Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Reversal Of Fortune

The South Carolina Supreme Court has granted a new trial for a prosecutor's misconduct in argument

Among the several blatantly improper comments the prosecutor made in his closing argument to the jury in Oscar Fortune's murder trial, he claimed, "My job is to present the truth," and said, "if you look in the . . . Code of Laws . . . [ ,I] have to say what the truth is." "On the other hand," the prosecutor told the jury, "the defense attorneys' jobs are to manipulate the truth. Their job is to shroud the truth. Their job is [to] confuse jurors. Their job is to do whatever they have to --without regard for the truth." The prosecutor explained that if he—the prosecutor— believes "somebody else did the crime," then he must "dismiss it." "And [if] I know the person has done something that I think the facts show they're guilty of, then I can't [dismiss] it. I have to go forward with it."

We find the prosecutor's improper remarks violated the defendant's rights under the Due Process Clause. We reverse the denial of post-conviction relief (PCR), and remand to the court of general sessions for a new trial.

The case

The State charged Oscar Fortune with murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime in connection with a shooting in the parking lot of the Huddle House in Cheraw, South Carolina, on December 23, 2001. Evidence presented at trial demonstrated both Fortune and the victim—Anthony Shields— possessed and fired guns. Fortune claimed Shields shot at him first, and he shot Shields in self-defense.

The court noted that such arguments are universally condemned

Whether this assistant solicitor's closing argument was improper—in light of the long history of courts condemning the same misconduct—is an easy question. The PCR court found it was improper, and we wholeheartedly agree. Whether the assistant solicitor's misconduct violated Fortune's due process rights is a tougher judgment call. In State v. Thomas in 1986—twenty years before Fortune's 2006 trial—we granted the defendant a new trial because—in our judgment—the solicitor's similarly improper closing argument required it. 287 S.C. at 412-13, 339 S.E.2d at 129. We cautioned solicitors not to engage in misconduct of this sort because we recognized the extent to which it endangers the due process rights of criminal defendants. 287 S.C. at 413, 339 S.E.2d at 129. Today, we make the same judgment call. The assistant solicitor's misconduct in his closing argument requires that Oscar Fortune be granted a new trial.

(Mike Frisch)

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