State v. Burkhart, No. 26243.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtMoore
Citation640 S.E.2d 450
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. Troy Alan BURKHART, Appellant.
Decision Date08 January 2007
Docket NumberNo. 26243.
640 S.E.2d 450
The STATE, Respondent,
v.
Troy Alan BURKHART, Appellant.
No. 26243.
Supreme Court of South Carolina.
Heard September 20, 2006.
Decided January 8, 2007.

[640 S.E.2d 451]

Chief Attorney Joseph L. Savitz, of South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense, Division of Appellate Defense, of Columbia, for appellant.

Attorney General Henry Dargan McMaster, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, and Assistant Attorney General Derrick K. McFarland, of Columbia; and Solicitor Christina Theos Adams, of Anderson, for respondent.

Justice MOORE:


Appellant shot and killed three people in a rural area of Anderson County on November 19, 1997. The victims were brothers Shane and Stacy Walters, aged twenty-seven and twenty-two, and Sonya Cann, aged twenty-one. Appellant was convicted of three counts of murder and three counts of possessing a firearm during the commission of a violent crime and sentenced to death. These convictions were overturned on appeal. State v. Burkhart, 350 S.C. 252, 565 S.E.2d 298 (2002). In March 2004, appellant was again convicted and sentenced to death. We affirm appellant's convictions but reverse and remand for resentencing.

FACTS

Appellant became acquainted with brothers Shane and Stacy Walters on a Friday night when they met at a mutual friend's home. Appellant asked the brothers for help with the septic tank at his restaurant. They worked together and socialized over the course of the weekend. All three used methamphetamine repeatedly from Friday until late into the night on Sunday. At about 5:00 a.m. Monday morning, the three men went to pick up Shane's girlfriend, Sonya, at her home. The four of them drove off in Shane's extended-cab "dually" truck. The victims were not seen alive again.

Later that morning, at about 8:15 a.m., appellant came to the Seneca police department and told police he had killed three people in self-defense. He led police to a secluded kudzu field where police found the bodies of Shane, Stacy, and Sonya on the ground. The truck was recovered from where appellant had parked it at his father's house. Its interior was covered with blood. Forensic evidence indicated that all three victims had been shot in the head at close range while seated in the cab of the truck and their bodies had been dragged onto the ground. The State also produced evidence that Stacy and Shane had been stomped while on the ground and Sonya was shot in the head while lying there.

The only weapon used was appellant's semi-automatic pistol which could hold eight rounds, seven in the magazine and one in the

640 S.E.2d 452

chamber.1 Two empty magazines were at the scene indicating appellant had reloaded. Experts estimated up to eleven shots could have been fired.

ISSUES

1. Was the exclusion of evidence in the guilt phase prejudicial?

2. Was the admission of evidence regarding prison conditions in the sentencing phase reversible error?

DISCUSSION
1. Exclusion of evidence in guilt phase

Appellant claimed self-defense. He testified that he killed the victims because he believed the brothers had been hired to kill him by his uncle, Ronnie Burkhart, an infamous drug-dealer with whom appellant was on bad terms.

Appellant testified that when they arrived at the kudzu field, Shane was holding appellant's gun because appellant had given it to him to shoot at a deer earlier. While they were sitting in the truck, Shane asked appellant if he had ever wronged "Uncle Ronnie." Because appellant had been threatened by Ronnie and was surprised that Shane knew Ronnie, he immediately became anxious. Shane then pointed the gun at appellant and ordered him out of the truck. Stacy said, "We're going to make you squeal like a pig, boy," which appellant took to mean they were going to rape him.

Appellant grabbed the gun from Shane and began shooting. When it was over, he pushed the bodies out of the truck and put the second magazine in the gun because he thought someone else may have been out in the field. A shot went off outside the truck. Finally, appellant drove off in Shane's truck. He went to pick up his wife and his father because he was afraid Ronnie would hurt them. After parking Shane's truck at his father's house, appellant went to the police.

Sheriff Taylor was called as a defense witness. He testified that Ronnie, who was now deceased, was at one time an international drug smuggler in cocaine and marijuana with connections to violent drug lords. On cross-examination, Sheriff Taylor stated that Ronnie was very careful in his dealings. The solicitor then asked, "Did you ever uncover anything that showed that Shane and Stacy were on (sic) any of this inside circle that Ronnie Burkhart would have trusted them?" Sheriff Taylor answered "no." In reply, the defense sought to elicit Sheriff Taylor's testimony that Shane had been arrested for buying a sixteenth of an ounce of methamphetamine from an undercover agent in December 1995, two years before the killings. The solicitor objected on the ground of relevance and the trial judge excluded the evidence. Appellant claims the exclusion of this evidence prejudiced him because it indicated a relationship between the brothers and Ronnie that would substantiate his claim of self-defense. We disagree.

Sheriff Taylor testified Ronnie Burkhart was out of the drug business by 1991, Ronnie did not deal in methamphetamine, and he knew of no connection between Shane's 1995 drug transaction and Ronnie. In the absence of any evidence linking Shane's drug transaction to Ronnie, the excluded evidence did not tend to make more or less probable appellant's claim that Shane would have worked for Ronnie as a hit man. See Rule 401, SCRE (evidence is relevant if it tends to make the existence of any fact at issue more or less probable). We find the exclusion of this evidence could not reasonably have affected the outcome of the trial. See State v. Johnson, 363 S.C. 53, 609 S.E.2d 520 (2005) (exclusion of evidence is not reversible error if it could not reasonably have affected out-come of trial).

2. Admission of evidence in sentencing phase

During the sentencing phase of trial, appellant objected to testimony by State's witness James Sligh, Director of Inmate Classification for the Department of Corrections, regarding the privileges available to an inmate who receives a sentence of life without

640 S.E.2d 453

parole. These privileges include access to the yard, work, education, meals, canteen, phone, library, recreation, mail, television, and outside visitors. On cross-examination, Sligh acknowledged that prison life is "very regimented" and "is not a country club." Further, appellant presented evidence through his own witness that prison is a harsh environment with violent predators where one's freedom is severely curtailed.

We have long held that evidence in the sentencing phase of a capital trial must be relevant to the character of the defendant or the circumstances of the crime. State v. Copeland, 278 S.C. 572, 300 S.E.2d 63 (1982). The jury's sole function is to make a sentencing determination based on these factors and not to legislate a plan of punishment. State v. Johnson, 293 S.C. 321, 360 S.E.2d 317 (1987). "Such determinations as the time, place, manner, and conditions of execution or incarceration . . . are reserved . . . to agencies other than the jury." State v. Plath (Plath II), 281 S.C. 1, 15, 313 S.E.2d 619, 627 (1984) (emphasis added). Based on this reasoning, we have disallowed defense evidence regarding the process of electrocution, State v. Plath (Plath I), 277 S.C. 126, 284 S.E.2d 221 (1981), and expert testimony regarding the deterrent effect of capital punishment. State v. George, 323 S.C. 496, 476 S.E.2d 903 (1996).

Recently, in State v. Bowman, 366 S.C. 485, 623 S.E.2d 378 (2005), the defendant challenged on appeal the admission of evidence regarding general prison conditions. Although we found the issue was not preserved for review, we cautioned the State and the defense bar that such evidence is not relevant to the question of whether a defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. 366 S.C. at 498-99, 623 S.E.2d at 387.

This case was tried before our decision in Bowman; however, we apply that reasoning here because it is consistent with our long-standing rule that evidence in the sentencing phase of a capital trial must be relevant to the character of the defendant or the circumstances of the crime. We are aware of the tension between evidence regarding the defendant's adaptability to prison life, which is clearly admissible,2 and this restriction on the admission of evidence regarding prison life in general. We note, however, that evidence of the defendant's characteristics may include prison conditions if narrowly tailored to demonstrate the defendant's personal behavior in those conditions.

Here, unlike Bowman, appellant objected to the State's evidence regarding general prison conditions. Although appellant attempted to counter the testimony of the State's witness with evidence regarding the harshness of prison life, this entire subject matter injected an arbitrary factor into the jury's sentencing considerations. A capital jury may not impose a death sentence under the influence of any arbitrary factor. S.C.Code Ann. § 16-3-25(C)(1) (2003). When the jury is invited to speculate about irrelevant matters upon which a death sentence may be based, § 16-3-25(C)(1) is violated. State v. Sloan, 278 S.C. 435, 298 S.E.2d 92 (1982). Accordingly, we reverse appellant's death sentence and remand for resentencing.

AFFIRMED IN PART; REVERSED IN PART; REMANDED.

WALLER, J, concurs. PLEICONES, J., concurring in a separate opinion. TOAL, C.J., dissenting in a separate opinion in which BURNETT, J., concurs.

---------------

Notes:

1. Shane's unloaded hunting rifle was found under the truck's back seat beneath a large speaker. In Sonya's purse were two...

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13 practice notes
  • Wood v. Stirling, C/A No. 0:12-cv-3532-DCN-PJG
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • October 1, 2018
    ...reasoning fails to account for the weight attributed to this error by thePage 36 South Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Burkhart, 640 S.E.2d 450 (S.C. 2007). In Burkhart, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed a death sentence where both the defense and the State presented similar evid......
  • State v. Lee-Grigg, No. 4237.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • April 16, 2007
    ...than defects in the trial mechanism itself affect a defendant's constitutional rights. See State v. Burkhart, 371 S.C. 482, 489 n. 3, 640 S.E.2d 450, 454 n. 3 (2007) (Pleicones, J. concurring in a separate opinion (citing Arnold v. State, 309 S.C. 157, 420 S.E.2d 834 (1992))); State v. Mouz......
  • People of The State of Ill. v. BANKS, No. 103933.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Illinois
    • May 24, 2010
    ...evidence was relevant. Defendant relies heavily on the South Carolina Supreme Court case of State v. Burkhart, 371 S.C. 482, 640 S.E.2d 450 (2007). During the sentencing phase in that capital case, the Director of Inmate Classification for the Department of Corrections testified that an inm......
  • State v. Northcutt, No. 26271.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
    • February 20, 2007
    ...argument is for opposing counsel to immediately object...."). As I explained in my dissenting opinion in State v. Burkhart, 371 S.C. 482, 640 S.E.2d 450 (2007), I believe this Court's jurisprudence which suggests that § 16-3-25(C) imposes a separate standard by which this Court should judge......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
13 cases
  • Wood v. Stirling, C/A No. 0:12-cv-3532-DCN-PJG
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • October 1, 2018
    ...reasoning fails to account for the weight attributed to this error by thePage 36 South Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Burkhart, 640 S.E.2d 450 (S.C. 2007). In Burkhart, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed a death sentence where both the defense and the State presented similar evid......
  • State v. Lee-Grigg, No. 4237.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • April 16, 2007
    ...than defects in the trial mechanism itself affect a defendant's constitutional rights. See State v. Burkhart, 371 S.C. 482, 489 n. 3, 640 S.E.2d 450, 454 n. 3 (2007) (Pleicones, J. concurring in a separate opinion (citing Arnold v. State, 309 S.C. 157, 420 S.E.2d 834 (1992))); State v. Mouz......
  • People of The State of Ill. v. BANKS, No. 103933.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Illinois
    • May 24, 2010
    ...evidence was relevant. Defendant relies heavily on the South Carolina Supreme Court case of State v. Burkhart, 371 S.C. 482, 640 S.E.2d 450 (2007). During the sentencing phase in that capital case, the Director of Inmate Classification for the Department of Corrections testified that an inm......
  • State v. Northcutt, No. 26271.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
    • February 20, 2007
    ...argument is for opposing counsel to immediately object...."). As I explained in my dissenting opinion in State v. Burkhart, 371 S.C. 482, 640 S.E.2d 450 (2007), I believe this Court's jurisprudence which suggests that § 16-3-25(C) imposes a separate standard by which this Court should judge......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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