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State v. Collins

Supreme Court of South Carolina

August 20, 2014

The State, Petitioner,
v.
Bentley Collins, Respondent

Heard April 15, 2014.

Page 23

Appellate Case No. 2012-211266. Appeal From Dillon County. The Honorable Paul M. Burch, Circuit Court Judge.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson and Assistant Attorney General William M. Blitch, Jr., both of Columbia, for Petitioner.

Appellate Defender Susan Barber Hackett, of Columbia, for Respondent.

JUSTICE BEATTY. TOAL, C.J., concurs. KITTREDGE, J., concurring in a separate opinion in which HEARN, J., concurs. PLEICONES, J., dissenting in a separate opinion.

OPINION

Page 24

[409 S.C. 528] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

BEATTY, JUSTICE:

Respondent Bentley Collins was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of owning a dangerous animal causing injury to a person after a ten-year-old boy was killed and partially eaten by his dogs, most of whom were pitbull mixes. The State appeals from a decision of the Court of Appeals tat reversed and remanded the matter for a new trial based solely on the trial court's admission of seven pre-autopsy photos of the victim. State v. Collins, 398 S.C. 197, 727 S.E.2d 751 (Ct. App. 2012). We reverse.

I. FACTS

On November 3, 2006, the mother of the victim returned to her home in Dillon County around 7:00 p.m. and discovered that her ten-year-old son had not come home for dinner at 5:30 p.m. as expected. She checked with her aunt, who resided with her, and then began looking around the neighborhood. She called the police when she could not find her son. The police arrived and the mother rode with them as they scoured the neighborhood. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., they discovered the boy's body on the ground in Collins's yard, with a group of dogs nearby. The mother poignantly recalled that her son " was tore to pieces. Pieces."

The mother and the police tried to get to the boy, but the dogs ran at them each time they approached his body. Agents from SLED arrived, and they could not process the crime scene until animal control employees arrived to capture and remove the dogs from the scene.

Neither Collins nor any of his family members were at home. Collins had six dogs on the premises, all of which were unrestrained. Collins had no fence or dog pens, and neighbors reported that he never kept his dogs on leashes or chains. Most of the dogs appeared to be pitbull mixes. The three largest dogs weighed 47 pounds, 44 pounds, and 36 pounds, respectively, and they ranged in age from about one to two years old. Several of the dogs had bite wounds on their shoulders, which was indicative of dog fighting. One of the female dogs captured was determined to be in heat.

Page 25

An autopsy of the victim revealed the boy died of extensive traumatic injury secondary to being severely mauled by dogs. [409 S.C. 529] According to the forensic pathologist, Edward Proctor, the boy suffered a " tremendous number" of bite marks on his legs and had " extensive" loss of skin and soft tissue on his upper body and his face, including his ears and nose, which were " completely eaten away" by the dogs. Areas of the boy's chest and his arm had also been eaten, exposing the bone. The boy's jugular vein on the left side was torn in half, causing significant blood loss leading to his death. The pathologist determined the boy " would have been alive until the injuries to the neck that transected the blood vessel in the neck allowing him to bleed enough until he either became unconscious or expired."

Two boys who lived in the neighborhood, " J" and " B," gave statements to the police the day after the incident. They were in J's yard at around sunset on November 3, 2006 when they heard growling and barking nearby. J had been looking for his puppy, so they went to investigate and saw three of Collins's dogs eating something on the ground that appeared to be " a bloody piece of meat." As J walked to within about ten feet of the " meat," another dog that they had not seen ran out and jumped on J, knocking him to the ground. J shoved that dog away, but another one then came after him. One of the larger dogs bit J " behind [his] neck," so the boys left immediately.

Collins was indicted for involuntary manslaughter and three counts of owning a dangerous animal [1] and allowing it to be unconfined, resulting in the mauling death of the victim. A jury convicted Collins of all charges. Collins appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed and remanded for a new trial based solely on the admission of seven photographs that were taken by the pathologist to document the victim's injuries prior to performing the autopsy. This Court granted the State's petition for a writ of certiorari.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

" In criminal cases, the appellate court sits to review errors of law only." State v. Baccus, 367 S.C. 41, 48, [409 S.C. 530] 625 S.E.2d 216, 220 (2006). " This Court is bound by the trial court's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous." Id. " The admission or exclusion of evidence is a matter addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court and its ruling will not be disturbed in the absence of a manifest abuse of discretion accompanied by probable prejudice." State v. Wise, 359 S.C. 14, 21, 596 S.E.2d 475, 478 (2004). " An abuse of discretion occurs when the conclusions of the trial court either lack evidentiary support or are controlled by an error of law." Id.

III. LAW/ANALYSIS

On appeal, the State contends the challenged photos, taken before the autopsy was commenced, accurately documented the injuries sustained by the victim in this case and, while graphic, were properly admitted in accordance with the trial court's broad discretion over evidentiary matters. The State argues the Court of Appeals (1) failed to give due deference to the trial court's decision, (2) erred in finding the photos were more prejudicial than probative, (3) erred in finding the photos were not material to the elements of the offenses ...


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