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No evidentiary hearing, no problem

By Phillip Bantz, South Carolina Lawyers Weekly

Trial judges can skip past full-blown evidentiary hearings and witness testimony and jump right into deciding whether a defendant is entitled to self-defense immunity under South Carolina’s version of the “stand your ground” law, according to a decision that divided the former and current leaders of the state’s Supreme Court.

The Sept. 7 opinion in State v. Manning could allow prosecutors to argue that judges need not hear from any witnesses before deciding if a defendant acted in self-defense, according to Columbia-based appellate defense lawyer Elizabeth Franklin-Best.

She wrote in a blog post that Manning is “not good news on the Castle Doctrine front and likely to promote additional litigation on the issue in every case where the issue arises.”
“Every appeal will raise abuse of discretion and due process claims … ad infinitum,” Franklin-Best concluded. She was not involved with Manning’s case.

The decision overturned an earlier ruling from the Court of Appeals, which had sent the matter back to the trial court for a full evidentiary hearing – after Manning was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

He had argued that he was entitled to immunity under the Protection of Persons and Property Act, asserting that he feared for his life when he shot his girlfriend in the head during a dispute inside his home. He testified that he pulled the trigger as she lunged for a gun that he had wrestled away from her moments earlier.

Manning planned to have a forensic ballistics expert testify in support of his self-defense theory prior to his trial, but Richland County Circuit Judge G. Thomas Cooper denied Manning’s pretrial motion for immunity without hearing from the expert or any other witnesses. Cooper based his ruling on Manning’s statements to police and arguments from the prosecution and defense.

When the Court of Appeals first considered Manning’s case, it affirmed Cooper’s ruling after finding that the stand your ground law applied only to self-defense killings involving intruders, but not houseguests.

The court later reversed itself in an unpublished opinion based solely on Cooper’s decision to deny Manning’s request for an evidentiary hearing prior to determining that he could be prosecuted for killing his girlfriend.

In reversing the Court of Appeals, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, serving as an acting justice, held that judges have the discretion to determine whether a defendant should have an evidentiary hearing. She affirmed Cooper’s ruling under an abuse of discretion standard.

“Not only does this approach permit the trial judge to tailor the hearing to the needs of each case, but it serves to save precious judicial resources in cases like this one where an extensive hearing is simply unnecessary,” Toal wrote. Justices Donald Beatty, John Kittredge and Kaye Hearn concurred.

The majority decision has roots in two earlier opinions from the high court. Duncan established in 2011 that immunity “must be decided prior to trial,” but the opinion was silent as to whether a judge had to hold a full evidentiary hearing before making the decision. Three years later, the court held in Wessinger that judges did not have to hold evidentiary hearings before determining whether a crime was sexually violent.

But Toal’s successor, Chief Justice Costa Pleicones, wrote in his dissent that Wessinger, which interpreted the state’s Sexually Violent Predator Act, was inapplicable to stand your ground cases.

“Since the SVP designation rests completely in the trial judge’s discretion, it is not surprising that the decision to hold an evidentiary hearing is made on a case-by-case basis,” he wrote. “The [Protection of Persons and Property] Act, on the other hand, requires a motion by a party, and places on the defendant the burden of proving entitlement to immunity by a preponderance of evidence.”

Pleicones added that the majority’s finding that Manning was given a sufficient hearing “glosses over” the fact that Cooper had denied Manning the opportunity to call an expert witness before finding that he was not entitled to immunity. He wrote that the record in Manning’s case “belies the fact that there was any evidentiary hearing afforded to [Manning], much less a ‘sufficient’ one.”

Assistant State Attorney General William Blitch of Columbia had argued in the state’s brief that holding an evidentiary hearing was unnecessary in Manning’s case because the facts were straightforward and uncontested.

“Nothing in the Act, or in Duncan, requires a specific type of hearing or a specific procedure for the hearing,” he wrote.

Manning’s attorneys, Luke Shealy and Elizabeth Pringle of Columbia, noted that the state’s appellate courts had never ruled that a “full evidentiary hearing is not what was intended to determine immunity under the Act.”

Not until now.

Shealy and Pringle declined an interview request following Manning’s loss at the Supreme Court.

But they wrote in Manning’s brief that trial judges should be “instructed to decide claims for immunity after hearing competent evidence from the witness stand, and not simply arguments from lawyers regarding their opinions of the evidence.”

Unlike Franklin-Best, Charles Grose, a criminal defense lawyer in Greenwood, was not concerned about the ramifications of Manning. He doubted that the decision would prevent most defendants from receiving evidentiary hearings on their self-defense claims.

“As long as the judge handles it in a manner that is not an abuse of discretion, it looks like they’re [the appellate courts] going to affirm, which makes sense,” he said. “If a judge were presented with a different set of facts that clearly implicated [stand your ground] and ruled against somebody without a hearing, then that would probably be reversed for abuse of discretion.”

He added, “I think it’s good to have judges that have discretion to determine how to handle matters.”

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