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State v. Palmer

Supreme Court of South Carolina

July 29, 2015

The State, Respondent/Petitioner,
Robert Palmer, Petitioner/Respondent. and the State, Petitioner/Respondent,
Julia Gorman, Respondent/Petitioner

Heard June 17, 2015.

Appeal from Horry County. Larry B. Hyman, Jr., Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2014-000954 and Appellate Case No. 2014-001008.

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

Appellate Defender Robert M. Pachak, of Columbia, for Respondent/Petitioner, Robert Palmer.

Appellate Defender Susan Barber Hackett, of Columbia, for Respondent/Petitioner, Julia Gorman.



Page 559



Petitioners Julia Gorman and Robert Palmer were tried jointly for the death of Gorman's seventeen month-old grandson (victim). Palmer and Gorman, who lived together but were not married, were each convicted of homicide by child abuse (homicide), aiding and abetting homicide by child abuse (aiding and abetting), and unlawful conduct towards a child (unlawful conduct). On direct appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed both Palmer's and Gorman's aiding and abetting convictions, and a majority affirmed both petitioners' homicide and unlawful conduct convictions. State v. Palmer, 408 S.C. 218, 758 S.E.2d 195 (Ct.App. 2014). Judge Pieper dissented, and would have reversed all of the petitioners' convictions on the ground " the State did not present any direct or circumstantial evidence to reasonably prove which codefendant harmed the child." We granted both petitioners' and the State's petitions for writs of certiorari to review the directed verdict issues.[1] We affirm the Court of Appeals' reversal of both aiding and abetting convictions, and affirm the decision to uphold the denial of Gorman's homicide and unlawful conduct directed verdict motions. We reverse the Court of Appeals' affirmance of Palmer's convictions for homicide and unlawful conduct finding he was entitled to a directed verdict on both charges.


The only contested issues here are the identity of the individual who harmed the victim and whether the other individual was aware of the abuse. Since this matter involves directed verdict questions, we begin with a review of the evidence in the light most favorable to the State. E.g. State v. Buckmon, 347 S.C. 316, 555 S.E.2d 402 (2001). In our review we rely solely on evidence from the State's case-in-chief in order to avoid any of the directed verdict issues that can arise when jointly tried codefendants blame each other in their defense cases. See State v. Hepburn, 406 S.C. 416, 753 S.E.2d 402 (2013) (waiver rule bars consideration of codefendant's testimony in reviewing denial of mid-trial directed verdict motion). Here, Gorman testified in her own defense and stated that Palmer was alone with the victim during the time when the fatal injury must have been inflicted. We do not rely on her trial testimony because it cannot be used against Palmer, and because no evidence adduced in the defense cases are necessary to a determination whether Gorman's directed verdict motions were properly denied.

Page 560

The evidence shows Gorman's eighteen year-old daughter Cesalee traveled by bus to South Carolina with her child, the victim, in late June 2008. Cesalee and her mother had a difficult relationship and had long been estranged. On July 2, Cesalee flew back to her home in Arizona, leaving the victim in the petitioners' care. While there was overwhelming evidence that Gorman agreed to keep the victim while Cesalee packed her family's belongings for a move to the East Coast, Gorman told several people after the victim's injuries that Cesalee had abandoned the victim to her.

On July 1, the victim was taken to the doctor's office by Cesalee and Gorman, suffering from ant bites and allergies. He was prescribed a cream for the bites and a liquid antihistamine (Xyzal) for his allergies. The prescribed dosage for the Xyzal, which has a sedative effect, was 0.5 teaspoon per day. An appointment was set for July 8 so that he could receive immunizations. On July 7, after Cesalee had returned to Arizona, Gorman took the victim to the emergency room reporting he was suffering from projectile vomiting. The victim was observed, given a Pedialyte popsicle, and released.

When Gorman brought the victim back to the family practitioner on July 8, the office was aware of the emergency room visit the night before. The family practitioner examined the victim, determined he had recovered from the bites, the allergies, and the nausea, and administered the vaccinations. She testified that she had examined the victim's head as part of the check-up and had no concerns, and also that while the victim was small for his age he was not malnourished. The doctor also testified she had no concerns about child abuse when she saw the victim in July.

Gorman repeatedly told medical personnel the victim was lethargic, and Palmer's statements also indicated the victim was not an energetic toddler. There was evidence from which a jury could find the victim's lethargy after July 1, when he was prescribed the sedating Xyzal, was attributable to Gorman's overdosing. At the emergency room visit on July 7, Gorman told medical personnel the victim was being given 1.5 teaspoons of Xyzal per day rather than the 0.5 teaspoons he had been prescribed. After the victim was fatally injured on July 14, Gorman told an emergency room (ER) nurse that the victim had been on Xyzal, and that she had been administering a dose of 2.5 teaspoons, five times the prescribed amount. In this statement, Gorman said the last dose had been given at 9:00 pm on July 11. On the other hand, while en route to the hospital on the 14th, Gorman told the EMT she had given the victim Xyzal on the 14th. The family doctor testified that when she saw the victim on July 8, he was no longer in need of this antihistamine.

On July 14, Gorman went to work, arriving at about 6:00 am, leaving Palmer alone with the sleeping victim. There was evidence that the victim was tired all day, and somewhat whiney. He ate breakfast and lunch, but according to Palmer, having been awakened at about 9:30 am, the victim did not fall asleep again until about 3-3:30 pm. Gorman arrived home around 4:00 pm. Gorman stated she went straight into the victim's room to check on him as she normally did when she first got home, and saw him sleeping soundly and breathing normally. Later she and Palmer checked on him from the doorway. Palmer agreed that they had checked on the sleeping victim from the doorway after Gorman arrived home, and that no one checked on him again until after they had eaten dinner around 6:00 pm. Both petitioners maintained that after dinner Gorman returned to the bedroom alone, and she told officers she found the victim " slack," making " really strange noises," and with saliva at his mouth. She picked him up, and brought him to Palmer. Palmer said the victim was limp but seizing intermittently, with his fists balled up. Gorman agreed the victim was fine until she alone checked on him around 6:00 pm.

Horry County Fire and Rescue were dispatched at 6:07 pm following a 9-1-1 call made by Gorman, and arrived at the home at 6:13 pm. When they arrived, Palmer was holding the victim who was actively seizing and whose " pretty grave" condition was immediately apparent. Petitioners told the responder the victim had not been sick and had been found in this condition during a nap. The responder started an I.V. and gave oxygen,

Page 561

noting the victim was making unusual breathing sounds. EMS paramedics took over at 6:20 pm when the first responder brought the victim to their ambulance as it arrived. The victim was still seizing and 'posturing,' an involuntary movement where the limbs extend and retract that only occurs in intracranial injury cases. He also exhibited a " right side gaze," with his eyes pointing towards the injured side of the brain. His ...

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