State v. Atkins

Decision Date18 September 1989
Docket NumberNo. 23281,23281
Citation303 S.C. 214,399 S.E.2d 760
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. Joseph Ernest ATKINS, Appellant. . Heard
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

John H. Blume and Franklin W. Draper, both of S.C. Death Penalty Resource Center, Columbia, Michael P. O'Connell and Kathryn K. Andrews, both of Charleston County Public Defender's Office, Charleston, and S.C. Office of Appellate Defense, Columbia, for appellant.

Attorney Gen. T. Travis Medlock, Asst. Attys. Gen. Harold M. Coombs, Jr., and Amie L. Clifford, Columbia, and Sol. Charles M. Condon, Charleston, for respondent.

CHANDLER, Justice:

Appellant, Joseph Ernest Atkins (Atkins) was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. This Court affirmed Atkins' convictions but reversed the penalty and remanded for resentencing. State v. Atkins, 293 S.C. 294, 360 S.E.2d 302 (1987). Atkins was again sentenced to death; we consolidate his direct appeal with the mandatory review provision of S.C.Code Ann. § 16-3-25 (1985).

We affirm.


On October 27, 1985, Atkins, armed with a machete and shotgun, killed his 75 year old father, Benjamin Atkins, and his 13 year old next-door neighbor, Karen Patterson. The facts are set forth in State v. Atkins, supra.


Did the Court err:

1. In refusing to permit Atkins to attack the constitutionality of his 1970 murder conviction?

2. In instructing the jury regarding Atkins' prior murder conviction?

3. In instructing the jury regarding parole eligibility?

4. In allowing testimony which implied Atkins was racially prejudiced?

5. In requiring the jury to continue deliberations after 3 1/2 hours?

6. In allowing the Solicitor to question experts regarding whether the evidence established statutory mitigating circumstances?

7. In refusing to strike the death penalty due to alleged prosecutorial misconduct in obtaining confidential health records?

8. In instructing the jury regarding its consideration of mitigating evidence?

9. In allowing the Solicitor's closing argument to stand?

10. In qualifying jurors who had knowledge of Atkins' prior death sentence?

11. In qualifying jurors who were predisposed to the death penalty?


The State's sole aggravating circumstance was Atkins' 1970 murder conviction, which Atkins contends was invalid due to ineffective assistance of counsel. His request to attack its validity was properly denied by the resentencing Court.

Atkins relies upon the United States Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. Mississippi, 486 U.S. 578, 108 S.Ct. 1981, 100 L.Ed.2d 575 (1988). However, the facts here are clearly distinguishable from those in Johnson.

In Johnson, the aggravating circumstance relied upon by the State was the defendant's prior felony conviction. Subsequent to his death sentence, that conviction was invalidated. Understandably, the U.S. Supreme Court held impermissible the State's reliance upon the invalid conviction as an aggravating circumstance warranting the death penalty.

Here, Atkins' 1970 murder conviction has not been reversed or set aside. 1 His resentencing trial was not the proper forum for collateral attack upon that conviction. See, Dewitt v. South Carolina Department of Highways, 274 S.C. 184, 262 S.E.2d 28 (1980).


Atkins next contends that the trial Court failed to fully instruct the jury on the State's burden of establishing the existence of the statutory aggravating circumstance. We disagree.

Although Atkins stipulated to his 1970 murder conviction, he was permitted, without restriction, to offer in mitigation, evidence and details concerning the conviction. Moreover, the trial Judge instructed the jury that, notwithstanding the stipulation, "It is for your determination as to whether or not the 1970 murder conviction would be used as an aggravating circumstance in this case," and also charged that it must "make a unanimous finding that the State has proven beyond every reasonable doubt that the murder was committed by a person with a prior record of conviction for murder."

We hold the charge adequately apprised the jury of both the State's burden to establish the aggravating circumstance and the jury's duty to consider, in mitigation, Atkins' evidence from the 1970 conviction.

A. Twenty-Year Charge

The trial Court granted Atkins' request to charge the jury that, if sentenced to life imprisonment, he would not be eligible for parole for twenty years. He now contends the charge violated State v. Atkins, 293 S.C. 294, 360 S.E.2d 302 (1987). We disagree.

In Atkins, we held that in death penalty cases controlled by the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1986, if a defendant requests, he is entitled to a jury charge regarding parole eligibility. 293 S.C. at 300, 360 S.E.2d at 306.

Although this case is not controlled by the Omnibus Act, Atkins specifically requested the parole charge; the Court committed no error in granting his request.

B. Consecutive Sentences

During deliberations, the jury inquired whether it could recommend consecutive life sentences. The trial judge, concerned that the query was motiviated by parole considerations, charged the jury it could not do so, but that Atkins would be eligible for parole in 20 years even if sentenced consecutively. Atkins contends this was an erroneous statement of the law. We disagree.

Although the precise issue has not been before this Court, in Mims v. State, 273 S.C. 740, 259 S.E.2d 602 (1979), we held that, for purposes of parole eligibility, consecutive sentences should be treated as one general sentence by aggregating the periods imposed in each sentence.

Multiple life sentences cannot be aggregated in the imposition of prison time. Accordingly, they are to be considered as one general sentence, the parole eligibility for which is 20 years.


Atkins is white, Karen Patterson, the 13-year old victim, black. Three witnesses for the State testified regarding prior difficulties between Atkins and the Pattersons, one of which involved his flying the Confederate flag on Independence Day. Atkins contends this testimony improperly implied he was racially prejudiced. We disagree.

In a capital sentencing trial, the jury's function is to determine the appropriate punishment based upon the circumstances of the crime and the characteristics of the defendant. State v. Plath, 281 S.C. 1, 313 S.E.2d 619 (1984).

Here, Atkins' prior disputes with the Pattersons were relevant to motive and, accordingly, the testimony was properly admitted.


Atkins next contends the trial court erred in requiring the jury to continue deliberating when it indicated, after 3 1/2 hours, that it was hung. We disagree.

The length of time a jury deliberates rests in the sound discretion of the trial judge. State v. Bennett, 259 S.C. 50, 190 S.E.2d 497 (1972).

After a 4 1/2 day trial, we find no abuse of discretion in requiring the jury to continue deliberations.


Atkins contends that two experts improperly testified as to the existence of statutory mitigating circumstances. We disagree.

In State v. Koon, 278 S.C. 528, 298 S.E.2d 769 (1982), we held that the existence of statutory mitigating circumstances is a question of fact for the jury. In Koon, an expert was specifically questioned regarding whether the statutory mitigating circumstances were present.

Here, the Solicitor asked both experts whether they had any opinion as to Atkins' state of mind on the day of the crimes, and whether he lacked substantial capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law on that day. 2 Unlike Koon, the questions did not go to the existence of statutory mitigating circumstances but, rather, to the experts' knowledge of Atkins' state of mind on the day of the crimes.

As Atkins' state of mind was relevant, admission of the testimony was proper.


Atkins contends the trial court erred in refusing to strike the death penalty due to prosecutorial misconduct. We disagree.

The Solicitor allegedly obtained a medical report in violation of the attorney-client privilege. The trial court, however, precluded the State's use of this report, as well as any testimony of the examining physician. Accordingly, Atkins suffered no prejudice and the court committed no error. See State v. Greene, 255 S.C. 548, 180 S.E.2d 179 (1971).


Atkins next contends that the Court's instructions may have misled the jury. Specifically, he alleges the jury may have believed that, before considering evidence in mitigation, it had to find, unanimously, the existence of a mitigating circumstance.

The judge repeatedly stressed that the jury could recommend a life sentence "for any reason or no reason," and that it need not find a mitigating circumstance in order to impose life imprisonment. His charge in no way implies that the jury must unanimously find the existence of a mitigating circumstance as a condition precedent to consideration of that evidence.

The charge, as a whole, is not misleading and Atkins' contention is without merit. See, State v. Patterson, 299 S.C. 280, 384 S.E.2d 699 (1989).


The Solicitor, in closing argument, commented that this case warranted the death penalty, and referred to Atkins' parole eligibility in 20 years if sentenced to life. Additionally, he remarked that Atkins' evidence of post-traumatic stress syndrome should not mitigate these murders. Atkins contends these comments were improper and constitute reversible error. We disagree.

The trial judge is vested with broad discretion in determining the propriety of the Solicitor's closing argument. State v. Durden, 264 S.C. 86, 212 S.E.2d 587 (1975). We stated in State v. Linder, 276 S.C. 304, 278 S.E.2d 335 (1981):

Once the trial judge has allowed the argument to stand, as here, the defendant must...

To continue reading

Request your trial
25 cases
  • State v. Hughey
    • United States
    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • March 27, 2000
    ...the judge instructed the jury that they could recommend life imprisonment for "any reason or no reason at all." See State v. Atkins, 303 S.C. 214, 399 S.E.2d 760 (1990) (upholding a jury charge where the judge stressed the jury could recommend a life sentence "for any reason or no reason").......
  • Atkins v. Moore, C.A. No. 3:96-2859-22 (D. S.C. 6/10/1997)
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of South Carolina
    • June 10, 1997
    ...Court concluded that the "resentencing trial was not the proper forum for collateral attack upon that conviction." State v. Atkins, 399 S.E.2d 760, 762 (S.C. 1990). The Supreme Court noted that Petitioner's belated state postconviction application on the 1970 murder conviction had been prev......
  • Morgan v. Illinois
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • June 15, 1992 to ask." People v. Jackson, 145 Ill.2d 43, 110, 163 Ill.Dec. 859, 890, 582 N.E.2d 125, 156 (1991). See also State v. Atkins, 303 S.C. 214, 222-223, 399 S.E.2d 760, 765 (1990). 4. Delaware and South Carolina agree with Illinois that the "reverse-Witherspoon" inquiry is unnecessary so long......
  • State v. Charping
    • United States
    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • December 7, 1992
    ...jury had to agree unanimously on the existence of a mitigating circumstance for it to recommend a life sentence. See State v. Atkins, 303 S.C. 214, 399 S.E.2d 760 (1990), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 2913, 115 L.Ed.2d 1076 (1991) (wherein the Supreme Court rejected a contention th......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT