and prudent person of "ordinary firmness and courage" would have had the same belief; and
- The defendant had no alternatives for avoiding the danger of death or serious bodily injury.
In a divided opinion, the Supreme Court concluded that the elements of self-defense were all clearly supported by the evidence. A separate concurring opinion contended that the evidence of defendant's loss of control was insufficient to support the manslaughter conviction without reaching the self-defense issue. One dissenting justice recommended upholding the conviction.
Protecting Clients' Rights in South Carolina Violent Crimes Cases
The right to appeal a criminal conviction is a fundamental part of the criminal justice process. Homicide and other violent crimes cases frequently involve complex legal issues that require skillful argument by a South Carolina criminal defense attorney before appellate judges to reconcile statutory intent and Constitutional protections. But sometimes, as in the present case, an appellate court will carry out justice based on its independent review of the facts.