State v. Collins, Opinion No. 4941

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtFEW
PartiesThe State, Respondent, v. Bentley Collins, Appellant.
Docket NumberOpinion No. 4941
Decision Date15 February 2012

The State, Respondent,
Bentley Collins, Appellant.

Opinion No. 4941


Heard: November 2, 2011
Filed: February 15, 2012

Appeal From Dillon County
Paul M. Burch, Circuit Court Judge


Senior Appellate Defender Joseph L. Savitz, III, and Appellate Defender Susan Hackett, both of Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Alan M. Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Salley W. Elliot, Assistant Attorney General William M. Blitch, Jr., all of Columbia; and Solicitor William B. Rogers, Jr., of Bennettsville, for Respondent.

FEW, C.J.: Bentley Collins was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of owning a dangerous animal after his dogs killed a ten-year-old boy. Collins appeals the convictions claiming the trial court erred by (1) admitting seven autopsy photographs of the boy's partially eaten body and (2) denying his directed verdict motions as to both crimes. Because we find the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the photos, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

I. Facts

At around 7:00 p.m. on November 3, 2006, the boy's mother returned from a trip to find her son had not come home for dinner. After looking for him at neighbors' houses, she called the sheriff's department. The responding officers searched the neighborhood with her. They found the boy's body in Collins' yard surrounded by at least three dogs.1 The boy's mother later testified "he was torn to pieces. Pieces."

Collins was indicted for involuntary manslaughter and three counts of owning a dangerous animal under the Regulation of Dangerous Animals Act. S.C. Code Ann. §§ 47-3-710 to -770 (Supp. 2011). After a jury convicted him of all charges, the trial court sentenced him to five years in prison, followed by five years of probation.2

II. Admissibility of the Photographs

The State offered into evidence ten photos of the boy's body. The photos were taken by a forensic pathologist before he performed an autopsy. Collins objected to the admission of the photos under Rule 403, SCRE, arguing that the danger of unfair prejudice substantially outweighed their probative value. After a hearing outside of the jury's presence, the trial court admitted seven of the photos.

A. Standard of Review

"The admission of evidence is within the circuit court's discretion and will not be reversed on appeal absent an abuse of that discretion." State v. Dickerson, 395 S.C. 101, 116, 716 S.E.2d 895, 903 (2011). A trial court has particularly wide discretion in ruling on Rule 403 objections. See State v. Adams, 354 S.C. 361, 378, 580 S.E.2d 785, 794 (Ct. App. 2003) ("A trial judge's decision regarding the comparative probative value and prejudicial effect of evidence should be reversed only in exceptional circumstances. We . . . are obligated to give great deference to the trial court's judgment [regarding Rule 403]." (internal citation omitted)). We nevertheless hold that in this case the trial court abused its discretion.

B. Probative Value

Rule 403 provides that, "[a]lthough relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice." "Probative" means "[t]ending to prove or disprove." Black's Law Dictionary 1323 (9th ed. 2009). Probative value is the measure of the importance of that tendency to the outcome of a case. It is the weight that a piece of relevant evidence will carry in helping the trier of fact decide the issues. "[T]he more essential the evidence, the greater its probative value." United States v. Stout, 509 F.3d 796, 804 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, a court analyzing probative value considers the importance of the evidence and the significance of the issues to which the evidence relates. As our supreme court stated in State v. Torres, 390 S.C. 618, 703 S.E.2d 226 (2010), "[p]hotographs calculated to arouse the sympathy or prejudice of the jury should be excluded if they are . . . not necessary to substantiate material facts or conditions." 390 S.C. at 623, 703 S.E.2d at 228 (emphasis added). The evaluation of probative value cannot be made in the abstract, but should be made in the practical context of the issues at stake in the trial of each case. See State v. Lyles, 379 S.C. 328, 338, 665 S.E.2d 201, 206 (Ct. App. 2008) ("When [balancing the danger of unfair prejudice] against the probative value, the determination must be based on the entire record and will turn on the facts of each case." (citing State v. Gillian, 373 S.C. 601, 609, 646 S.E.2d 872, 876 (2007))).

Understanding the practical context of the trial of this case begins with the elements of the crimes charged. A person is guilty of owning a dangerous animal when the State proves (1) he owned or had custody or control of an animal; (2) he knew or reasonably should have known the animal had a propensity, tendency, or disposition to attack unprovoked, cause injury, or otherwise endanger the safety of human beings; (3) the animal made an unprovoked attack; (4) the attack caused bodily injury to a human being; and (5) the attack occurred while the animal was unconfined on the owner's premises. S.C. Code Ann. §§ 47-3-710(A)(1)-(2)(a), (D); -720; -760(B) (Supp. 2011).

To convict a defendant of involuntary manslaughter, the State must prove one of the following: "(1) the unintentional killing of another without malice, but while engaged in an unlawful activity not naturally tending to cause death or great bodily harm; or (2) the unintentional killing of another without malice, while engaged in a lawful activity with reckless disregard for the safety of others." State v. Crosby, 355 S.C. 47, 51-52, 584 S.E.2d 110, 112 (2003).

On the dangerous animal charges in this case, the trial focused almost exclusively on issues relating to the second and third elements. Importantly, the fourth element—that the dogs' attack caused bodily injury to a human being—was never in dispute. In the hearing regarding admissibility of the photos, the State argued they would be important for the testimony of both the pathologist and the dog behavior expert. The State then explained how the photos were important, arguing only that they were probative of the third element. The State did not argue the photos were probative of any other element of the dangerous animal charges or any element of involuntary manslaughter.

The State thus argued the probative value of the photos was primarily to establish that the dogs' attack on the boy was unprovoked. The State's theory on this point was that Collins underfed the dogs, and because the dogs were hungry, they became aggressive and attacked the boy for food. On appeal, the State makes two specific arguments as to how the photos support its theory: the pathologist needed the photos to explain that the dogs ate the boy, and the photos corroborate the testimony of its dog behavior expert.

As to the State's first argument, the photos do show that the dogs ate a significant portion of the boy's flesh. Prior to the introduction of the photos, however, the State presented convincing testimony to prove the same thing. The pathologist testified:

There were extensive traumatic injuries consisting of loss of skin and soft tissue in a tearing fashion about the face, the ears, the eyes, the neck, the chest. There was loss of skin and soft tissue with exposure of the bones of both shoulders. Essentially, the humeral bone in the upper arm, both right and left, was exposed from the shoulder to the elbow.

The State also put the autopsy report into evidence prior to the photos. The pathologist testified to the contents of the report as follows:

I described it as extensive traumatic injury, loss of skin to the face to include the nose, the ears and all soft tissues around the lips with exposure of the mandible, which is the lower jaw, teeth, and the underlying bony part of the skull. . . . The ears and nose were completely eaten away.

The State asked the pathologist what led him to conclude the ears and nose were "eaten away." He responded: "There was a virtual complete absence of the ear structures on the right side and just remnants, shredded remnants of skin and what were probably portions of the ear on the left. They were essentially gone." Finally, the pathologist said he normally does not take photos of an autopsy, but did so in this case because "[t]his autopsy showed tremendous traumatic injury to this young man. This degree of injury was [as] significant [a] traumatic injury as I've seen. I've never seen an attack by animals of this type . . . ." Thus, before the photos were admitted, the pathologist's testimony conclusively established that the dogs ate the boy. The photos add very little to the jury's ability to understand the pathologist's testimony on this point.

The State's second argument relates to its dog behavior expert, who testified the dogs attacked the boy out of hunger, not provocation. The expert used photographs of the dogs to describe physical features that showed they were malnourished. The officers who responded to the scene testified there were no visible food bowls for the dogs. Based on this evidence, the dog behavior expert gave an opinion that the dogs attacked the boy because they were hungry.3

The State argues the photos corroborate the dog behavior expert's testimony and thus tend to prove the attack was...

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