State v. Prioleau

Decision Date11 June 2001
Docket NumberNo. 25301.,25301.
Citation548 S.E.2d 213,345 S.C. 404
PartiesThe STATE, Petitioner, v. Corey PRIOLEAU, Respondent.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

Attorney General Charles M. Condon, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Robert E. Bogan, and Senior Assistant Attorney General Norman Mark Rapoport, of Columbia; and Solicitor Cecil Kelly Jackson, of Sumter, for petitioner.

Assistant Appellate Defender Aileen P. Clare, of the South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense, of Columbia, for respondent.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

PLEICONES, Justice:

Respondent Corey Prioleau ("Prioleau") was convicted of kidnapping, armed robbery, possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime, and possession of a pistol by a person under twenty-one years of age in connection with a car-jacking in Sumter County. The Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, finding the trial court committed reversible error in admitting improper hearsay evidence and in allowing a prosecution witness to identify Prioleau from a photographic lineup in the courtroom. State v. Prioleau, 339 S.C. 605, 529 S.E.2d 561 (Ct.App.2000). We granted the State's petition for certiorari. We reverse.

This is a companion case to State v. Dinkins, 345 S.C. 412, 548 S.E.2d 217 (2001).

FACTS

Chris Branham ("Branham"), Amy Vance ("Vance"), and Melanie Lively ("Lively") were sitting in Branham's Ford Explorer, preparing to leave the parking lot of a Burger King restaurant in Sumter County late one summer evening. As Branham, the driver of the vehicle, began backing out of the parking space, two men approached the vehicle. One of the men, identified later as Corey Prioleau, reached inside the vehicle, placed a gun to Branham's chest, and demanded Branham exit the vehicle. When Branham complied, the man ordered Branham to get in the back seat.

As Prioleau climbed into the driver's seat, the second man, later identified as Michael Dinkins ("Dinkins"), got in the back seat behind the driver. Once inside the vehicle Prioleau handed the gun to Dinkins, and left Burger King with the three victims in tow. Prioleau drove about eight miles, ending up in a cotton field. During the drive the perpetrators demanded money from the victims and threatened to kill the victims if "they saw blue lights."

Once they arrived at the cotton field, the perpetrators ordered all three victims out of the vehicle and left in Branham's car, threatening to come back and find the victims if they called the authorities. The victims went to the nearest house and contacted the police. The vehicle was found abandoned the next morning. It had been totally destroyed by fire.

At trial the jury heard testimony from the three victims, including their identifications of Dinkins and Prioleau as the perpetrators. Over both defendants' objections, the court allowed the State to introduce a statement given to police by Devon Dinkins ("Devon").1 Over Prioleau's objection, the court also allowed Lively to pick Prioleau out of a photographic line-up for the first time during the trial. The jury found both men guilty of all charges.

ISSUE I
Did the Court of Appeals err in finding the admission of Devon's statement was reversible error?
ANALYSIS

On certiorari the State does not challenge the Court of Appeals' finding that the introduction of Devon's statement was error. The State maintains, however, that the error was harmless. Whether the improper introduction of evidence is harmless requires the Court to determine if the defendant's "guilt is conclusively proven by competent evidence, such that no other rational conclusion could be reached." State v. Parker, 315 S.C. 230, 234, 433 S.E.2d 831, 833 (1993); see also State v. Reeves, 301 S.C. 191, 194, 391 S.E.2d 241, 243 (1990) (finding an error is harmless if it could not reasonably have affected the result of the trial); State v. Davis, 309 S.C. 326, 422 S.E.2d 133 (1992) (even if evidence was wrongly admitted, its admission may constitute harmless error if the evidence did not affect the outcome of the trial). Thus, to determine whether the error in admitting Devon's statement was harmless, we must review the competent evidence presented against Prioleau at trial.

Victims'/witnesses' identification

Prior to trial both Branham and Vance identified Prioleau from a photographic lineup as the man who approached the car, placed a gun in Branham's chest, and later drove the car away. During the trial, both made in-court identifications of Prioleau. Both testified that they had an opportunity to see Prioleau as he walked across the well-lit Burger King parking lot towards the vehicle.

Lively did not make a pre-trial photographic identification of Prioleau. However, at trial, and over the defendant's objection, she selected Prioleau's picture from the same lineup previously shown to Branham and Vance. She further testified that immediately upon Prioleau's entrance into the preliminary hearing room, she recognized him as the driver. Lively also identified Prioleau in court. She testified that, on the night of the incident, she "g[o]t a good look at" the driver as he approached the vehicle.

Stacey Hicks testified that she was inside the Burger King on the night of the incident and spoke with four young men in line behind her. In the courtroom she identified Corey Prioleau as one of the four men in line behind her that evening.

Victims' initial descriptions

In finding the error prejudicial to Prioleau, the Court of Appeals found it compelling that the description of the driver the victims gave police on the night of the incident did not fit Prioleau. Detective Mike Hicks testified that the victims described one of the assailants as being five feet, nine inches tall and the other as being five feet, eight inches tall.

Branham testified that he described the driver to police as being five feet, nine inches tall, with a bald head. He testified that the photograph he selected from the lineup depicted a man with hair, that Prioleau had hair on the day of the trial, and that Prioleau was more than five feet, nine inches tall.

Vance testified that she described the driver as being five feet, nine inches tall, and that Prioleau was six feet, two inches tall. She explained that, since the perpetrator had been sitting down, she could not accurately judge his height. She denied describing the driver as having a bald head.

Lively testified that she initially described the driver as being six feet tall, and that she did not describe him as having a bald head. Vance and Lively both testified that the driver was wearing a visor on his head during the incident.

On the basis of this evidence, the Court of Appeals found that the error in admitting Devon's statement was not harmless. It found that the statement

placed Prioleau armed with a pistol at the scene of the crime by a person who knew him and whose ability to identify him could not be seriously questioned and described Prioleau's comments about car-jacking and his approach towards the victims' car. This evidence was not cumulative to other testimony.

State v. Prioleau, 339 S.C. at 613, 529 S.E.2d at 565. The court found the admission of the statement prejudicial because

[t]he only corroboration of this evidence was the testimony of the victims, whose identification of Prioleau was subject to attack because the early descriptions of the driver arguably did not match him. The victims' identifications of Prioleau were not as strong as their identifications of Michael Dinkins. ... Considering these factors, we find the error in admitting the statement cannot be considered harmless.

Id. In light of the competent evidence presented at trial, we disagree. We are not convinced that because the victims' initial descriptions of Prioleau did not exactly match his actual description, the admission of Devon's statement affected the result of the trial. The victims were able to view Prioleau only momentarily as he walked across the parking lot. However, they spent a considerable amount of time with him while he was driving the stolen car. These facts reasonably account for their mistaken descriptions regarding his height.

In addition, although the victims described the driver as being bald, they also described him as wearing a visor. Although Prioleau had hair on the date of his arrest, we note that two weeks elapsed between the date of the incident and Prioleau's arrest.

The jury heard all three victims testify that they had an opportunity to view Prioleau. Two of the three victims selected his likeness from a photographic lineup prior...

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