State v. Curry

Decision Date04 December 2013
Docket NumberNo. 27335.,27335.
Citation752 S.E.2d 263,406 S.C. 364
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. James J. CURRY, Jr., Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2010–153826.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Appellate Defender LaNelle Cantey DuRant, of Columbia, for appellant.

Attorney General Alan M. Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Salley W. Elliott, and Assistant Attorney General Julie K. Keeney, all of Columbia, and Solicitor Douglas A. Barfield, Jr., of Lancaster, for respondent.

Justice KITTREDGE.

This is a direct appeal in a criminal case. Appellant James J. Curry, Jr., was convicted and sentenced for the offenses of voluntary manslaughter and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. We affirm.

I.FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On New Year's Eve 2008, Appellant and his fiancée traveled from Rock Hill, South Carolina, to Appellant's hometown of Lancaster, South Carolina, to visit friends and family. Appellant traveled with a .22 caliber pistol. Once they arrived in Lancaster, Appellant and his fiancée visited his cousin Devion Collins and his fiancée at their home. After socializing and drinking alcohol for several hours, Appellant invited Collins and his fiancée to go to Appellant's mother's apartment.

The group then drove to the apartment. Appellant and Collins dropped off their fiancées, picked up a friend, and went to the store for more alcohol and cigarettes. Upon returning to the apartment, Appellant testified he retrieved his pistol from the trunk, went upstairs, and placed the pistol and bullets under his mother's mattress.1

Later in the evening, after some disturbances in the complex parking lot, Appellant's fiancée left the complex, but Appellant remained in the apartment with Collins and others. Thereafter, Appellant and Collins got into an argument, apparently over Appellant speaking to Collins' fiancée. A brief scuffle ensued, and the two were quickly separated by bystanders. By all accounts, Collins was considerably bigger and stronger than Appellant.

Shortly thereafter, the two men began fighting again. Once again, the two men were separated. According to one witness, Jermaine Harris, there was no blood or injury, and the fight appeared to be over. Harris then led Collins to the kitchen to separate the two combatants.

At this point, the testimony of Appellant and the State's witnesses varies substantially. Several of the State's witnesses testified that after the second altercation ended, Appellant ran upstairs, came back downstairs, faced the kitchen, and began shooting at Collins, whose back was to Appellant. Appellant, on the other hand, testified he had retrieved and loaded the gun earlier in the night, and had placed it in his pocket in anticipation of firing the weapon at midnight to celebrate the New Year. Appellant testified he pulled the gun from his pocket because he believed Collins was lunging toward him. Appellant shot Collins six times in the back, killing him. It is undisputed that Collins was unarmed.

Appellant was charged with murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. Appellant confessed to killing Collins, although he told investigating officers that he “blacked out” during the shooting. At the close of the State's evidence, defense counsel moved for a directed verdict of acquittal pursuant to the Protection of Persons and Property Act (Act), which purports to codify the common law Castle Doctrine. SeeS.C.Code §§ 16–11–410, 16–11440(C), and 16–11–450 (Supp.2011). The trial court denied the motion. Thereafter, the trial court instructed the jury on murder, voluntary manslaughter, and self-defense. Appellant's counsel further challenged the trial court's self-defense instructions. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the offense of voluntary manslaughter and the weapons charge. Appellant was sentenced to eighteen years' imprisonment.

II.LAW/ANALYSIS
A.Protection of Persons and Property Act

When applicable, the Act provides immunityfrom prosecution.2 Claiming self-defense, Appellant sought to invoke section 16–11–440(C) of the Act at the directed verdict stage. The trial court denied the motion, finding that Appellant failed to establish his entitlement to immunity under section 16–11–440(C). Because there is evidence to support the decision of the trial court, we affirm.

Section 16–11–440(A), the main thrust of the Act, provides a presumption of reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to a person who uses deadly force if he is attacked by or attempting to remove another from a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle. However, the presumption of subsection (A) does not apply if the victim has an equal right to be in the dwelling or residence. S.C.Code § 16–11–440(B). Because Collins was a social guest and rightfully in the apartment, subsection (A) is inapplicable to Appellant, and he is therefore defaulted into subsection (C), which deals with the use of force by one who is attacked in another place where he has a right to be.

A claim of immunity under the Act requires a pretrial determination using a preponderance of the evidence standard, which this court reviews under an abuse of discretion standard of review. State v. Duncan, 392 S.C. 404, 709 S.E.2d 662 (2011).3

In Duncan, we set forth the pretrial procedure, burden of proof and appellate standard of review under the Act. Because Appellant misapprehends the reach of the Act, we take this opportunity to interpret what we believe to be the legislative intent regarding a trial court's authority to weigh the underlying claim of self-defense in determining an accused's entitlement to immunity.

Section 16–11–450 provides immunity from prosecution if a person is found to be justified in using deadly force under the Act. Section 16–11–440(C), the pertinent “force” section, states:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in another place where he has a right to be, including, but not limited to, his place of business, has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or another person....

Appellant appears to argue the Act should be construed to require a trial court to accept the accused's version of the underlying facts. As a result, the trial court could only determine if the accused is “not engaged in an unlawful activity” and is in a “place he has a right to be.” We find that the General Assembly did not intend such an application. Consistent with the Castle Doctrine and the text of the Act, a valid case of self-defense must exist, and the trial court must necessarily consider the elements of self-defense in determining a defendant's entitlement to the Act's immunity. This includes all elements of self-defense, save the duty to retreat.4

As the General Assembly stated its intent to codify the common law Castle Doctrine, we believe it appropriate to consider case law in the area. In State v. Grantham, we stated that “the [Castle Doctrine] rule is predicated on the absence of aggression or fault on [the defendant's] part in bringing on the difficulty; the doctrine is for defensive, and not offensive purposes.” 224 S.C. 41, 45, 77 S.E.2d 291, 292 (1953). While the Act may be considered “offensive” in the sense that the immunity operates as a bar to prosecution, such immunity is predicated on an accused demonstrating the elements of self-defense to the satisfaction of the trial court by the preponderance of the evidence.

Given the facts as presented above, we conclude there is evidence to support the trial court's denial of immunity under the Act. Appellant's claim of self-defense presents a quintessential jury question, which, most assuredly, is not a situation warranting immunity from prosecution. Accordingly, we find the case was properly submitted to the jury, with the claim of self-defense being fully presented, and the State having the burden to disprove at least one element of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

B.Jury Instruction

Appellant next contends the trial court erred in charging the jury on both the provisions of the Act and the standard self-defense charge because they are inherently inconsistent and confusing to the jury. We reject Appellant's claim of prejudicial error.

“In reviewing jury charges for error, we must consider the court's jury charge as a whole in light of the evidence and issues presented at trial.” State v. Brandt, 393 S.C. 526, 549, 713 S.E.2d 591, 603 (2011) (citation omitted). “Generally, an alleged error in a portion of a charge must be considered in light of the whole charge, and must be prejudicial to the appellant to warrant a new trial.” Priest v. Scott, 266 S.C. 321, 324, 223 S.E.2d 36, 38 (1976).

The jury was instructed on section 16–11–440(C) of the Act, specifically:

I tell you that if the defendant was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, even to the extent of using deadly force or great bodily injury if it was necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or others.

The trial court further charged the jury on the elements of self-defense, including the requirement that “the defendant had no other probable way to avoid the danger or death or serious bodily injury than to act as the defendant did in this particular instance.”

Appellant claims the charge is a “purposeful ambiguity,” which confused the jury. The charge under the Act was indeed error, but one that inured to Appellant's benefit. Specifically, the trial court had denied Appellant immunity, and section 16–11–440(C) should not have been charged to the jury. The full reach of the Act and whether the statutory...

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