State v. Stewart

Decision Date03 March 1982
Docket NumberNo. 21656,21656
Citation278 S.C. 296,295 S.E.2d 627
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
Parties, 29 A.L.R.4th 649 The STATE, Respondent, v. Angela Z. STEWART, Appellant.

Marshall B. Williams, Charles H. Williams and Karen L. Williams, all of Williams & Williams, Orangeburg, and Henry Hammer, of Hammer & Bernstein, Columbia, for appellant.

Atty. Gen. Daniel R. McLeod, Sr. Asst. Atty. Gen. Brian P. Gibbes and Asst. Atty. Gen. Lindy P. Funkhouser, Columbia, Sol. Norman E. Fogle and Asst. Sol. Joseph P. Mizzell, Orangeburg, and I. S. Leevy Johnson, Columbia, for respondent.

LITTLEJOHN, Associate Justice:

A jury found defendant Angela Z. Stewart guilty of the murder of her husband, Paul A. Stewart, and she was sentenced to life imprisonment. She appeals.

On April 13, 1980, Paul A. Stewart was found dead in bed at his Orangeburg residence with five .38 calibre bullets in his body. The entire house, including the bedroom, appeared undisturbed. No property was reported missing. However, there was a broken window pane in a side door and a rock was lodged between the broken pane and the door curtain. The broken pane provided access to the inside door knob and lock. Fingerprint smudges found on the door knob were not identifiable.

The death was reported by Mrs. Stewart about 12:00 midnight. The pathologist who performed an autopsy on the body of the deceased testified that the time of death was approximately 8:00 p.m.

On August 20, 1980, Mrs. Stewart was charged with murder. In her statement given to the police officer the night of the killing and in her testimony at trial, she consistently maintained that she was not at home when her husband was killed. Her account is generally as follows:

(1) She and her daughter left the residence in a blue pickup around 8:30 p.m. for Columbia, about 40 miles away, to retrieve a repaired motorbike belonging to Mrs. Stewart's son and to return the daughter to her apartment in Columbia;

(2) When they left home, Mr. Stewart was lying in bed watching television;

(3) Upon returning home around midnight, she discovered his bleeding body and immediately telephoned for an ambulance; and

(4) She called for assistance from Melvina McDonald, a tenant residing in a nearby apartment owned by the Stewarts, and from Lewis Pinkston, McDonald's boyfriend, both of whom were talking outside the nearby apartment.

The boyfriend of Mrs. Stewart's daughter testified that the repaired motorbike was at his apartment in Columbia and that Mrs. Stewart and her daughter arrived between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. and placed the motorbike in the blue pickup.

In its prosecution, the State relied exclusively upon circumstantial evidence, the most crucial parts being as follows:

(1) The bullets removed from the deceased's body matched a bullet fired by defendant from her husband's pistol at a snake two years earlier in a friend's backyard;

(2) The pathologist testified that Mr. Stewart died from the bullet wounds around 8:00 p.m.;

(3) Lewis Pinkston testified that the Stewart's blue pickup was at the house from 9:30 until 10:00 p.m., during which time Mrs. Stewart states she was driving it to Columbia;

(4) Mr. Stewart had quarreled with Mrs. Stewart and her daughter two days prior to the killing concerning how the daughter parked in the driveway; and

(5) Lewis Pinkston's testimony conflicted with that of Mrs. Stewart as to events occurring that evening after Mrs. Stewart requested the help of Pinkston and his girlfriend.

Besides the testimony of Mrs. Stewart and accompanying corroboration, her defense presented testimony by attorney Luke Brown (presently circuit court judge), a close friend with both Mr. and Mrs. Stewart. He testified that in 1976 he helped Mrs. Stewart purchase a .38 calibre pistol for Mr. Stewart after Mr. Stewart had expressed to Mr. Brown his desire for a handgun. Additionally, he testified that Mr. Stewart reported in 1978 that the gun had been stolen from his car. A nearby service station owner and his wife testified that they heard five shots around 10:30 p.m., thus discrediting the medical testimony placing the shooting at 8:00 p.m. Though this information was reported to investigating police officers the day after the killing, it was not revealed to the defense by the Solicitor's Office until the morning of trial. 1 Defense sought to cast suspicion upon Lewis Pinkston by questioning his activities the night of the killing and by pointing out conflicts between his testimony and that of his girlfriend, Melvina McDonald, and of Mrs. Stewart. Finally, several witnesses testified that the Stewarts enjoyed an apparent happy marriage.

On appeal, the defendant argues (1) that the trial judge erred in not granting her motion for directed verdict or motion for judgment n.o.v. for lack of sufficient evidence; (2) that the whole of the atmosphere surrounding and attending the trial was pervasive and hostile to the defendant and denied her a fair trial in violation of due process rights; (3) that the trial judge erred in not granting defendant's request for continuance based upon suppression of exculpatory material (i.e., testimony of service station owner and his wife); and (4) that the trial judge erred in failing to give a curative instruction to the jury to disregard a portion of the State's closing argument.

Where the State relies exclusively upon circumstantial evidence in a criminal case, motion for directed verdict must be determined in light of whether the evidence constitutes positive proof of facts and circumstances which reasonably tends to prove the guilt of the accused, or from which guilt may be fairly and logically deduced, to the exclusion of any other reasonable hypothesis. The evidence must be viewed most favorably to the State. State v. Hudson, 284 S.E.2d 773 (S.C.1981).

In directing a verdict, the trial judge in effect tells the jury, "You must believe certain evidence because there is no reason to discredit it (i.e., no evidence to the contrary)." Here it was for the jury to determine whether testimony of Mrs. Stewart or of the witnesses who testified to the contrary was true. While the jury might have believed her testimony, they were not required as a matter of law to do so. We find no error by the trial judge in denying defendant's motions for directed verdict and for judgment n.o.v.

Defendant next asserts that happenings at trial served to render it inherently unfair. Among these were an overcrowded courtroom with outbursts from spectators and an improper gesture from a spectator to the jury.

The record shows that spectators filled the courtroom seats to capacity and even stood against the walls. While the fact that spectators were allowed to overflow the seating capacity and stand in the courtroom would not normally be grounds for a new trial, it is the better practice to limit the audience to those who can be seated. An overcrowded courtroom tends to create an improper atmosphere and is not conducive to calm deliberations by the jury. The trial judge insisted more than once that spectators refrain from sitting on the row next to the jury box. After several outbursts of laughter from the spectators, the trial judge issued the following admonition:

... Now, this is not a show, it's not a public spectacle and any outbursts of laughter or exclamation of any kind from anyone who is in the courtroom observing these proceedings is completely and absolutely out of order and we should not have it and I cannot permit it. So, please, regardless of what's being asked or regardless of what's being answered do not make any outbursts of laughter. Nobody is trying to be funny in this situation.

This is a most serious situation and the charges against the defendant and the defendant's rights are to be respected by you as well as by everybody else. So we cannot have that anymore. Do not do that.

During a recess in the trial, the forelady of the jury reported to the trial judge that one spectator continually glared at the jury with "obvious disgust" and that the same person had earlier made several opinionated remarks overheard by some jurors prior to being sworn. That person had left the courtroom when the complaint was made. Based upon this report, counsel for the defense moved for a mistrial, arguing, "... that the jury has been duly--and unduly prejudiced and that we cannot receive a fair trial." The seriousness of the problem is indicated by the statement of the judge in overruling the motion:

All right. Well, of course, what I think was said to me this morning by the Sled Agent was that the foreman did not want to make any particular personal charge out of the matter against the spectator, whoever the spectator might have been. Let me say this to start off with, directing my attention to your motion for a mistrial, I have to overrule that. But I think it is a matter that should be taken up, and I think it's a matter of considerable seriousness because this, this is a serious matter, and I talked to the spectators in the courtroom along those lines yesterday after several outbursts of laughter which I did not approve of and I do not approve of under any circumstances. The Foreman--the Forelady--did say that prior to the jury being chosen it was someone who was a spectator who stated in a voice that could be overheard by many of the prospective jurors before they were chosen an opinion concerning the guilt or innocence of the defendant. I have told the jury to disregard that and I think they understand that they, that has absolutely no bearing on anything that they do in this trial....

And it would be well if the spectators would understand that they are not to interfere with the jury by glaring at the jury, glances or faces or anything else. I--I don't know what it was, but I don't want to have to undertake to, to discipline any spectator in a matter of this serious nature, because it is disruptive to the procedure. So I would suggest to the spectators that ...

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    ...epithets and interspersed her testimony with impassioned statements evidencing her hostility toward defendant. In State v. Stewart (1982) 278 S.C. 296, 295 S.E.2d 627, 629-631, certiorari denied 459 U.S. 828, 103 S.Ct. 64, 74 L.Ed.2d 65, the trial court failed to explore the prejudice which......
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