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Criminal Practice – Murder & Attempted Murder – Gang Evidence – Juvenile Transfer

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//January 25, 2023

Criminal Practice – Murder & Attempted Murder – Gang Evidence – Juvenile Transfer

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//January 25, 2023

After shots were fired at Richard Simmons’ house, defendant joined Simmons in trying to chase down the shooters, and Simmons shot at the victim, believing she was one of the shooters. Under these circumstances, evidence of defendant’s gang affiliation was not logically relevant to any material fact at issue.

We affirm the circuit court’s refusal to remand defendant’s case to family court. However, we reverse as to the circuit court’s admission of gang-related evidence, and we remand for a new trial.

The state proffered testimony from 16 witnesses regarding gang evidence; only one definitively stated he and defendant were members of the Young Gunnas gang. Others ultimately stated defendant was “associated” with the gang or that they “heard” he was in the gang, but no one else who made these speculative statements admitted to being in the gang, testified to knowing the Chrysler (identical to the victim’s car) was in fact occupied by members of the Loud Pack gang, or testified to personal knowledge of the conflict between the gangs.

The state presented much evidence that was substantially prejudicial to defendant’s case and confusing to the jury. For instance, the state continued to question witnesses about two murders and various shootings that occurred in defendant’s neighborhood in an attempt to prove an ongoing gang war in the neighborhood. However, none of the evidence clearly connected defendant or Simmons to the prior shootings or to the shootings that provoked the extended car chase resulting in the victim’s murder.

The risk of unfair prejudice and confusion raised by the evidence related to a gang war and defendant being a member of the Young Gunnas substantially outweighed the scant probative value such evidence brought to the table. While the state argues any error in admitting the gang-related evidence was harmless, we find it hard to reconcile this contention with the fact the state questioned half of its witnesses about gang-related evidence and repeatedly spoke to gang characteristics and gang violence in its opening and closing arguments.

The state, through eliciting such a large quantity of gang-related evidence, essentially put defendant on trial for being a member of a gang and the gang activity in his neighborhood. This type of prior bad act evidence is precisely what Rules 403 and 404(b), SCRE, seek to exclude from trials.

However, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to transfer the juvenile defendant’s case back to family court.

First, the family court accorded appropriate weight to the conflicting statements from defendant and Simmons, concluding that under the circumstances, the judicial economy of trying defendant and his codefendants in one court was desirable. Simmons at first claimed defendant was the shooter, but—after defendant’s case was transferred to the circuit court—confessed that he (Simmons) was the shooter. Nevertheless, there was no dispute that defendant was in the car when Simmons fired the lethal bullets or that defendant shot the murder weapon from the moving vehicle before handing it to Simmons to shoot at the victim’s car.

Second, Simmons’s admission did not change the state’s theory of the case, i.e., the hand of one is the hand of all. Under this theory, murder and attempted murder carry the same weight as if defendant had pulled the trigger himself.

Finally, even if the trial court had remanded jurisdiction to the family court to reevaluate its transfer determination, the limited, new evidence would not have affected the family court’s decision. Much of the court’s findings dealt with the aggressive and violent nature in which the victim’s murder was perpetrated; defendant’s extensive and violent criminal history; and his lack of compliance with previous home detention orders, which resulted “in him committing more egregious criminal offenses.”

Because the new evidence did not diminish the seriousness of the offense, it did not lower defendant’s culpability in the murder, and it would not have changed the outcome of the family court’s transfer determination, we find the circuit court had reasonable factual support to deny defendant’s motion to transfer jurisdiction.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded.

State v. Robinson (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-004-23, 14 pp.) (Bruce Williams, C.J.) Appealed from Charleston County Circuit Court (Kristi Lea Harrington, J.) John Blume, Susan Barber Hackett and Megan Sara Ehrlich for appellant; Alan McCrory Wilson, Jeffrey Young, Donald Zelenka, Melody Jane Brown, Tommy Evans and Scarlett Wilson for respondent. S.C. App.

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