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An inadmissible opinion: Coroner’s testimony on cause of death improper

A Spartanburg County coroner offered improper opinion testimony when testified as a lay witness that a victim’s death was due to homicide, the South Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled. The court vacated a murder conviction handed down in 2014 after prosecutors argued that the defendant had intentionally killed the victim by running him over with his car.

Sandy Westmoreland admitted to running over and killing Travis Haney near a Spartanburg hospital in 2012, but contended that the collision had been an accident, and that he fled the scene out of panic after he realized Haney was dead. The question of whether Haney’s death was an intentional or an accident was the main point of contention for the jury to resolve.

At trial, prosecutors initially attempt to qualify the county’s coroner, Rusty Clevenger, as an expert witness to testify about the cause of Haney’s death, but the defense objected that Clevenger lacked the qualifications needed to do so. Coroners in South Carolina do not need any formal education beyond a high school diploma, and can qualify for a position with three years’ experience in death investigation with a law enforcement agency.

Prosecutors withdrew their attempts to qualify Clevenger as an expert, but Clevenger was still allowed to testify that he had ruled Haney’s death a homicide, which he told the jury he defined as the intentional act of taking the life of another. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, Westmoreland appealed the conviction.

Judge Paula Thomas, writing for a unanimous panel, found that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting Clevenger’s testimony on the cause of the death. Thomas held that Clevenger’s opinion as to Haney’s cause of death was not based on his perceptions because it was based on the findings of the pathologist and the investigation of law enforcement, and so it was improper opinion testimony by a lay witness.

The court rejected the state’s argument that the trial court properly admitted Clevenger’s testimony because a statute requires the coroner to issue a ruling on cause and manner of death.

“Such a statutory requirement does not necessarily render the coroner’s ruling admissible during trial,” Thomas wrote. “Clevenger’s testimony as to his ruling on cause and manner of death must still comport with the rules of evidence to be admissible.”

The judges also ruled that Clevenger’s lay testimony that the death was a homicide, which he defined as an intentional act, was an opinion on Westmoreland’s state of mind and, thus, his guilt under the circumstances of this case—testimony that would be improper even coming from an expert witness.

The court went on to find that the trial court’s error was not harmless as to Westmoreland’s murder conviction because Clevenger’s testimony went to the trial’s main issue—what Westmoreland’s state of mind was when he ran over Haney—regarding murder and went to the heart of his defense. (The jury also convicted Westmoreland of hit-and-run; the appeals court affirmed that conviction because the trial court’s error was harmless as to that charge.)

“[This] testimony went directly to the main issue during trial and the heart of Appellant’s defense that the incident was an accident,” Thomas wrote. “Although the remaining evidence tending to show Appellant intentionally hit Victim was compelling, including the physical and motive evidence, we find Clevenger’s testimony could have reasonably impacted the result of the murder conviction and, thus, was not harmless.”

Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek of Columbia represented Westmoreland on appeal. Dudek said that Clevenger’s testimony was crucial to the cause because it “pretty much eviscerated our whole defense that the thing was an accident.”

“The blinding flash of the obvious is that most of us lay people are certainly not qualified to give an opinion on the cause of death,” Dudek said.

Westmoreland also argued that the trial judge erred by instructing the jury on the doctrine of voluntary intoxication because the evidence was undisputed that the hospital heavily medicated Westmoreland for medical purposes shortly before the collision. The trial judge ruled that the instruction was proper because Westmoreland could have declined the medicine, and the appeals court found that Westmoreland had failed to preserve the issue for appeal.

Dudek said that had the issue been preserved, it would have set up an interesting legal question over whether impairment caused by medications given in an emergency room could be considered voluntary intoxication.

The 13-page decision is State v. Westmoreland (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-045-17). The full text of the opinion is available online at

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @SCLWDonovan

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