Monday, December 20, 2010
Let's Go To The Tape: Supreme Court Of South Carolina Finds Prisoner Video Admissible In Death Penalty Appeal
A defendant is convicted of two counts of armed robbery, two counts of murder, one count of burglary of a dwelling, first degree, one count of attempt to burn, and one count of criminal sexual conduct, first degree. During the sentencing phase of trial and over the defendant's objection, the State introduced a video recording showing prison guards using pepper-spray to force the defendant to comply with a pat-down request. The events documented on the tape occurred the night that the defendant was found guilty. The defendant refused to allow prison guards to touch him when the guards requested that he place his hands on the wall for a pat-down. The guards explained that the pat-down was policy and indicated that if he continued to refuse, the defendant would be pepper-sprayed. The defendant continued to resist after several requests for compliance, so the guards used pepper-spray to restrain him. At the end of the sentencing phase of trial, the defendant was given the death penalty. Did the trial court properly allow for admission of the tape? According to the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of South Carolina in State v. Torres, 2010 WL 5071684 (S.C. 2010), the answer is "yes."
The facts in Torres were as stated above. In turning aside the appellant's argument that the video recording was improperly admitted, the Supreme Court of South Carolina cited its previous opinion in State v. Burkhart, 371 S.C. 482, 487, 640 S.E.2d 450, 453 (2007), for the proposition that "[A]daptability to prison life...is clearly admissible and...evidence of the defendant's characteristics may include prison conditions if narrowly tailored to demonstrate the defendant's personal behavior in those conditions."
The South Carolina Supremes then concluded that
The video recording in this case demonstrates exactly the type of evidence that Burkhart permits. The video shows [appellant's] behavior in a routine prison situation where he repeatedly refused to accede to prison guards' numerous requests to submit to a pat-down. Because the video recording is probative on the issue of [appellant's] adaptability to prison life, which is a legitimate concern in the sentencing phase of a capital case, the video does not introduce an arbitrary factor into the jury's determination.
The court did note that the evidence was still subject to South Carolina Rule of Evidence 403, which provides that
Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.
But the court ultimately held that
the trial judge's ruling was correct because the probative value far outweighs any prejudice stemming from the video and any unfair prejudice is de minimis. The video recording presented the jury with competent evidence to showcase [appellant's] character and adaptability to prison life by illustrating [appellant] in an actual routine prison situation. While prior testimony had already established [appellant's] prior convictions and his problems with maintaining parole conditions, this video recording was unique in its application to a specific parameter held by this Court to not be arbitrary in the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial.