State v. Matthews

Citation373 S.E.2d 587,296 S.C. 379
Decision Date07 March 1988
Docket NumberNo. 22915,22915
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. Earl MATTHEWS, Jr., Appellant. . Heard
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina

[296 S.C. 381] Assistant Appellate Defender Tara Shurling Frick of S.C. Office of Appellate Defense, Columbia, for appellant.

Atty. Gen. T. Travis Medlock, Asst. Attys. Gen., Harold M. Coombs, Jr., and Amie L. Clifford, Columbia, and Sol. Charles M. Condon, Charleston, for respondent.

[296 S.C. 382] HARWELL, Justice:

Appellant Earl Matthews, Jr. was convicted of murder, armed robbery, assault and battery with intent to kill, attempted armed robbery, aggravated assault and battery, and unlawful possession of a pistol. The trial judge sentenced him to death upon the jury's recommendation. In State v. Matthews, 291 S.C. 339, 353 S.E.2d 444 (1986), this Court affirmed the convictions, reversed the death sentence, and remanded the case for a new sentencing proceeding. The jury impaneled for resentencing also recommended the death penalty based upon its finding of the statutory aggravating circumstance of armed robbery. S.C.Code Ann. § 16-3-20(C)(a)(1)(e) (1985). This case consolidates appellant's direct appeal and our mandatory review of the death sentence pursuant to S.C.Code Ann. § 16-3-25 (1985). We affirm.


On the evening of October 29, 1984, the 16-year-old decedent and her 16-year-old boyfriend were parked in an empty parking lot eating their dinner and talking. Appellant approached the driver's side of the car where the boyfriend was seated. Appellant pulled out a handgun and demanded the boy's money. While the boy was looking through the car for money, appellant struck him across the face, breaking his nose. The boy found five dollars in his girlfriend's purse. At appellant's direction, he put the five dollars back into the pocketbook and handed it to appellant. While appellant was going around to the passenger's side of the car, the decedent locked her door and tried to roll up her window. According to the boy's testimony, appellant prevented her from rolling up the window and said, "Come on, let's take a little ride." When the decedent's boyfriend told him they were not going for a ride, appellant stepped back and cursed, shot the girl in the head, and shot the boy in the chest. The girl was pronounced dead later in a local hospital. The decedent's boyfriend recovered from his chest wound and testified at appellant's trial and at the second sentencing proceeding.


Appellant alleges that the trial court committed numerous errors in denying his pre-sentencing proceeding motions. We address each exception separately.

First, appellant asserts the trial judge erred in refusing to submit to voir dire examination of his personal views on the death penalty. We disagree.

The trial judge answered four of the ten written questions propounded by appellant as follows: the death penalty was "reenacted" when the judge was in the legislature; he voted in favor of it; he knew no one in the victims' families; and his only knowledge of the case was obtained from a newspaper account two and one-half years earlier. He refused to answer the questions about his "general attitude" toward the death penalty, noting that if he felt "anything less than impartial" he would recuse himself.

This state's capital sentencing scheme contains no provision for voir dire examination of a trial judge, nor do we believe one is necessary. A judge's oath requires him to follow and uphold the law in all cases, including capital cases. Had appellant waived the jury and chosen sentencing by the court, the judge would have been required to consider applicable mitigating and aggravating circumstances under Section 16-3-20(C) before imposing a sentence. The judge is entitled to a presumption that he would have done so, regardless of his "personal beliefs" about capital punishment. The judge here did not abuse his discretion in refusing to submit to voir dire examination.

Next, the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in refusing to allow appellant to ask prospective jurors on voir dire "what a life sentence meant to them." Appellant proposed the question to expose those potential jurors with "misconceptions" about the parole eligibility of a murderer sentenced to life imprisonment.

Appellant has shown neither abuse nor resulting prejudice. The trial judge's final jury instructions properly conveyed the meaning of "life sentence":

These terms of life imprisonment and the death penalty should be understood in their ordinary and plain meaning by you. [296 S.C. 384] No other consideration about the effect of the two sentences should enter into your decision about which sentence to impose, and no deliberations and discussions as to any other effect on these sentences should take place in the jury room.

As I said, you simply accept these two, life imprisonment and death penalty, and understand them in their ordinary and plain meaning.

This charge adequately insured a jury interpretation of "life sentence" to mean imprisonment for the duration of appellant's life. Appellant was not entitled to probe potential jurors' misconceptions on this point of law. A contrary conclusion would effectively "constitutionalize" inquiries on potential jurors' interpretations of the reasonable doubt standard, the right to appellate review, or a defendant's failure to testify. See King v. Lynaugh, 850 F.2d 1055 (5th Cir.1988) (on rehearing en banc, holding capital murder defendant not constitutionally entitled to question jurors on voir dire concerning possible misconceptions of Texas parole law). Explaining specific legal points and thereby eliminating jurors' misconceptions is the very reason jury instructions exist. There was no abuse of discretion in disallowing the voir dire question proposed here.

Appellant also claims the trial judge abused his discretion in refusing to require the solicitor's office to disclose any information, other than criminal records checks, it had gathered on prospective jurors. Appellant had moved for disclosure of criminal records, prior jury service records, and the results of "any other investigation ... concerning backgrounds, attitudes or characteristics" of potential jurors. We find no abuse.

No right to discovery exists in a criminal case absent statute or court rule. State v. Miller, 289 S.C. 316, 345 S.E.2d 489 (1986). The operative rule here, Rule 8, Criminal

Practice Rules, provides that "reports, memoranda, or other internal prosecution documents made by the [solicitor] or other prosecution agents in connection with the investigation or prosecution of the case" are not subject to disclosure. Background information on the venire, if any, held by the solicitor here qualified as "internal prosecution" matter connected with the prosecution of the case. As such it was not subject to disclosure

[296 S.C. 385] Notwithstanding Rule 8, we reject appellant's Due Process attack on the judge's ruling. The record does not reflect that defense counsel was prohibited on voir dire from asking potential jurors about prior jury service or exploring their "backgrounds, attitudes, and characteristics." Several potential jurors were directly asked if they had ever served on a jury and answered "no". The voir dire here also afforded appellant thorough inquiry into potential jurors' "backgrounds", including whether they were contributors to local anti-crime groups, members of a church, or victims of serious crime themselves. The trial judge's refusal to order disclosure here did not prejudice appellant in any manner.

Appellant next alleges the trial court erred in rejecting his request to be sentenced under the 1986 amendment to S.C.Code Ann. Section 16-3-20(A) (1985), which provides for a ten year increase in prison time before a convicted murderer is eligible for parole. We disagree.

Appellant submitted an affidavit admitting his guilt in the murder and the presence of statutory aggravating circumstances. The statute in effect at the time he committed the murder, Section 16-3-20(A) (1985), provided that a life sentence required twenty years service before parole eligibility. In 1986, the statute was amended to provide that where an aggravating circumstance is found, and death is not recommended, the life sentence requires thirty years service before parole eligibility. § 16-3-20(A) (Supp.1987). Appellant sought leave to waive his right to be sentenced under the effective statute and sought to be sentenced instead under the amendment. He also requested a corresponding jury instruction that, if sentenced to life imprisonment, he would not be parole-eligible for thirty years. Appellant argued that the increased period of incarceration prior to parole eligibility would enable him to argue "additional mitigation, i.e. future non-dangerousness." The court ruled that application of the new statute to appellant's crimes would violate the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws.

Both the United States and South Carolina constitutions prohibit enactment of any ex post facto law. U.S. Const. art. I, §§ 9 and 10; S.C. Const. art. I, § 4. In Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 386, 1 L.Ed. 648 (1798), the United States Supreme Court held as violative of the ex post facto prohibition any [296 S.C. 386] "law that changes the punishment, and inflicts a greater punishment, than the law annexed to the crime, when committed." Id. 3 U.S. at 390, quoted in Miller v. Florida, 482 U.S. 423, ----, 107 S.Ct. 2446, 2450, 96 L.Ed.2d 351, 359 (1987). In Miller v. Florida, the Court also quoted Weaver v. Graham, 450 U.S. 24, 101 S.Ct. 960, 67 L.Ed.2d 17 (1981), in stating the two-element test for determining whether a criminal law is ex post facto:

[T]o fall within the ex post facto prohibition, two critical elements must be present: first, the law 'must be retrospective, that is, it must apply to events...

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