State v. Hamilton

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Citation543 S.E.2d 586,344 S.C. 344
Docket NumberNo. 3317.,3317.
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. John HAMILTON, Appellant.
Decision Date12 March 2001

Assistant Appellate Defender Robert M. Pachak, of South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense, of Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Charles M. Condon, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Robert E. Bogan, Senior Assistant Attorney General Charles H. Richardson; and Solicitor Warren B. Giese, all of Columbia, for Respondent.


John Hamilton appeals from his convictions for assault and battery with intent to kill (ABIK) and possession of contraband. Hamilton was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for ABIK and ten years for possession of contraband. He argues the trial court erred in (1) excluding psychiatric testimony as irrelevant and (2) denying his motion for a mistrial due to the Solicitor's improper comments during closing arguments. Additionally, Hamilton claims the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the indictment for possession of contraband was insufficient. We affirm.


Hamilton was an inmate at the Broad River Correctional Institute (Broad River) in Richland County, South Carolina. Inmates at Broad River are housed in four dormitories, each divided into two wings. Each wing houses approximately 125 inmates and is manned by one correctional officer. On December 13, 1996, Officer Brandon Jeter was the correctional officer on duty in Hamilton's dormitory wing. Hamilton worked that morning at his prison job and returned to the dormitory around lunchtime. Hamilton did not intend to return to work for the afternoon, but had forgotten to inform his supervisor, which can result in disciplinary action for an unauthorized absence. Hamilton stated he asked Officer Jeter to allow him to exit the dormitory. Jeter refused, saying he would open the door after he sorted the mail. According to Hamilton, by the time Jeter finished sorting the mail, it would have been too late for him to get to his job and his supervisor would have written him up for refusing to work. He would then have been placed on lockup, which is administrative segregation.

A nearby inmate, Karim Almatin, heard Officer Jeter and Hamilton arguing and convinced Hamilton to step into his room, which was located next to Jeter's desk. Almatin told Hamilton he "need[ed] to let it go." While Hamilton was in Almatin's room, he heard Officer Jeter open the door for a dorm worker.1 Hamilton attempted to slip out of the door behind the dorm worker. Jeter refused to allow Hamilton to exit as he was wearing dormitory shoes, similar to flip flops, which the inmates are not permitted to wear outside. Hamilton cursed at Jeter but retreated into the dorm.

Hamilton went back into Almatin's cell. When the dorm worker returned, Officer Jeter opened the door. Hamilton again attempted to exit. This time, he successfully forced his way into the common area. Officer Jeter and Hamilton exchanged words. Jeter asked the yard officer, Tara Hopkins, to take Hamilton to a holding cell while Jeter wrote him up for a disciplinary infraction. Hopkins told Jeter she could not take Hamilton to the holding cell because he was wearing improper shoes. Jeter and Hopkins testified Hamilton yelled words to this effect: "I'll teach you mother f____rs who to mess with."

Hamilton turned around and walked back into the dorm area. Officer Hopkins followed him. Hopkins lost sight of Hamilton, stating he "vanished" as she entered the unit. Hopkins next saw Hamilton approaching Jeter with a homemade knife (shank) in his hand.

Officer Jeter was sitting at his desk sorting mail when he heard Officer Hopkins yell: "Move ... Get your gas, get your gas." Jeter looked up and saw Hamilton running toward him fumbling with something behind his back. Jeter jumped out of his chair. Hamilton chased him around the office and stabbed him in the back with the shank. Officer Jeter struck Hamilton and was eventually able to spray him with pepper gas. While trying to get away from Hamilton, Jeter dropped the gas and his keys.

Hamilton again pursued Officer Jeter. Officer Hopkins intervened with a billy stick, striking Hamilton on the wrist to knock the shank out of his hand. The shank did not fall because it was tied to Hamilton's wrist. Hamilton attempted to stab Jeter by reaching around Hopkins. Jeter and Hopkins testified Hamilton yelled: "I'm gonna kill, I'm gonna kill you, mother f_____"

Officer Hopkins retrieved Officer Jeter's gas and sprayed Hamilton with it. Almatin and another inmate retrieved the keys and assisted Hopkins and Jeter. Hopkins called for assistance and other officers arrived. At least one officer escorted Hamilton outside the dormitory. At that time, Hamilton did not have the shank.

The incident occurred around 11:15 a.m. Thereafter, approximately eight officers instituted a lock-down,2 a shake-down,3 and a body strip search of all inmates in the dormitory wing. About 1:45 p.m., Officer Gregory Wells found a shank hidden in a mop head in a room about twenty-five feet from the site of the incident. Wells testified he noticed a small amount of wet blood on the mop head, which led him to inspect the mop.

Officer Jeter suffered serious injuries and stayed in the hospital approximately five days. The shank went between Jeter's ribs and penetrated his lung, requiring surgery to remove a portion of the lung. Jeter had not returned to work as a corrections officer at the time of the trial in November of 1998.

Hamilton testified at trial. He admitted he usually carried a shank and that he carried his shank that day. In addition, Hamilton admitted he stabbed Jeter. Yet, he denied the shank found by Officer Wells was his shank. He further denied threatening to kill Jeter. Hamilton conceded the assault was vicious. Hamilton declared he "wasn't being malicious" when he assaulted Jeter; rather, the verbal altercation "just escalated" and the incident was a result of the "heat of the moment."

I. Did the Circuit Court err in excluding as irrelevant the testimony of Dr. Rathle, who performed a psychiatric evaluation of Hamilton in March 1997?
II. Did the Circuit Court err in denying Hamilton's motion for a mistrial based on improper comments in the Solicitor's closing argument?
III. Did the Circuit Court have subject matter jurisdiction to try Hamilton for possession of contraband based on the indictment?
I. Exclusion of Dr. Rathle's Testimony

Hamilton contends the Circuit Court erred in excluding the testimony of Dr. Jacques M. Rathle, who completed a psychiatric evaluation of Hamilton in March 1997. Hamilton asserts the testimony was relevant to the question of malice, a key issue in determining whether Hamilton committed assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature (ABHAN) or ABIK.

A. The Proffer

Upon the close of the State's case, defense counsel made a proffer explaining Dr. Rathle examined Hamilton during a routine examination of all inmates in the medium security unit. Defense counsel requested a ruling that the evidence did not open the door to Hamilton's prior disciplinary records. Defense counsel stated that, as a result of the examination, Dr. Rathle diagnosed Hamilton with antisocial personality disorder. In February of 1997, after he assaulted Officer Jeter, Hamilton was prescribed Buspar. Dr. Rathle replaced Buspar with Benadryl. Another doctor later prescribed Vistaril, in lieu of Benadryl.

The State objected to the admission of the evidence on the ground of relevancy and on the ground the evidence would confuse the jury. The trial judge listened to Dr. Rathle's testimony in camera. Dr. Rathle testified that, in March of 1997, he diagnosed Hamilton with antisocial personality disorder. Dr. Rathle defined a person with antisocial personality disorder as one "who has some difficulty in adjusting to the societal norms ... due to irritability, ... restlessness, ... anxiety, [or] ... lack of conformity." Dr. Rathle professed the Benadryl or Vistaril had a calming effect on a patient with antisocial personality disorder. The intent of prescribing the mild tranquilizers, according to Dr. Rathle, is to sedate the prisoner "to be less irritable, by reason of ... being confined twenty-three, twenty-four hours a day in a cell."

The State again objected to the evidence. The trial judge excluded the evidence as "irrelevant evidence on the grounds of prejudice, confusion or waste of time" under Rule 403, SCRE.

B. Standard of Review—Admissibility of Evidence

The admission of evidence is within the sound discretion of the trial court. State v. McDonald, 343 S.C. 319, 540 S.E.2d 464 (2000); State v. Patterson, 337 S.C. 215, 522 S.E.2d 845 (Ct.App.1999). A court's ruling on the admissibility of evidence will not be reversed by this Court absent an abuse of discretion or the commission of legal error which results in prejudice to the defendant. State v. Mansfield, 343 S.C. 66, 538 S.E.2d 257 (2000); State v. Blassingame, 338 S.C. 240, 525 S.E.2d 535 (Ct.App.1999).

C. Relevancy: Admissibility of Evidence Under the Common Law

The trial judge is given broad discretion in ruling on questions concerning the relevancy of evidence. State v. Alexander, 303 S.C. 377, 401 S.E.2d 146 (1991); State v. Jeffcoat, 279 S.C. 167, 303 S.E.2d 855 (1983). Evidence is relevant if it tends to establish or make more or less probable some matter in issue upon which it directly or indirectly bears. Alexander, 303 S.C. at 380,401 S.E.2d at 148; State v. Schmidt, 288 S.C. 301, 342 S.E.2d 401 (1986). Only relevant evidence is admissible. See State v. Petit, 144 S.C. 452, 142 S.E. 725 (1928). "`All that is required is that the fact shown legally tends to establish, or to make more or less probable, some matter in issue and to bear directly or indirectly thereon.' It is not required...

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