State v. Miller

Decision Date19 October 2007
Docket NumberNo. 4307.,4307.
Citation652 S.E.2d 444
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. Marshall MILLER, Appellant.
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals

Attorney General Henry Dargan McMaster, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Chief, State Grand Jury, Jennifer D. Evans, and Assistant Attorney General, State Grand Jury, DeWayne Pearson, all of Columbia, for Respondent.


Marshall Miller ("Miller") appeals his conviction for conspiracy to traffic methamphetamine, arguing the trial judge erred by: (1) admitting incriminating oral and written statements, which he claims were given as the result of promises of leniency; and (2) denying his motion to enforce an alleged eight-to-twelve-year plea agreement. We affirm.


In November 1999, local authorities began investigating a large methamphetamine conspiracy, referred to as "Crankdown." The State Law Enforcement Division ("SLED") began its investigation in 2002.

On September 10, 2002, the statewide grand jury indicted Miller and fourteen other individuals for conspiracy to traffic more than 100 grams of methamphetamine. Miller was arrested on September 24, 2002. Subsequently, Frank O'Neil, a SLED agent, attempted to obtain a statement from Miller. O'Neil declared the attempt was not fruitful because Miller only informed the agent about other people involved, not Miller's own involvement.

O'Neil averred defense attorney Kim Varner said Miller was willing to cooperate fully. As a result, O'Neil arranged for Miller to be interviewed by SLED agents Chester Bragg and Constance Sonnefeld. Bragg and Sonnefeld conducted three interviews with Miller. The first debriefing occurred on February 13, 2003, at the Laurens City Police Department. Bragg established that Miller was advised of his rights. He was coherent and not threatened in any way. Both agents professed that no plea agreements or promises of leniency were made during the meeting.

The second and third interviews between Marshall and SLED officers were conducted on February 25, 2003, and March 4, 2003. During all three sessions, Miller orally provided information concerning the methamphetamine conspiracy. At trial, Bragg confirmed Miller admitted using, "cooking," (making methamphetamine), and distributing methamphetamine. Additionally, Miller voluntarily provided Bragg with a handwritten, thirty-six page document prior to the second interview. This document listed names of various "cooks," locations where methamphetamine could be purchased, "cook" sites, people who assisted in "cooking" methamphetamine, charges of police misconduct, an illegal poker house, and various other related and non-related information.

Prior to trial, the court conducted a hearing pursuant to Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368, 84 S.Ct. 1774, 12 L.Ed.2d 908 (1964), to determine the voluntariness and admissibility of Miller's oral and written statements. The following colloquy occurred during the cross-examination of agent O'Neil at the Denno hearing:

Q: When you initially sat down with Mr. Miller, not saying there was an agreement or anything, but was there a general discussion with Mr. Miller that if he would admit his involvement and fully cooperate that it was a possibility, not an agreement, that he could get a sentence of approximately fifteen years?

A: No.

Q: Okay. Was there any discussion of fifteen years at that point in time? I'm not saying an agreement, but a general discussion?

A: I told Mr. Miller that all he could do by cooperating was help himself, it was not going to hurt him. I did not refer to a particular time or to a sentence that he could possibly receive. I repeated several times, as I always do, that it's up to the judge that handles the case.

Varner testified on Miller's behalf during the Denno hearing and claimed Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Evans orally promised a plea deal of eight to twelve years in exchange for Miller's guilty plea and full cooperation with the investigation. However, Varner admitted he never memorialized the promise in writing. Varner contended Miller gave statements to authorities in reliance on the alleged eight-to-twelve-year deal. Although Varner averred he communicated the details of the agreement to Miller in front of Bragg and Sonnefeld, neither agent recalled the number of years being mentioned. The following colloquy occurred during the cross-examination of Bragg at the Denno hearing:

Q: And whether I misunderstood it or whether it was correct or not, do you recall me telling Marshall Miller, "Marshall, I just got off the phone with Jennifer [Evans]. If you testify or you give your cooperation," that, "you are in the eight to twelve range and expect twelve . . . you don't have to do this, this is your choice, you're freely and voluntarily entering into this, this is going to be your decision if you will take that range," whether I misunderstood my statement with [Evans] or whether that was correct or even if that was a lie, do you recall me making the statement to [Miller] to that effect?

A: I do not recall any numbers being mentioned at all.

To the same line of questioning, Sonnefeld responded, "I don't remember numbers. I remember that if he cooperated it would be taken into consideration."

Evans explained the only offer she extended was a formal, written plea agreement with a fifteen-year sentence. She denied offering a plea with a sentence in the range of eight to twelve years. In contrariety, Varner asserted Miller would not have provided information for a fifteen-year deal. "[Miller] has been in jail a couple of times, this gentleman is very jailhouse smart, he does know how to handle himself in that respect, he's very familiar with the system, so to speak . . . ." The following colloquy occurred during the direct examination of Evans:

A: The only time we ever make plea offers is when we send out formal written plea offers. What we do, we explain to them what we expect with cooperation, which is full cooperation, full debriefing, cooperation throughout the investigation and at that point there is nothing promised except for the fact that we will take that cooperation into account. Mr. Miller was indicted for a 25 year offense . . . we do explain to them there is really no way you can hurt yourself at this point, that we take the cooperation into account in determining a sentence, but I don't discuss sentencing and I don't discuss what they would be, because I don't know at that point what they know and if they are going to be fully honest with us.

Q: So, it would be safe to say, then, you have to get all the information from the defendant before you can even determine what offer you want to make them?

A: That is certainly the course of action that we do in all of our Grand Jury cases.

Q: And is this particular instance did you make a written plea offer?

A: Yes, I did.

The written plea offer was sent to Miller on April 29, 2003, in which the State offered a recommendation of fifteen years for him to plead guilty and fully cooperate. Miller had two opportunities to plead guilty but declined to do so.

Miller moved to enforce the purported eight-to-twelve-year plea agreement. The trial judge found Miller's statements were voluntary and denied his motion to enforce the plea agreement. Miller failed to appear for trial and was tried in his absence. The jury found him guilty and the trial judge imposed a twenty-five-year sentence.


In criminal cases, the appellate court sits to review errors of law only. State v. Baccus, 367 S.C. 41, 48, 625 S.E.2d 216, 220 (2006). Thus, an appellate court is bound by the trial judge's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous. Id.; State v. Preslar, 364 S.C. 466, 472, 613 S.E.2d 381, 384 (Ct.App.2005). The appellate courts are "bound by fact findings in response to motions preliminary to trial when the findings are supported by the evidence and not clearly wrong or controlled by error of law." Reed v. Becka, 333 S.C. 676, 685, 511 S.E.2d 396, 401 (Ct.App.1999) (citing State v. Amerson, 311 S.C. 316, 320, 428 S.E.2d 871, 873 (1993)).

The trial judge determines the admissibility of a statement upon proof of its voluntariness by a preponderance of the evidence. State v. Washington, 296 S.C. 54, 55, 370 S.E.2d 611, 612 (1988); State v. Smith, 268 S.C. 349, 354, 234 S.E.2d 19, 21 (1977). The jury must determine whether the statement was freely and voluntarily given beyond a reasonable doubt. Washington, 296 S.C. at 55-56, 370 S.E.2d at 612. On appeal, the conclusion of the trial judge as to the voluntariness of a statement will not be reversed unless so erroneous as to show an abuse of discretion. State v. Von Dohlen, 322 S.C. 234, 242, 471 S.E.2d 689, 695 (1996). When reviewing a trial judge's ruling concerning voluntariness, the appellate court does not re-evaluate the facts based on its own view of the preponderance of the evidence, but simply determines whether the trial judge's ruling is supported by any evidence. State v. Saltz, 346 S.C. 114, 136, 551 S.E.2d 240, 252 (2001).


Miller argues his statements made to law enforcement were given in reliance upon the promise of leniency, and therefore, were involuntary and inadmissible. We disagree.

I. Voluntariness of Statements to SLED Agents

The process for determining whether a statement is voluntary, and thus admissible, is bifurcated; it involves determinations by both the judge and the jury. First, the trial judge must conduct an evidentiary hearing, outside the presence of the jury, where the State must show the statement was voluntarily made by a preponderance of the evidence. Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368, 376, 84 S.Ct. 1774, 12 L.Ed.2d 908 (1964). If the statement is found to have been given voluntarily, it is then submitted to the jury, where its voluntariness must be established...

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