SC COURT OF APPEALS GRANTS WASHINGTON A NEW TRIAL
On August 21, 2015, someone broke into a Johns Island home and stole a rifle, a Husqvarna weed eater, and some other items. Mack Seal Washington pawned a rifle at one pawn shop and a Husqvarna weed eater at a different pawn shop. Washington was arrested over 7 months later on March 23, 2016, and a detective interrogated Washington the very next day.
Prior to the trial, Washington’s lawyer objected to the admissibility of the audio recorded interrogation on 3 grounds:
2. Improper bolstering of the State’s fingerprint expert’s testimony
3. The recording contained improper opinion evidence
The Court of Appeals opined that the detective ’s interrogation method may have been proper but “… every word he uttered during the out of court interview was inadmissible hearsay.” On the other hand, Washington’s statements would not be hearsay because they were admissions by a party opponent. “The State could have admitted Washington’s statements by asking the detective about them, avoiding the hearsay…” At trial the State argued the statements were not hearsay because they were offered for context, but there is no context exception to the hearsay rule.
The Court of Appeals also found that the detective s’ repeated requests that Washington explain why he was not guilty was “inadmissible burden shifting.” It has long been held that a Defendant is not required to prove his innocence. The Court of Appeals quoted Justice Kittredge Opinion in State v. Brewer, 411 S.C. 401, 768 S.E.2d 656 (2015) that, “Law enforcement’s ad nauseam insistence that Brewer prove his innocence has no place before the jury.”
The State next argued that the error was harmless, but the Court of Appeals felt otherwise. Opining that the State’s case against Washington was strong but circumstantial. It appears that the fact that the jury received the 17 minute interrogation in the jury room upon their request, and they came back 20 minutes later with a guilty verdict was also important in the Court of Appeals finding that the error was in fact, NOT harmless.
The Court of Appeals found that due to the erroneously admitted hearsay evidence, the case will be reversed and remanded for a new trial. As of the time of this writing, Washington is still in SCDC custody.
Judge Konduros appears to have written a well-reasoned dissent. She doesn’t believe Washington mentioned Brewer or “burden shifting” and that even if it were, it was a harmless error because of the overwhelming evidence of guilt. I think this is a close one. Will the Supreme Court of South Carolina agree with the majority of the Court of Appeals?
Thankfully for ALL of us, in trials concerning the guilt or innocence of the accused, rules matter.
Source: State v. Washington