State v. Evins

Decision Date14 May 2007
Docket NumberNo. 26329.,26329.
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. Fredrick Antonio EVINS, Appellant.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

Chief Justice TOAL:

Appellant Fredrick Antonio Evins ("Evins") was convicted of murder, first degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC), and grand larceny. He was sentenced to death for the murder, thirty years imprisonment for CSC, and five years for grand larceny. This appeal consolidates his direct appeal with the mandatory review provisions of S.C.Code Ann. § 16-3-25 (1985). We affirm the convictions and sentences.

FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The victim in this case, Rhonda Ward ("Ward"), was the manager of a convenience store in Spartanburg. One early morning in February 2003, Evins approached Ward in the parking lot of the store on her way into work. Ward spoke to Evins briefly before he lead her back to her car where she got in the driver's side and he got into the passenger side. Surveillance cameras at the store captured the exchange between Ward and Evins. Two days later, Ward's naked body was found face down in an apple orchard. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed twelve times.

After police discovered Evins had been driving Ward's car on the day of the murder, he was arrested and subsequently confessed to Ward's murder. Initially, Evins denied having had sex with Ward; instead, he claimed another man was with him in the woods and insisted that Evins kill Ward. However, upon being taken to the hospital for DNA testing, Evins admitted he had had sex with Ward on the day of her death. At trial, Evins claimed he and Ward had been engaged in a long-term consensual sexual relationship. He testified that on the day of her death, he and Ward were engaged in sexual intercourse outside in an apple field, when Ward became angry with him for refusing to leave his girlfriend. According to Evins, Ward wielded a knife, and wound up getting stabbed.

The jury convicted Evins of murder, kidnapping, first degree CSC, and grand larceny. After a separate sentencing phase, Evins was sentenced to death for murder, thirty years for CSC and five years for grand larceny. Evins raises the following issues for this Court's review:1

I. Did the trial court err in denying Evins' motion for a change of venue based on pre-trial publicity?

II. Did the trial court err in ruling the state's exercise of peremptory challenges did not violate Batson v. Kentucky?

III. Did the trial court err in excusing three African-American potential jurors for cause?

IV. Did the trial court err in admitting certain photographs of the victim's body at sentencing?

LAW/ANALYSIS
I. Pre-trial Publicity-Change of Venue

In September 2002, approximately five months prior to the murder in this case, the body of a woman named Demaris Huff was found near a creek beside a walking trail near a park in Spartanburg. She had been strangled and was nude except for a pair of socks. DNA testing revealed that semen found on Huff matched that of Evins. The case remained unsolved until Evins' subsequent arrest for the February 2003 murder of Ward. At that time, after DNA testing, authorities also charged Evins with Huff's murder. The Huff murder charges were pending at the time of Evins' trial for the murder of Ward.

Evins moved for a change of venue based upon extensive pre-trial publicity, much of which linked Evins to both murders. The trial court ruled in a pre-trial hearing that it would allow Evins latitude in the voir dire of potential jurors to determine if they had any prior knowledge of Evins and/or the Huff murder. At the conclusion of voir dire, the defense renewed its motion for a change of venue, indicating that a total of thirty-nine people out of the jury pool of sixty-eight had heard something about the case. By defense counsel's count, seven of the twelve jurors seated had some knowledge of the case. The trial court declined to change venue, concluding that all of the jurors who had any prior knowledge of the case had indicated they could set aside any information and would not consider it. The court also noted the defense had used only nine of its ten peremptory challenges to remove potential jurors. Evins now contends the denial of his motion to change venue constituted an abuse of discretion. We disagree.

A motion to change venue is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial judge and will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion. Sheppard v. State, 357 S.C. 646, 594 S.E.2d 462 (2004); State v. Manning, 329 S.C. 1, 495 S.E.2d 191 (1997) (finding trial court abused discretion by granting the State's motion to change venue based on pretrial publicity because no evidentiary facts supported finding of actual juror prejudice towards the State). When a trial judge bases the denial of a motion for a change of venue because of pretrial publicity upon an adequate voir dire examination of the jurors, his decision will not be disturbed absent extraordinary circumstances. State v. Caldwell, 300 S.C. 494, 388 S.E.2d 816 (1990). When jurors have been exposed to pretrial publicity, a denial of a change of venue is not error where the jurors are found to have the ability to set aside any impressions or opinions and render a verdict based on the evidence presented at trial. State v. Tucker, 334 S.C. 1, 512 S.E.2d 99 (1999); Manning, 329 S.C. at 1, 495 S.E.2d at 191. Therefore, mere exposure to pretrial publicity does not automatically disqualify a prospective juror. Id. The relevant question is not whether the community remembered the case, but whether the jurors had such fixed opinions that they could not judge impartially the guilt of the defendant. Id. It is the defendant's burden to demonstrate actual juror prejudice as a result of such publicity. Caldwell, 300 S.C. at 494, 388 S.E.2d at 816.

In Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723, 83 S.Ct. 1417, 10 L.Ed.2d 663 (1963), the United States Supreme Court found reversible error in a trial court's refusal to grant a motion for a change of venue due to the effect of pretrial publicity. There, the Court found that the people of Calcasieu Parish in Lake Charles, Louisiana, were "exposed repeatedly and in depth to the spectacle of Rideau personally confessing in detail to the crimes with which he was later to be charged." Id. The Court noted that three members of the jury which convicted Rideau had seen and heard Rideau's televised "interview" in which he confessed to the sheriff, and that two members of the jury were deputy sheriffs of Calcasieu Parish. Id. The Court found Rideau's due process rights had been compromised by such a procedure. Id. The present case is clearly inapposite.

We find Evins has demonstrated no prejudice from the denial of his motion. Both the trial court and defense counsel conducted a thorough voir dire of the jury pool. Additionally, all members of the jury who had any knowledge of Evins or the Huff murder due to pre-trial publicity indicated they could put that knowledge aside. Further, the defense used only nine of its peremptory challenges. Evins contends, however, that one juror had read about both crimes and connected them mentally such that "she could not be expected to disregard the image created by the articles." Evins' depiction of the juror's response is overstated. The juror testified on voir dire that the only thing she had heard was that the crime had taken place; she specifically testified that she knew no details, did not know the location, she had formed no opinion, could put aside what she had heard, and could be fair and impartial. This is simply not akin to the situation in Rideau.

We find this case more akin to Sheppard, 357 S.C. at 646, 594 S.E.2d at 462, in which the defendant claimed he was entitled to a change of venue due to extensive pretrial publicity where, out of eighty-seven potential jurors, all but five had been exposed to pretrial publicity. Noting our holdings in Manning and Caldwell, we found the defendant had not met his burden of demonstrating actual juror prejudice as a result of the publicity. Sheppard, 357 S.C. at 655, 594 S.E.2d at 468. We held, "[m]ere exposure to pretrial publicity does not automatically disqualify a prospective juror. Instead, the relevant question is not whether the community remembered the case, but whether the jurors had such fixed opinions that they could not judge impartially the guilt of the defendant." Id.

Moreover, Evins concedes that evidence of the Huff murder was properly admitted at the sentencing phase of trial. Accordingly, Evins' complaint regarding pretrial publicity is necessarily limited to the guilt phase of his trial. Given the overwhelming evidence presented during that phase of trial, and the fact that Evins actually admitted to stabbing Ward, we find Evins has suffered no prejudice. Accordingly, the trial court's denial of the motion to change venue is affirmed.

II. Batson Motion

Evins next asserts the trial court erred in denying his Batson2 motion and ruling that two of the State's peremptory challenges were not racially motivated. We disagree. We find the solicitor's stated reasons for striking the jurors were race-neutral.

There were a total of twelve African-American venire members out of the pool of sixty-three potential jurors. During jury selection, the state exercised a total of seven peremptory challenges, striking three African American and four white potential jurors. The jury was ultimately comprised of eleven white jurors, one black juror, and one each white and...

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