Few meth cooks are as talented as Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher-turned-drug kingpin in the “Breaking Bad” TV series. The likelihood of some guy in a rundown trailer coming close to the product yield and purity that Mr. White achieved is slimmer than a meth addict.
But a novel decision from the South Carolina Court of Appeals could lead to sloppy trailer park meth cooks being treated the same as skilled chemists who have access to real labs and proper equipment.
The opinion upholds a state expert’s theoretical testimony and also could be applied to other types of drug cases and, possibly, certain crimes that are not drug-related. The decision, State v. Cain, was first decided in July but withdrawn and refiled Sept. 2.
“I think it’s very scary,” said Thomas Rode, a Charleston attorney who argued on appeal for convicted meth trafficker Charles Cain. “The logical ramifications of this are big. It replaces the requirement of specific intent with a requirement that the state offer testimony that it was possible.”
“You should need more than a possibility if you are going to convict somebody of a crime,” he added.
The court upheld testimony from a forensic chemistry expert regarding the amount of meth that Cain could have produced based on some makeshift lab components and empty pseudoephedrine packets that were found in the garbage at his trailer home in Spartanburg County. Police did not find meth on his property.
The expert, Beth Stuart, testified that Cain could have made between 11 and 17 grams of meth, with the low end being a 65-percent yield and the top being 100 percent. To convict Cain of trafficking, the state had to prove that he intended to cook at least 10 grams of meth.
Stuart’s theoretical yield figures were based on a meth-making operation in “ideal laboratory conditions” using glassware, a fume hood and pure chemicals. Cain’s trailer was not what anyone would call an ideal laboratory. It had no running water or electricity and “appeared to be under construction,” according to the appellate opinion.
But after hearing Stuart’s testimony, a jury found Cain guilty of trafficking and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
On appeal, Rode argued that prosecutors failed to prove that Cain intended to make enough meth to be a trafficker. But Judge Bruce Williams rejected Cain’s argument that Stuart’s theoretical yield testimony was too speculative. He found that her methodology was reliable.
Rode also asserted that prosecutors had to show the jury how much meth Cain could have made with his particular setup, rather than with a theoretical lab. But Williams set the issue aside after determining that it did not come up at trial and therefore was not preserved for appellate review.
“When viewed in a light most favorable to the state, the evidence of Cain’s possession of the meth lab components – coupled with Stuart’s properly admitted theoretical yield testimony – was sufficient for the circuit court to allow the jury to decide whether Cain intended to manufacture in excess of 10 grams of methamphetamine,” Williams wrote.
The state Attorney General’s Office could not be reached for comment. Rode said Cain planned to petition the state Supreme Court to hear the case. He added that the opinion, should it stand, could be applied to criminal cases outside the drug realm, including sex crimes.
For instance, Rode said, prosecutors might tell jurors that a defendant accused of inappropriately touching a victim had also intended to commit rape, even though that never happened.
The state Court of Appeals rejected a similar argument three years ago in State v. Atieh, but Cain could signal a shift.
“This sort of negates that opinion,” Rode said.
Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz