Tyrone King was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his neighbor in 2012. The Supreme Court ruled July 18 that his conviction should be reversed because the trial court erred in allowing evidence of other crimes without properly considering whether such information was allowed under the state rules of evidence.
“The majority here got it right, the evidence was inadmissible,” said attorney Howard Anderson III of Pendleton, who represented King on appeal. “There were significant problems with the state’s case at trial. I’m very happy that the Supreme Court has decided that a fair and impartial jury can decide the case without hearing the inadmissible evidence.”
Law enforcement conducted two videotaped interviews with King after he was arrested, both of which contained scattered references to other, unrelated charges against him, including another murder charge. During a pretrial hearing, King moved to exclude several portions of the interviews, but Marlboro County Circuit Court Judge Edward Cottingham allowed jurors to hear some of the references to the other charges.
The state’s Court of Appeals ruled that the case should be remanded to the trial court for an analysis under Rule 404(b) of the state’s Rules of Evidence, which governs evidence about a defendant’s prior crimes or bad acts. The state appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, but during oral argument conceded that there was no valid reason for the trial court to admit evidence of King’s unrelated murder charge. So the case turned on whether King had properly preserved his objection, and whether the error was harmless.
The court agreed with King on both questions. It vacated the Court of Appeals’ remand and ordered that King get a new trial on his murder and weapon possession charges. (King’s other convictions were unaffected because he failed to challenge them.)
Justice George James, writing for the the majority, cited numerous points at which King’s attorney objected during pretrial hearings, citing Rules 401, 403 and 404(b) while recording each specific objection in an email sent to the trial court. James said that a party need not use the exact name of a legal doctrine in order to preserve it, but it must be “clear that the argument has been presented on that ground.”
“We find King’s argument was sufficiently specific and apparent from its context to bring the trial court’s attention to his claim of error,” James wrote. “Therefore, we find King’s argument was preserved.”
Anderson said he believes the decision is valuable in that it clarifies the rules around error preservation.
“Sometimes in South Carolina, the law is murky about what trial lawyers should do to ensure errors are preserved for appeal,” he said. “Here, they found the trial counsel had done enough. It’s good for the bar to have guidance to make sure things aren’t lost because a lawyer didn’t say the right thing at trial.”
The state argued that the trial court’s admission of the unrelated evidence was harmless because an overwhelming amount of other evidence proved King’s guilt, citing the testimony of three eyewitnesses who saw King at the murder scene holding a gun, gunshot residue on King’s palm, and a statement in one of the interviews in which King admitted to accidentally shooting the victim.
While the court agreed that there is no debate that King was the shooter, James said in the opinion that the state did not prove King acted with the malice required to prove murder.
“The admission into evidence of the unrelated murder charge is highly prejudicial to a defendant currently on trial for murder,” James said. “Since King was on trial for murder, it is entirely reasonable to conclude the jury considered the evidence of his unrelated murder charge in reaching its guilty verdict.”
Robert Kittle, communications director for the Attorney General’s office, declined to comment on the case beyond saying that the appellate division is reviewing the decision to decide whether to file a petition for rehearing.
The 16-page opinion is State v. King (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-077-18). The full text opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.
Follow Matthew Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney