State v. Weatherall

Decision Date19 August 2020
Docket NumberAppellate Case No. 2017-002447,Opinion No. 5763
Citation431 S.C. 485,848 S.E.2d 338
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals
Parties The STATE, Respondent, v. Mitchell Monroe WEATHERALL, Appellant.

J. Falkner Wilkes, of Greenville, for Appellant.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, and Senior Assistant Attorney General J. Anthony Mabry, all of Columbia; and Solicitor Jimmy A. Richardson, II, of Conway, for Respondent.

LOCKEMY, C.J.:

Mitchell Weatherall appeals his conviction for murder and his sentence of life imprisonment. Weatherall argues the trial court abused its discretion by (1) denying his Batson1 challenges, which were based on race and sexual orientation, and (2) refusing to charge section 17-25-65 of the South Carolina Code (2014)2 because an imprisoned State's witness testified he did not expect to receive any benefit from his testimony. We affirm.

FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

During voir dire, the court asked, "Is there any member of the jury panel who feels that a person's sexual orientation would affect your ability to be fair and impartial to that person? If so, please stand." No one stood in response. During jury selection, the State excused Juror 191, a black female juror. The State presented Juror 244, a black male, who was seated on the jury. The State then excused Juror 397.

Weatherall objected to the State striking the only black female juror. The Court stated "You know, there's a whole lot of leeway. I know that if—if there had been more black females called and struck, you could address it, but since there was only one called—[the State], what is the basis for striking Juror 191?" The State explained its records indicated Juror 191 had a prior conviction. Juror 191 informed the State she did not have a conviction. The State explained it was concerned Juror 191 had a prior conviction because she did not have a driver's license, she only had a personal ID, which it believed was indicative of a possible conviction. The trial court inquired if Weatherall wanted to reply to the State's explanation and he responded he did not.

Weatherall then challenged the striking of Juror 397 on the grounds of sexual orientation, arguing,

I might be wrong, but I don't think the Supreme Court has recognized sexual orientation as a protected class, but one of the things that's involved in this case, and I believe we've made it obvious to this court and to the potential jury panel by our questions, is that one of the witnesses for the State and one of our witnesses, or client is a homosexual, and we believe that the only reason the [State] struck Juror Number 397 was because of that juror's sexual orientation.

The trial court denied the challenge, stating sexual orientation was not a protected class. Weatherall did not offer any evidence of Juror 397's sexual orientation and did not attempt to proffer any evidence to that effect. The trial court asked the State if it wanted to put its reason for striking Juror 397 on the record. The State responded it "didn't know [the juror] was gay ... it wasn't in any of our notes. I had no idea he was gay and I don't know what evidence we have that he was ... homosexual." The trial court stated the State was not required to put a reason on the record unless it wanted to. The State responded that Juror 397 "appeared completely disinterested, and when he stood up there, he looked completely disinterested." The trial court denied the challenge as to Juror 397 and found there was a justifiable reason for striking Juror 191.

At trial, Norma Davis, the owner of the Atlantic View Motel, testified Weatherall and Helbert Woodbury (Victim) checked into one of its rooms for a week. Melissa Baines, a member of the motel's housekeeping staff, testified the guests broke the door to the room and she could not open it. She testified she found a broken bottle in the room and blood was soaked into the carpet and the bed.

Kelly Matteson, of the Myrtle Beach Police Department's crime scene unit, testified she processed the motel room and found blood on the bed, headboard, dresser, and wall. She testified the location of bloodstains in the room indicated the blood was cast off from a weapon used in the assault. Jennifer Bartman, an expert in DNA comparisons, testified the blood from the bed, carpet, and dresser matched Victim's DNA. Victim suffered multiple lacerations on the back of his head, an underlying blunt force injury that fractured his skull, and defensive wounds on his arms and hands. Victim died from a skull fracture and brain injury.

Investigators found Victim's body concealed off of a dirt access trail. The State published a surveillance video to the jury. Angie Gunter, the manager at the Atlantic View Motel, explained the video showed someone carrying a body out of a room and putting it in a car. Weatherall admitted in his opening statement that the video showed him and a man named Joey Garsow carrying the Victim's body to the car.

Tonya Wedlock, Weatherall's friend, testified Weatherall and Garsow were lovers. Wedlock stated Weatherall met Victim through Craigslist, and Victim took a bus to Myrtle Beach to receive sexual favors from Weatherall. She recalled that once Victim was in Myrtle Beach, Weatherall called a dealer in order to buy drugs. Wedlock testified that later that week, Weatherall asked to use her car to take Victim back to the bus station. Wedlock explained she, Weatherall, and Garsow drove to the motel, where Weatherall asked her to wait outside. She testified she walked to the corner to drink and was unable to see who came in or out of the room. Wedlock identified herself, Garsow, and Weatherall in the surveillance video.

Marcus Bell, an inmate at the South Carolina Department of Corrections, testified he was Weatherall's roommate for two weeks in jail. He explained Weatherall told him Victim and Weatherall had argued about money to purchase drugs. Bell stated Weatherall said he got angry with Victim and hit Victim across the head with a bottle. Bell testified he did not expect anything from the State in exchange for his testimony against Weatherall. When asked why he wrote a letter to the State with this information, he stated,

Well, at first I'm going to be totally honest with you ... I felt that possibly it could help me when I was facing time, but then I later on found out that it didn't help me. And, as the time went on down the road, I figured out that it was pretty much the right thing to do because of the simple fact that it could've been my dad, it could've been my brother, it could've been my, you know, I'd want somebody to do it for me ... but this me being here today don't help me none ....

Weatherall requested the trial court charge the jury with section 17-25-65. He argued that the law provided Bell could have his prison sentence reduced if he testified. Weatherall stated, "[S]ince [Bell] testified he wasn't expecting anything from the [State], I ask you to charge this because this would be a fair statement of what he's gonna get." The trial court denied Weatherall's request. The trial court charged the jury that it had the responsibility to "determine the credibility of witnesses who have testified" and that it "may consider whether any witness ha[d] exhibited ... any interest, bias, prejudice, or other motive in this case." In addition, the trial court instructed the jurors that they could consider a witness's past criminal record "in determining the witness’[s] credibility or believability." The jury found Weatherall guilty of murder, and the trial court sentenced him to life imprisonment. This appeal followed.

ISSUE ON APPEAL

1. Did the trial court err by denying Weatherall's Batson challenge when the State struck the only African American juror called?

2. Did the trial court err by denying Weatherall's Batson challenge based on sexual orientation?

3. Did the trial court err by denying Weatherall's requested jury charge on section 17-25-65 to show potential bias on the part of the State's key witness?

4. Do any of the court's errors, or a combination thereof, require a reversal of Weatherall's conviction and sentence?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

"In criminal cases, appellate courts sit to review errors of law only, and are therefore bound by the trial court's factual findings unless clearly erroneous."

State v. Robinson , 410 S.C. 519, 526, 765 S.E.2d 564, 568 (2014). An appellate court's review "is limited to determining whether the trial court abused its discretion." State v. Edwards , 384 S.C. 504, 508, 682 S.E.2d 820, 822 (2009). "The trial court's findings regarding purposeful discrimination are accorded great deference and will be set aside on appeal only if clearly erroneous." State v. Blackwell , 420 S.C. 127, 148, 801 S.E.2d 713, 724 (2017) (quoting State v. Haigler , 334 S.C. 623, 630, 515 S.E.2d 88, 91 (1999) ).

"A trial court's decision regarding jury charges will not be reversed whe[n] the charges, as a whole, properly charged the law to be applied." State v. Rye , 375 S.C. 119, 123, 651 S.E.2d 321, 323 (2007). "An appellate court will not reverse the trial [court's] decision regarding a jury charge absent an abuse of discretion." State v. Mattison , 388 S.C. 469, 479, 697 S.E.2d 578, 584 (2010). "An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court's ruling is based on an error of law or, when grounded in factual conclusions, is without evidentiary support." State v. Pittman , 373 S.C. 527, 570, 647 S.E.2d 144, 166-67 (2007).

LAW/ANALYSIS
I. Batson Challenges3

Weatherall argues the trial court failed to address the Batson challenge requirements for Juror 191. Weatherall further argues the trial court failed to reach the second step of the Batson analysis as to Juror 397 because it ruled as a matter of law that Batson does not extend to strikes based on sexual orientation. We disagree.

"The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the striking...

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3 cases
  • State v. Blake
    • United States
    • South Carolina Court of Appeals
    • January 17, 2024
    ... ... We find no abuse of discretion ...          "The ... trial court's findings regarding purposeful ... discrimination are accorded great deference and will be set ... aside on appeal only if clearly erroneous." State v ... Weatherall , 431 S.C. 485, 493, 848 S.E.2d 338, 343 (Ct ... App. 2020) (quoting State v. Blackwell , 420 S.C ... 127, 148, 801 S.E.2d 713, 724 (2017)). "This standard of ... review, however, is premised on the trial court following the ... mandated procedure for a Batson hearing." ... ...
  • Stroman v. Jeffords
    • United States
    • South Carolina Court of Appeals
    • August 2, 2023
    ...deference and will be set aside on appeal only if clearly erroneous." (quoting Blackwell, 420 S.C. at 148, 801 S.E.2d at 724)); id. at 494, 848 S.E.2d at 343 ("In order establish a prima facie case of discrimination, the challenging party must show (1) that the prospective juror was a membe......
  • State v. Burnside
    • United States
    • South Carolina Court of Appeals
    • May 17, 2023
    ... ... ("Whether a Batson[1] violation has occurred must ... be determined by examining the totality of the facts and ... circumstances in the record." (quoting State v ... Shuler, 344 S.C. 604, 615, 545 S.E.2d 805, 810 (2001))); ... State v. Weatherall, 431 S.C. 485, 493, 848 S.E.2d ... 338, 343 (Ct. App. 2020) ("The trial court's ... findings regarding purposeful discrimination are accorded ... great deference and will be set aside on appeal only if ... clearly erroneous." (quoting Blackwell, 420 ... S.C. at 148, ... ...
1 books & journal articles
  • The Scrivener
    • United States
    • South Carolina Bar South Carolina Lawyer No. 34-4-1, January 2023
    • Invalid date
    ...The two words are easily mixed up, but the South Carolina Court of Appeals got it right in the example above from State v. Weatherall, 431 S.C. 485, 495, 848 S.E.2d 338, 344 (Ct. App. 2020). * Principal/Principle (1) "Navy Federal Credit Union is a corporation. Its principal place of busine......

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