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SC justices: Judge can mull appeal, then new trial

COLUMBIA (AP) — A South Carolina judge who considers an inmate’s post-conviction relief appeal can then preside over that person’s new trial, the state’s highest court ruled Wednesday.

The state Supreme Court overturned a ruling by the Court of Appeals in the case of Robert Watkins, 48, who was originally convicted on armed robbery and weapons possession charges in 2002.

The lower appellate court dismissed Watkins’ direct appeal two years later, and Circuit Judge Larry R. Patterson judge turned down Watkins’ request post-conviction relief, or a petition for a new trial based on errors made by his attorneys during his trial.

The state Supreme Court ultimately granted Watkins a new trial, saying that his lawyers had indeed made mistakes, and Patterson presided over those new proceedings. Watkins represented himself in that trial and asked that Patterson recuse himself because of his prior involvement, but Patterson refused.

Convicted again, Watkins appealed again, arguing that Patterson shouldn’t have been allowed to consider the second trial. The Court of Appeals agreed with Watkins, writing in 2011 that “a judge must grant a recusal motion made during a new trial arising from a PCR hearing in which the judge also sat.”

But on Wednesday, the high court reversed that ruling, saying justices had found no evidence the trial judge had been biased and also questioning whether the recusal question could even be properly considered because Watkins didn’t bring the issue up at subsequent court appearances after the initial request.

In their unanimous opinion, the justices also pointed out that defendants always have the right to ask a judge to step aside for any reason.

“A criminal defendant may ask the judge who heard his PCR to recuse herself from the retrial of the matter for any of the reasons for which recusal may be sought,” the court wrote.

Watkins’ appellate attorney declined to comment on the decision.


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