State v. Pruitt

Decision Date08 April 1938
Docket Number14661.
Citation196 S.E. 371,187 S.C. 58
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

Appeal from General Sessions Circuit Court of Anderson County; J Henry Johnson, Judge.

Mrs. L Y. Pruitt was convicted of maintaining a nuisance under the common law, and of maintaining a place where people were permitted to resort for purpose of drinking alcoholic liquors and beverages in violation of statute, and she appeals.

Judgment reversed and case remanded for a new trial.

A. H Dagnall and Harold Major, both of Anderson, for appellant.

Rufus Fant, Jr., of Anderson, for respondent.


The defendant, Mrs. L. Y. Pruitt, was tried at the September term, 1937, of the court of general sessions for Anderson county, upon an indictment containing two counts. The first count charged the maintenance of a nuisance under the common law. The second count charged the maintenance of a place where people were permitted to resort for the purpose of drinking alcoholic liquors and beverages, in violation of section 1854 of the Code of Laws 1932. She was convicted on both counts, upon which sentence was pronounced by the court. She appeals from this judgment upon eleven exceptions.

The first three exceptions raise the issue: Did the trial judge make himself a participant in the determination of the facts, in violation of article 5, section 26, of the Constitution of 1895.

The defendant was not in court when the trial of the case was entered upon, and did not reach the courtroom until the third witness for the state was being examined. She had not retained counsel to defend her, but undertook to represent herself. When the solicitor concluded his direct examination of Ralph W. McAlister, who was on the stand when the defendant came into the courtroom, she commenced her cross-examination of the witness. After she had directed several questions to this witness, the trial judge interrupted her with this statement: "Just a minute. Maybe I had better tell you. Some of the testimony has tended to establish the fact that immoral people have been seen in there, that women of the lowest type-I am just giving you this for your information. Some of the testimony in the case has tended to show that women of low character frequent that place, have been seen there."

And after this witness had been further examined by her, the trial judge again interrupted the interrogation, and made the following statement: "You know what you are indicted for, Mrs. Pruitt, is what is known as maintaining a nuisance. Now the average person doesn't know what a nuisance is. He ought to know, for the word defines itself, I think. But the law is that a nuisance is anything that works hurt or inconvenience or annoyance to the public generally. And some of the testimony in this case has been that that noise goes on there until three or four o'clock in the morning, and that there's cursing going on in there, and drinking, and that it's a place where immoral people resort for entertainment. Now that's the nature of some of the testimony that's been taken in your absence."

And after some colloquy between the defendant and the trial judge, this statement was made by the judge: "For your information I will say perhaps that one or more of the witnesses have testified they have seen anywhere from two to four couples dancing in there."

All of these statements were made in the presence of the jury, and during the course of the trial.

Counsel for the defendant insists that these remarks of the trial judge adversely prejudiced the defendant's case before the jury, and amounted to an intimation of his opinion on the facts.

We think there is substantial merit in the appellant's contention.

It has long been recognized that even a slight remark, apparently innocent in its language, may, when uttered by the court, have a decided weight in shaping the opinion of the jury. Vested as the trial judge is, with superior authority, disinterested, and possessing experience not available to the ordinary layman, jurors, as a rule, are anxious to catch his view, upon which to found their conclusions.

In most jurisdictions the rule prevails, under constitutional limitations, that a trial judge is not at liberty, in his charge, to comment on the weight or sufficiency of the evidence. As a corollary to that rule, it is generally held that in the course of the trial of a criminal case, the trial judge must refrain from all comment which tends to indicate his opinion as to the weight or sufficiency of the evidence, the credibility of the witnesses, the guilt of the accused, or as to the controverted facts, for the jury are the sole judge of the facts and the credibility of the witnesses, and the Constitution expressly prohibits the judge from charging them as to the facts. Sumter Trust Co. et al. v. Holman, 134 S.C. 412, 132 S.E. 811.

In the case of Thomasson v. Southern Ry., 72 S.C. 1, 51 S.E. 443, error was assigned because the trial judge charged the jury, that "there is in the case evidence tending to prove that the defendant was guilty of a willful, intentional, or wanton act."

A majority of the court held in that case that the remarks of the judge were directly responsive to the appellant's requests to charge, and that the appellant could not complain if as a matter of fact there was some evidence tending to show a recklessness or a wanton injury. But the court stated that it would doubtless be the best practice for the trial judge to simply decline a request involving a charge on the facts, without making reference to the testimony. It further appeared in that case that the judge, immediately after making the statement quoted, told the jury that it was not his intention to intimate any opinion as to the effect of the testimony.

In the case of State v. Riley, 98 S.C. 386, 82 S.E. 621, error was assigned because the trial judge charged the jury, "The drift of the testimony for the defendant is that the killing was accidental; that her main defense is that this killing was an accident," thereby expressing to the jury his opinion that the defendant's testimony only drifted toward proof of accidental killing. The court overruled this exception, saying: "Ordinarily it would not be permissible to instruct a jury that the testimony had a drift; but in this instance the drift indicated was away from guilt."

It seems to us that the word "drift," as used in the above quotation, could mean nothing more nor less than tendency to prove, or tending to...

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8 cases
  • Sosebee v. Leeke, 22796
    • United States
    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • 9 November 1987
    ...Court has specifically rejected the jury charge argument in the context of a judge's improper comment on the facts. State v. Pruitt, 187 S.C. 58, 196 S.E. 371 (1938). Even an immediate curative instruction can be insufficient to prevent prejudice from a judge's improper comment. State v. Ke......
  • State v. Simmons
    • United States
    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • 24 January 1947
    ...jury, either expressly or impliedly, his opinion of the force and effect of testimony upon any question of fact at issue. State v. Pruitt, 187 S.C. 58, 196 S.E. 371. And it has been frequently held that a trial Judge should by remarks in ruling upon testimony offered, indicate opinions or e......
  • State v. Roof
    • United States
    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • 2 January 1941 The appellant cites several cases which he argues are analogous, notably: Haynes v. Graham, 192 S.C. 382, 6 S.E.2d 903; State v. Pruitt, 187 S.C. 58, 196 S.E. 371; State v. Johnson , 85 S.C. 265, 67 453; Lusk v. State Highway Department, 181 S.C. 101, 186 S.E. 786. But an examination of......
  • State v. Higgins
    • United States
    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • 5 August 1949
    ...not available to the ordinary layman, juries, as a rule, are anxious to catch his view upon which to found their conclusions. See State v. Pruitt, 187 S.C. 58 196 S.E. 371 and the cases cited therein. For the foregoing reasons, I am of the opinion that the charge was in violation of Article......
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