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State v. Sams

Supreme Court of South Carolina

September 24, 2014

The State, Respondent,
v.
Desmond J. Sams, Petitioner

Heard: October 2, 2013.

Appeal From Colleton County. Appellate Case No. 2011-195886. The Honorable Perry M. Buckner, Circuit Court Judge.

Tristan M. Shaffer, of Myrtle Beach, and Appellate Defender Susan Barber Hackett, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Mark Reynolds Farthing, both of Columbia, for Respondent.

JUSTICE BEATTY. TOAL, C.J., KITTREDGE and HEARN, JJ., concur. PLEICONES, J., dissenting in a separate opinion.

OPINION

Page 512

[410 S.C. 306] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

BEATTY, JUSTICE.

Desmond J. Sams was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after he strangled the victim, Jake Frazier, during an altercation. Sams appealed, arguing the circuit court erred in denying his request to instruct the jury on involuntary manslaughter. The Court of Appeals affirmed. State v. Sams, Op. No. 2011-UP-205, (S.C. Ct. App. filed May 4, 2011). This Court granted Sams's petition for a writ of certiorari. We affirm.

I. FACTS

In the early morning hours of April 12, 2008, Sams and Lisa Strickland, along with Frazier and Stephanie Ballard, were all drinking at Strickland's residence in Walterboro when a dispute suddenly occurred between Sams and Frazier.[1] During the ensuing struggle, Sams managed to get on top of Frazier, who was lying face down on the floor. Sams locked his arm around Frazier's neck while lying on top of him. According to Ballard and Strickland, Frazier repeatedly stated that he could not breathe and he asked Sams to let him go. Frazier also told Sams that he had children. Sams, however, refused to release Frazier, so Ballard and Strickland tried unsuccessfully to get Sams to release his chokehold. Sams allegedly struck Ballard several times when she tried to separate the two men. Around 4:36 a.m., Strickland made the last of several calls to 911 to report the fight and to request police assistance.

Steve Dunn, a supervisor at the Colleton County Sheriff's Department, was dispatched at 4:38 a.m., and he arrived at the scene around 4:46 a.m., some ten minutes after the last call for help was made. He was met on the porch by Strickland, who told the officer, " They're in here," and led him to a bedroom on the right side of the trailer. The officer observed two men lying face down on the floor, one on top of the other. According to the officer, he drew his taser and ordered the man on [410 S.C. 307] top, Sams, to " Get off of him." However,

Page 513

Sams did not release his grip on Frazier, who was not moving. The officer ordered Sams to get up a second time, and Sams responded, " No, he'll want to fight." The officer then ordered Sams a third time to get up.

At that point, Sams released Frazier and stood up. When Sams got up, the officer observed Sams's " arms [had been] wrapped around the neck area of the victim" in an " arm lock." Frazier was unresponsive and remained face down on the floor. The officer handcuffed Sams and asked Strickland and Ballard to pull Frazier away from the wall and to roll him over on his back.

The officer noticed Frazier " was not breathing" and that he " had a blue cast to his skin." The officer noted Frazier had shown no signs of life and had never made any movements.

Dr. Susan Presnell, a forensic pathologist, performed an autopsy and found Frazier had a number of bruises and scratches in his neck area. She also observed that he had bruises in the underlying muscles of his neck, as well as a number of petechiae, or hemorrhages, in the lining of his eye and around the lining of his eyelid, all of which were indicative of strangulation. Dr. Presnell determined Frazier's cause of death to be asphyxiation, or lack of oxygen, due to strangulation.

Sams was indicted for murder for the choking death of Frazier. At trial, the circuit court instructed the jury on murder, the lesser-included offense of voluntary manslaughter, and self-defense. The circuit court declined Sams's request to charge involuntary manslaughter. The jury found Sams guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

Sams appealed, arguing the circuit court erred in denying his request to charge the jury on involuntary manslaughter. The Court of Appeals affirmed. This Court ...


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