State v. Blackwell

Decision Date31 May 2017
Docket NumberAppellate Case No. 2014-000610,Opinion No. 27722
Citation420 S.C. 127,801 S.E.2d 713
Parties The STATE, Respondent, v. Ricky Lee BLACKWELL, Appellant.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek and Appellate Defender David Alexander, both of Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, and Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Melody J. Brown, all of Columbia, and Solicitor Barry J. Barnette, of Spartanburg, for Respondent.

Meliah Bowers Jefferson, of Wyche, P.A., of Greenville, for Amicus Curiae National Crime Victim Law Institute. Lindsey D. Jacobs and Patricia Revenhorst, both of Greenville, for Amicus Curiae South Carolina Victim Assistance Network.


This is a consolidated direct appeal and mandatory review from a sentence of death.1 A jury convicted Ricky Lee Blackwell of kidnapping and killing eight-year-old Heather Brooke Center ("Brooke"), the daughter of his ex-wife's boyfriend, and recommended a sentence of death. Following sentencing, Blackwell appealed to this Court. In his appeal, Blackwell contends the trial court erred in: (1) finding him eligible for the death penalty despite evidence of mental retardation;2 (2) failing to disqualify a juror for cause; (3) denying his Batson3 challenge; (4) prohibiting him from cross-examining a State witness using privileged statements the witness made to a mental health counselor and declining to accept the proffer of the mental health records as an exhibit; (5) declining to admit notes of two hospital chaplains as evidence that he was remorseful; and (6) failing to correctly instruct the jury regarding a finding of mental retardation during the penalty phase of the trial. For reasons that will be discussed, we affirm Blackwell's convictions and sentence of death.

I. Factual / Procedural History

After twenty-six years of marriage, Blackwell's wife, Angela, entered into an adulterous relationship with Bobby Center in 2008. By all accounts, Blackwell was devastated when Angela left him. Following the breakup, Blackwell attempted suicide, suffered financial problems, and was forced to turn to his parents for support.

According to Angela, on July 8, 2009, Blackwell came to her parents' house to discuss insurance matters. While there, Blackwell chastised her about not visiting their grandsons and urged her to go see them that day. Angela testified she was going to take Brooke swimming at Center's house that day and intended to pick up her grandsons to take them along. When she arrived at her daughter's home, she did not see her daughter's car. Assuming that her daughter was not home, Angela began to drive away. As she was leaving, Blackwell flagged her down and informed her that their daughter went to the store but that their son-in-law had the children. Angela testified she got out of the car to secure a dog in order that it would not bite Brooke. When Angela turned around, she saw that Blackwell had grabbed Brooke and was holding a gun to the child. Blackwell ignored Angela's pleas for him to release Brooke. Instead, Blackwell stated that Angela had "pushed this too far," that she "did this," and that she could let him know "what Bobby thinks of this." Blackwell then fatally shot Brooke. Following the shooting, Blackwell fled into the woods behind his daughter's home. When law enforcement surrounded him, Blackwell shot himself in the stomach and was taken to the hospital. While being transported to the hospital and waiting for treatment, Blackwell gave inculpatory statements to the law enforcement officers who questioned him.

After a Spartanburg County grand jury indicted Blackwell for kidnapping and murder, the State served Blackwell with notice that it intended to seek the death penalty. Blackwell was evaluated, at the request of defense counsel, and deemed competent to stand trial. Approximately three years later, defense counsel claimed that Blackwell is mentally retarded and, thus, ineligible to receive the death penalty pursuant to Atkins v. Virginia , 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002).4 As a result, the trial court conducted a hearing pursuant to Franklin v. Maynard , 356 S.C. 276, 588 S.E.2d 604 (2003).5 The court ruled that Blackwell failed to prove he is mentally retarded and the case proceeded as a capital jury trial.

The jury found Blackwell guilty of kidnapping and murder. At the conclusion of the penalty phase of the trial, the jury specifically found, via a special verdict form, that Blackwell is not mentally retarded. The jury recommended a sentence of death, finding the State proved the aggravating circumstances that the murder involved a child under the age of eleven and was committed while in the commission of kidnapping.6 The trial court sentenced Blackwell to death for murder, noting the kidnapping sentence was subsumed into the sentence for murder.7

Following the denial of his post-trial motions, Blackwell appealed his convictions and sentence to this Court.

II. Standard of Review

"In criminal cases, this Court sits to review errors of law only and is bound by factual findings of the trial court unless an abuse of discretion is shown." State v. Laney , 367 S.C. 639, 643, 627 S.E.2d 726, 729 (2006). An abuse of discretion occurs when the court's decision is unsupported by the evidence or controlled by an error of law. State v. Black , 400 S.C. 10, 16, 732 S.E.2d 880, 884 (2012).

III. Discussion
A. Pre-Trial Atkins Determination

Blackwell argues the trial court erred in making the pre-trial determination that he was eligible for the death penalty given the evidence "conclusively demonstrated" that he is mentally retarded. Consequently, Blackwell maintains that by proceeding as a capital case and ultimately sentencing him to death, the trial court violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment8 as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court ("USSC") in Atkins v. Virginia , 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002) and adopted by this Court in Franklin v. Maynard , 356 S.C. 276, 588 S.E.2d 604 (2003).9

After Blackwell's counsel advised the State and the trial court that he would assert that Blackwell is mentally retarded and, thus, exempt from the death penalty, the trial court held a pre-trial hearing pursuant to Franklin . During this hearing, the court heard testimony from three mental health experts: (1) Dr. Kimberly Harrison, a forensic psychologist with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health ("SCDMH") who was offered by the State, testified that she had evaluated Blackwell, deemed him competent to stand trial, and did not discern any evidence of mental retardation; (2) Dr. Ginger Calloway, a forensic psychologist who was offered by the defense, opined that Blackwell met the definition of "mental retardation" because he exhibited: sub-average intellectual ability based on his I.Q. scores; significant deficits in adaptive functioning such as communication, home living, social interaction, self-direction, and functional academics; and that these deficits existed prior to the age of eighteen; and (3) Dr. Gordon Brown, a forensic psychologist employed with the SCDMH who was offered by the State to rebut Dr. Calloway's opinion, opined that Blackwell did not meet the criteria for mental retardation.

Following the hearing, the court considered the voluminous evidence that formed the basis of the experts' conclusions and reports, which included Blackwell's school records, I.Q. scores, employment records, medical and mental health records, records from Blackwell's immediate family, and interviews with several of Blackwell's family members and acquaintances.

By written order, the trial court ruled that, while there were several factors that would "raise the possibility of mental retardation," Blackwell had failed to prove by the preponderance of the evidence that he was ineligible to receive the death penalty. As will be discussed, we are unpersuaded by Blackwell's claim that the trial court committed reversible error in rendering the pre-trial Atkins determination.

In Atkins , the USSC held the execution of a mentally retarded person is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which is applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Atkins , 536 U.S. at 321, 122 S.Ct. 2242. However, the USSC in " Atkins 'did not provide definitive procedural or substantive guides for determining when a person who claims mental retardation' falls within the protection of the Eighth Amendment." Hall v. Florida , ––– U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 1986, 1998, 188 L.Ed.2d 1007 (2014) (quoting Bobby v. Bies , 556 U.S. 825, 831, 129 S.Ct. 2145, 173 L.Ed.2d 1173 (2009) ). Instead, the USSC left to the states "the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences." Atkins , 536 U.S. at 317, 122 S.Ct. 2242 (quoting Ford v. Wainwright , 477 U.S. 399, 405, 106 S.Ct. 2595, 91 L.Ed.2d 335 (1986) ).

Our General Assembly has defined "mental retardation" to mean "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period." See S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-20(C)(b)(10) (2015). While this Court has strictly adhered to this statutory definition, it has recognized that the USSC in Atkins "relied on a clinical definition of intellectual disability which required not only sub-average intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills such as communication, self-care, and self-direction that manifested before age eighteen." State v. Stanko , 402 S.C. 252, 286, 741 S.E.2d 708, 726 (2013).

Further, this Court has outlined the procedure for the determination of whether a defendant is mentally retarded under Atkins . Franklin v. Maynard , ...

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