State v. Beckham

Decision Date22 February 1999
Docket NumberNo. 24906.,24906.
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. Stephen Andrew BECKHAM, Appellant.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

John Delgado, of Columbia, for appellant.

Attorney General Charles M. Condon, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, and Assistant Attorney General Robert E. Bogan, all of Columbia; and Solicitor W. Townes Jones, IV, of Greenwood, for respondent.

MOORE, Justice:

Appellant was convicted of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder. He was sentenced to life for the murder, 30 years for the kidnapping, and 5 years for the conspiracy to commit murder, all to run concurrently.1 We affirm.


On June 12, 1994, Victoria Lander Beckham (Vickie) was murdered. In July 1995, Richard Anderson was arrested for her murder. He gave police a statement implicating appellant Stephen Beckham, Vickie's husband. Anderson, a bouncer from a Myrtle Beach strip bar (Smugglers), testified that appellant hired him to dispose of Vickie's body.

On June 12th at 6:15 p.m., Vickie dropped off the children at appellant's mobile home. Appellant and Vickie were separated and Vickie was returning the children to appellant for a scheduled visitation. Appellant got into the car to talk with Vickie as the children went into the home.

At the same time, Anderson waited beside a dirt road not far from appellant's driveway for appellant. Anderson testified that as appellant drove up in Vickie's car, he saw appellant beat Vickie with a gun. Vickie was rendered unconscious. Anderson testified appellant told him to break Vickie's neck by striking her with a pair of bolt cutters. He then told Anderson to drive her car to Little Mountain Road, wait until it was dark, and drive the car off of the mountain road in attempt to make it look as if Vickie had died in a car accident. The car, however, rolled to the wrong side of the road into a ditch and Vickie's body was discovered that same night at approximately 9:15 p.m.

1) Reference to Sister Care

Bonnie Malasky testified about Vickie's whereabouts on June 8, 1994, at 6:30 p.m. Malasky was with Vickie when Vickie delivered the children to appellant that night. Anderson had testified he and appellant had attempted to murder Vickie on that night but they did not go through with the plan. Malasky testified that Vickie was at Sister Care between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. on June 8th. Appellant objected and a sidebar was held. The trial judge overruled the objection. Later, on the record, appellant noted his objection and moved for a mistrial on the ground that the reference to Sister Care had injected a prejudicial issue, spousal abuse, into the case. Appellant contends the trial judge erred in denying his motion for a mistrial. We disagree.

Here, whether the reference to Sister Care implied appellant beat his wife is too speculative. Vickie could have been a volunteer at Sister Care or visiting a worker or friend who was there. See State v. Robinson, 305 S.C. 469, 409 S.E.2d 404 (1991) (no error in trial judge's denial of mistrial motion when witness's testimony did not imply appellant was involved in drug dealing merely because he knew appellant during time witness was dealing drugs). See also State v. Robinson, 238 S.C. 140, 119 S.E.2d 671 (1961) (statement of witness that appellant told him that he was on way to probation office did not tend to create inference that accused had committed another crime); State v. Bullock, 235 S.C. 356, 111 S.E.2d 657 (1959) (in murder prosecution, admission of testimony by physician that when he examined body of deceased she was without underwear and there was discharge from her vagina was not error because such testimony did not tend to create inference that accused had raped deceased). Here, in context of Malasky's testimony, the reference to Sister Care did not necessarily imply Vickie was a battered wife.

The decision to grant or deny a mistrial is within the sound discretion of the trial judge and will not be overturned on appeal absent an abuse of discretion. State v. Crim, 327 S.C. 254, 489 S.E.2d 478 (1997); State v. Dawkins, 297 S.C. 386, 377 S.E.2d 298 (1989). The granting of a motion for a mistrial is an extreme measure which should be taken only where an incident is so grievous that prejudicial effect can be removed in no other way. State v. Kelsey, 331 S.C. 50, 502 S.E .2d 63 (1998). We find no error in the denial of appellant's mistrial motion.

2) Photographs of appellant with scratches

Appellant contends three photographs of him which depicted scratches on his back and arms were erroneously admitted. We disagree.

Appellant objected on the ground of relevance pursuant to Rule 403, SCRE. Evidence is relevant if it tends to make more or less probable a fact in issue. Whether evidence is relevant in a criminal prosecution is an issue within the trial judge's discretion. State v. McWee, 322 S.C. 387, 472 S.E.2d 235 (1996). Relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Rule 403, SCRE.

Anderson testified that appellant ran from the murder scene through the woods back to his home. Following an in camera hearing, the trial judge ruled whether appellant received these scratches running through the woods from the crime scene back to his home went to the weight of the evidence and not its admissibility. Accordingly, the pictures were relevant and their probative value was not outweighed by any unfair prejudice. State v. Asbury, 328 S.C. 187, 493 S.E.2d 349 (1997) (because victim's hands and feet were bound with cut electrical cord, testimony concerning appliances and severed electrical cords found at defendant's home was relevant and probative value of testimony was not outweighed by danger of unfair prejudice).

Furthermore, whether the scratches were "fresh" or not merely goes to the weight of the evidence not its admissibility. State v. Sullivan, 277 S.C. 35, 282 S.E.2d 838 (1981) (arguments raised by appellant go toward weight of evidence not its admissibility on whether or not evidence was left by appellant at crime scene). Accordingly, we find no error.

3) Life insurance

Appellant contends the trial judge erred in admitting evidence that appellant was the beneficiary of a $100,000 life insurance policy on Vickie. Appellant contends the probative value of this evidence was outweighed by unfair prejudice. Rule 403, SCRE. We disagree.

Evidence of insurance is properly admitted when it tends to establish motive. State v. Williams, 321 S.C. 327, 468 S.E.2d 626 (1996). See also State v. Vermillion, 271 S.C. 99, 245 S.E.2d 128 (1978) (even if defendant is not beneficiary, evidence of life insurance policy admissible if defendant derives a benefit). Evidence of a life insurance policy is properly admitted when there is evidence of the defendant's knowledge of the policy's existence, its validity, or believed validity, and that the defendant will benefit from it. State v. Cole, 54 Wash.App. 93, 772 P.2d 531 (1989).

Appellant contends he was unaware that the policy on Vickie listing him as beneficiary was in effect when Vickie died. Appellant contends that there were policies taken out on both he and Vickie in 1990 but he believed her policy had lapsed. Clearly, appellant knew of the existence of the policy at one time. Appellant's argument that he thought Vickie's policy had lapsed does not prevent evidence of the policy from being admitted. It was a jury question as to whether at the time of the murder appellant had knowledge of the existence of a valid policy with him as the beneficiary. State v. Leuch, 198 Wash. 331, 88 P.2d 440 (1939). Accordingly, we find no error.

4) Tax liens

Appellant contends the trial court erred in allowing the State to introduce evidence that two tax liens in the amounts of $27,539 and $37,864 had been filed against appellant and Vickie. Appellant objected on the grounds of relevance and that the probative value was outweighed by prejudice, pursuant to Rules 402 and 403, SCRE. We disagree.

The State introduced the tax liens to show appellant had a financial motive for Vickie's murder. Appellant contends the tax liens were too remote in time as one of them was filed in 1989, five years prior to Vickie's death. The other lien was filed in 1992. Appellant also contends once Vickie died, he became liable for the entire amount, rather than just 50%. At the time of the murder, there were two tax liens filed jointly against appellant and Vickie. The State introduced evidence that appellant knew he was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy on Vickie which would have enabled him to pay off the liens and leave him approximately $35,000. Accordingly, we hold appellant's poor financial condition was relevant to motive. State v. Sack, 210 Or. 552, 300 P.2d 427 (1956) (evidence as to financial condition of defendant as well as evidence tending to show that defendant would profit financially from death of his wife is relevant on issue of motive). The trial judge did not err in admitting this evidence.

5) Failure of State to give notice of witness

Appellant contends the trial erred in ruling there was no prejudice by the State's failure to give notice of a witness, Elsie Fields. We disagree.

Rule 5(e), SCRimP, provides the defendant is to provide notice of his intention to offer an alibi defense and "the prosecution shall serve upon the defendant or his attorney the names and addresses of witnesses upon whom the State intends to rely to establish defendant's presence at the scene of the alleged crime." (emphasis added).

There is no dispute that Fields was not listed as a witness who might testify to refute appellant's alibi defense. Fields was visiting Bishop Beckham and his wife on June 12th. Fields testified that she saw appellant coming from the pond on the Beckham property around 7:00...

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