State v. Burdette

Decision Date31 July 2019
Docket NumberAppellate Case No. 2017-001990,Opinion No. 27910
Citation427 S.C. 490,832 S.E.2d 575
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
Parties The STATE, Respondent, v. Shane Adam BURDETTE, Petitioner.

Appellate Defender Susan Barber Hackett, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Melody Jane Brown, Senior Assistant Attorney General William M. Blitch Jr., and Assistant Attorney General Susannah Rawl Cole, all of Columbia; and Solicitor David Rhys Wagner Jr., of Anderson, all for Respondent.

JUSTICE JAMES :

Shane Adam Burdette was indicted and tried for murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Over Burdette's objection, the trial court charged the jury that it could infer the element of malice from the use of a deadly weapon. The jury convicted Burdette of the lesser-included offense of voluntary manslaughter and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. The court of appeals affirmed Burdette's conviction, holding that although the trial court erred in giving the inferred malice jury instruction, Burdette suffered no prejudice. State v. Burdette , Op. No. 2017-UP-237 (S.C. Ct. App. filed June 7, 2017). We granted Burdette's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision. We hold the trial court's erroneous jury instruction was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial on the offenses of voluntary manslaughter and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. We also hold, regardless of the evidence presented at trial, a trial court shall no longer instruct a jury that malice may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Burdette shot and killed Evan Tyner (Victim). Victim died from a single shotgun pellet wound to the back

of his neck. After the shooting, Burdette gave several inconsistent statements to law enforcement. The State's theory of the case and Burdette's theory of the case were substantially different. The State claimed murder; Burdette claimed accident. Burdette was indicted for murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

At trial, evidence was presented in support of both the State's and Burdette's theories of the case. Following the close of the presentation of evidence, the trial court informed the parties it intended to charge the jury on the law of murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and accident. The trial court gave the parties a copy of its proposed jury charge for review. Burdette objected to the trial court's proposed instruction that inferred malice could arise when a deadly weapon is used. Citing State v. Belcher ,1 Burdette argued the instruction was inappropriate because there was evidence presented that could reduce, excuse, justify, or mitigate the homicide. The trial court gave the charge over Burdette's objection.

The trial court charged the law of murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and accident. When charging the law of murder, the trial court defined murder as a killing with malice aforethought and stated to the jury, "Inferred malice may also arise when the deed is done with a deadly weapon." When charging the law of voluntary manslaughter, the trial court did not specifically inform the jury that malice is not an element of that offense. However, when charging the law of involuntary manslaughter, the trial court specifically informed the jury that malice is not an element of that offense. Of course, malice is not an element of either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

After deliberating for about one hour, the jury requested additional instruction from the trial court on the law of murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter to provide the jury with "a better understanding" of the different charges. The trial court essentially repeated its previous instruction and again included in the murder instruction that the jury could infer the element of malice from the use of a deadly weapon. The trial court again did not inform the jury that malice is not an element of voluntary manslaughter but did inform the jury that malice is not an element of involuntary manslaughter.

The jury found Burdette not guilty of murder but guilty of voluntary manslaughter and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. The trial court sentenced Burdette to twenty-five years in prison, suspended upon the service of fifteen years and five years' probation for voluntary manslaughter. The trial court also sentenced Burdette to a consecutive prison term of five years for the weapon possession charge.

Burdette appealed, arguing the trial court erroneously instructed the jury that malice may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon because evidence was presented tending to reduce, mitigate, excuse, or justify the homicide. The court of appeals affirmed in an unpublished opinion. State v. Burdette , Op. No. 2017-UP-237, 2017 WL 4676135 (S.C. Ct. App. filed June 7, 2017). Although the court of appeals agreed the inferred malice jury instruction was erroneous, it held Burdette "suffered no prejudice" from the erroneous instruction. Id. The court of appeals reasoned Burdette was convicted of voluntary manslaughter—not murder—and because malice is not an element of voluntary manslaughter, the inferred malice instruction could not have contributed to the verdict. Id. This Court granted certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision.

II. ISSUES PRESENTED

1. Did the trial court err in giving the inferred malice instruction?

2. If error, was the error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt?

3. Does the inferred malice instruction continue to have validity?

III. DISCUSSION
A. The Inferred Malice Jury Instruction

1. Was the Jury Instruction Erroneous?

There was evidence presented at trial that tended to reduce, mitigate, excuse, or justify Burdette's killing of Victim—making the trial court's inferred malice instruction inappropriate. See State v. Stanko , 402 S.C. 252, 260, 741 S.E.2d 708, 712 (2013) ("A jury charge instructing that malice may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon is no longer good law in South Carolina where evidence is presented that would reduce, mitigate, excuse, or justify the homicide." (citing State v. Belcher , 385 S.C. 597, 600, 685 S.E.2d 802, 803-04 (2009) )). The State rightly concedes this point. The court of appeals therefore correctly held the giving of the instruction in this case was error.

2. Was the Trial Court's Error Harmless?

An erroneous instruction alone is insufficient to warrant this Court's reversal. "Errors, including erroneous jury instructions, are subject to harmless error analysis." Belcher , 385 S.C. at 611, 685 S.E.2d at 809. "When considering whether an error with respect to a jury instruction was harmless, we must ‘determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict.’ " State v. Middleton , 407 S.C. 312, 317, 755 S.E.2d 432, 435 (2014) (quoting State v. Kerr , 330 S.C. 132, 144-45, 498 S.E.2d 212, 218 (Ct. App. 1998) ). "In making a harmless error analysis, our inquiry is not what the verdict would have been had the jury been given the correct charge, but whether the erroneous charge contributed to the verdict rendered." Id. (quoting Kerr , 330 S.C. at 145, 498 S.E.2d at 218 ).

The State maintains, and the court of appeals held, Burdette was not prejudiced by the trial court's erroneous inferred malice instruction (1) because Burdette was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and (2) since malice is not an element of voluntary manslaughter, the inclusion of the inferred malice instruction in the jury instruction on murder could not have contributed to the verdict. Burdette argues a reading of the jury charge as a whole compels the conclusion that the trial court's error was not harmless. We agree with Burdette.

The trial court's charge to the jury of the elements of murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter take up a mere six pages of the overall trial transcript. Absent a self-defense instruction, that is the typical length of this portion of the jury instruction. As is customary, the trial court first instructed the jury on the offense of murder, then the lesser-included offense of voluntary manslaughter, and then the lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter.

In many instances, a lesser-included offense is deemed to exist because the lesser offense is "one whose elements are wholly contained within the crime charged." State v. Dickerson , 395 S.C. 101, 118, 716 S.E.2d 895, 904 (2011) (citing State v. Northcutt , 372 S.C. 207, 215, 641 S.E.2d 873, 877 (2007) ). This is known as the "elements test." See Northcutt , 372 S.C. at 215, 641 S.E.2d at 877. In those cases, the trial court simply explains to the jury that the lesser offense includes all of the elements of the greater offense except for one or more elements, and the trial court then lists those elements that are not included in the lesser offense. In those cases, the trial court is able to explain the distinction between the greater and lesser offense in an orderly and very understandable fashion. For example, possession of cocaine is a lesser-included offense of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute (PWID) because possession of cocaine contains all the elements of PWID except for the intent to distribute.

In other instances, such as in the case at bar, one offense may be considered a lesser offense of another not by virtue of the elements test, but rather because it "has traditionally been considered a lesser included offense of the greater offense charged." Northcutt , 372 S.C. at 216, 641 S.E.2d at 877-78. In those instances, the elements of the lesser offense are not ...

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