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State v. Bratschi

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

July 15, 2015

The State, Respondent,
v.
Brenda Bratschi, Appellant

Heard February 3, 2015.

Appeal From Florence County. D. Craig Brown, Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2012-211980.

Appellate Defender David Alexander, of Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, and Assistant Attorney General Kaycie Smith Timmons, all of Columbia, and Solicitor Edgar Lewis Clements, III, of Florence, for Respondent.

KONDUROS, J. THOMAS and GEATHERS, JJ., concur.

OPINION

KONDUROS, J.

Brenda Bratschi appeals her convictions of murder and burying a body without notice, arguing the trial court erred in failing to grant her a directed verdict. She also contends the trial court erred in admitting a 911 call into evidence. We affirm.

FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On October 21, 2004, Investigator Michael Rhodes responded to a domestic violence call.[1] While he was on the way to the scene, he was redirected to the Coward Police Department, where one of the callers, Brenda, was located. Brenda told Investigator Rhodes she and her husband, Randy Bratschi, were at their home walking to their car to go to a credit union in Coward. According to Brenda, when she looked behind her, she saw Randy approaching her with a garden hoe in his hand. She stated he struck her on the hand and she grabbed a wooden tire thumper[2] and began hitting him to get him away from her. Brenda had a small laceration on her thumb.

Investigator Rhodes then went to the Lake City emergency room, where Randy was being attended to after authorities responded to his trailer because of his 911 call. Randy's face was swollen and had lacerations on it. He also had bruising on his chest, a skull fracture, and other injuries to his head. Dr. Ernest Atkinson treated Randy at the hospital, where he stayed for several days. Dr. Atkinson described the injuries as " pretty severe" but not life threatening. He stated that if one of the blows had been to the back of Randy's head instead of the front or side, it could have killed him.

Investigator Paul Byrd with the Florence County Sheriff Office's crime scene unit investigated the Bratschis' home and yard. He collected six guns and multiple boxes of ammunition from the home as well as another gun from Randy's boat. Investigator Kathleen Streett also investigated Randy and Brenda's altercation. Randy admitted to wielding a garden hoe but claimed he was only trying to get away from Brenda. At the time of the incident, Randy's bank account was overdrawn due to withdrawals by Brenda. Investigator Streett believed Randy was " terrified" of Brenda. Randy obtained a restraining order against Brenda from the family court because of the altercation. Investigator Streett charged Brenda with assault and battery with intent to kill.[3] After the protection order hearing, Randy visited Brenda to retrieve his black Isuzu Rodeo he previously had allowed her to drive.

Kathy Merrill and her husband, Russell Merrill, were longtime friends with Randy. They became friends with Brenda a few years before the altercation when Brenda and Randy began dating. Kathy testified Randy and another friend, Susan Hill, began dating after Randy and Brenda's altercation. Kathy also stated that sometime after the altercation Brenda told her she had hired a private investigator who took pictures of Randy and Susan. Kathy further testified Randy previously had a gun stolen from his home.

Susan testified she and Randy began dating after his altercation with Brenda. She indicated that after she and Randy began dating, she returned to her house one time and found a light on, a door ajar, and her inside dog outside; she had left the doors locked and the light off. Kathy and Susan both testified that shortly after the incident, they went to Randy's trailer to clean it for him. They found the door locked even though Randy left it unlocked for them.

On November 26, 2004, the Friday after Thanksgiving, Randy had plans to go to a turkey shoot with friends. He clocked out of work just before 7:00 a.m. that day. When his friends arrived at his home to pick him up, he did not answer the door. Randy's Isuzu Rodeo was there; however, Randy's truck and boat were not.[4] Randy's dog was inside the trailer. A makeshift alarm system Randy set up after the incident with Brenda was not set. The following day, Randy did not come to Russell's house for oysters like they had planned. Randy was scheduled to work special shifts on Saturday and Sunday but did not report to work. Brenda and Susan both called Russell's home looking for Randy that weekend. Russell contacted the police on Sunday about Randy. Brenda also contacted police to report him missing.

The police searched Randy's property and trailer. They found Randy's blood glucose meter at the home, which was last used on Thanksgiving at 5:47 p.m., before he went to work. They did not find anything under his trailer. The police used cadaver dogs, which did not discover anything. Several witnesses saw a dark Isuzu Rodeo at a public boat landing on the Pee Dee River in Pamplico[5] over Thanksgiving weekend, beginning on Friday afternoon, and thought it looked like it had not moved. Officer Robbie Stone testified he ran the tag on the vehicle at the landing on Saturday night at 8:03 p.m. but it did not come back as stolen. Donald Huggins of the Florence County Sheriff's Office testified someone stopped by his farm on Sunday afternoon and told him a suspicious looking black SUV was at the landing. He called into the Sheriff's Office to have someone check the vehicle. Investigator Rhodes testified he observed a black vehicle at the landing on Sunday at 5:00 p.m. and ran the tags. Investigator Alvin Powell testified he observed a small dark SUV at the landing on the Monday following Thanksgiving and ran the tags but it was not stolen.

On the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Investigator Streett entered the Isuzu into the National Crime Information Computer (NCIC) as belonging to a missing person. On December 1, 2004, the Wednesday following Thanksgiving, Deputy Brad Bazen ran the plates on the Isuzu through NCIC, and it indicated the car belonged to a missing person, Randy. An envelope containing $900 in $100 denominations was found in the driver's seat during a search of the vehicle. Small spots of Brenda's blood were found on the steering wheel, steering wheel column, dashboard, and gearshift of the Isuzu. The blood spots were later determined to be several days to one week old. No usable fingerprints were found inside of the vehicle, and a body did not appear to have been transported in the back of the vehicle. The car did not appear to have been hotwired. Police searched the area around the vehicle and the river but found nothing.

Jerome Eaddy lived near the boat landing. The Friday after Thanksgiving, he returned home after work sometime after 11:00 p.m. He observed someone walking alongside the road. The person went to his neighbor's house and then came to his house. Eaddy later identified the person as Brenda. Brenda told him she needed a ride home. Eaddy and his mother gave Brenda a ride to Coward. They dropped her off at a trailer home development near Randy's trailer. Eaddy was not certain which night around Thanksgiving he gave Brenda a ride. Eaddy did not believe Brenda was nervous, angry, crying, or bleeding and thought she seemed calm. The police later searched parts of Brenda's family farm because it was near where Eaddy took her but only found a rectangular hole recently dug near a deer stand, which was about a quarter of a mile from Randy's home. Investigator Hanna believed the hole resembled a grave.

William Rauch, a friend of Brenda and Randy, saw Brenda leaving Randy's property during daylight hours on either the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving. He stated Brenda was driving her car, which was " a little brown tannish car." Another friend of Randy, Edward Jeffcoat, testified he visited Randy to get lifejackets from him on the morning of Thanksgiving or the next day.

Brenda did not move back into Randy's home[6] once the protection order expired. On July 16, 2009, after Marty McDonald had purchased Randy's property at a tax sale, he was having the trailer removed from the land. McDonald noticed something under the trailer he initially thought was a gourd. After looking closer, he determined it was a human skull. McDonald contacted the police, who recovered skeletal remains, clothing, and a pair of boots. The body was found inside a blue tarp buried in a shallow grave that varied in depth from eight to eighteen inches deep. DNA testing concluded the skeleton was Randy. The Florence County Sheriff's Office, crime scene investigators, and a forensic anthropologist were all unable to make a determination as to how, when, or where Randy had died.

Brenda was arrested on December 7, 2009, for Randy's murder. In June 2010, a grand jury indicted Brenda for murder and burying a body without notice.[7] During trial, the State introduced the 911 calls. Brenda objected to Randy's call being played, arguing it violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment and was unfairly prejudicial under Rule 403, SCRE.[8] The trial court overruled the ...


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