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State v. Blackwell

Supreme Court of South Carolina

May 31, 2017

The State, Respondent,
v.
Ricky Lee Blackwell, Appellant. Appellate No. 2014-000610

          Heard April 13, 2016

         Appeal from Spartanburg County Roger L. Couch, Circuit Court Judge

          Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek and Appellate Defender David Alexander, both of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, and Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Melody J. Brown, all of Columbia, and Solicitor Barry J. Barnette, of Spartanburg, for Respondent.

          Meliah Bowers Jefferson, of Wyche, P.A., of Greenville, for Amicus Curiae National Crime Victim Law Institute. Lindsey D. Jacobs and Patricia Revenhorst, both of Greenville, for Amicus Curiae South Carolina Victim Assistance Network.

          BEATTY CHIEF JUSTICE.

         This is a consolidated direct appeal and mandatory review from a sentence of death.[1] A jury convicted Ricky Lee Blackwell of kidnapping and killing eight-year-old Heather Brooke Center ("Brooke"), the daughter of his ex-wife's boyfriend, and recommended a sentence of death. Following sentencing, Blackwell appealed to this Court. In his appeal, Blackwell contends the trial court erred in: (1) finding him eligible for the death penalty despite evidence of mental retardation;[2] (2) failing to disqualify a juror for cause; (3) denying his Batson[3] challenge; (4) prohibiting him from cross-examining a State witness using privileged statements the witness made to a mental health counselor and declining to accept the proffer of the mental health records as an exhibit; (5) declining to admit notes of two hospital chaplains as evidence that he was remorseful; and (6) failing to correctly instruct the jury regarding a finding of mental retardation during the penalty phase of the trial. For reasons that will be discussed, we affirm Blackwell's convictions and sentence of death.

         I. Factual / Procedural History

         After twenty-six years of marriage, Blackwell's wife, Angela, entered into an adulterous relationship with Bobby Center in 2008. By all accounts, Blackwell was devastated when Angela left him. Following the breakup, Blackwell attempted suicide, suffered financial problems, and was forced to turn to his parents for support.

         According to Angela, on July 8, 2009, Blackwell came to her parents' house to discuss insurance matters. While there, Blackwell chastised her about not visiting their grandsons and urged her to go see them that day. Angela testified she was going to take Brooke swimming at Center's house that day and intended to pick up her grandsons to take them along. When she arrived at her daughter's home, she did not see her daughter's car. Assuming that her daughter was not home, Angela began to drive away. As she was leaving, Blackwell flagged her down and informed her that their daughter went to the store but that their son-in-law had the children. Angela testified she got out of the car to secure a dog in order that it would not bite Brooke. When Angela turned around, she saw that Blackwell had grabbed Brooke and was holding a gun to the child. Blackwell ignored Angela's pleas for him to release Brooke. Instead, Blackwell stated that Angela had "pushed this too far, " that she "did this, " and that she could let him know "what Bobby thinks of this." Blackwell then fatally shot Brooke. Following the shooting, Blackwell fled into the woods behind his daughter's home. When law enforcement surrounded him, Blackwell shot himself in the stomach and was taken to the hospital. While being transported to the hospital and waiting for treatment, Blackwell gave inculpatory statements to the law enforcement officers who questioned him.

         After a Spartanburg County grand jury indicted Blackwell for kidnapping and murder, the State served Blackwell with notice that it intended to seek the death penalty. Blackwell was evaluated, at the request of defense counsel, and deemed competent to stand trial. Approximately three years later, defense counsel claimed that Blackwell is mentally retarded and, thus, ineligible to receive the death penalty pursuant to Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).[4] As a result, the trial court conducted a hearing pursuant to Franklin v. Maynard, 356 S.C. 276, 588 S.E.2d 604 (2003).[5] The court ruled that Blackwell failed to prove he is mentally retarded and the case proceeded as a capital jury trial.

         The jury found Blackwell guilty of kidnapping and murder. At the conclusion of the penalty phase of the trial, the jury specifically found, via a special verdict form, that Blackwell is not mentally retarded. The jury recommended a sentence of death, finding the State proved the aggravating circumstances that the murder involved a child under the age of eleven and was committed while in the commission of kidnapping.[6] The trial court sentenced Blackwell to death for murder, noting the kidnapping sentence was subsumed into the sentence for murder.[7]

         Following the denial of his post-trial motions, Blackwell appealed his convictions and sentence to this Court.

         II. Standard of Review

         "In criminal cases, this Court sits to review errors of law only and is bound by factual findings of the trial court unless an abuse of discretion is shown." State v. Laney, 367 S.C. 639, 643, 627 S.E.2d 726, 729 (2006). An abuse of discretion occurs when the court's decision is unsupported by the evidence or controlled by an error of law. State v. Black, 400 S.C. 10, 16, 732 S.E.2d 880, 884 (2012).

         III. Discussion

         A. Pre-Trial Atkins Determination

         Blackwell argues the trial court erred in making the pre-trial determination that he was eligible for the death penalty given the evidence "conclusively demonstrated" that he is mentally retarded. Consequently, Blackwell maintains that by proceeding as a capital case and ultimately sentencing him to death, the trial court violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment[8] as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court ("USSC") in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) and adopted by this Court in Franklin v. Maynard, 356 S.C. 276, 588 S.E.2d 604 (2003).[9]

         After Blackwell's counsel advised the State and the trial court that he would assert that Blackwell is mentally retarded and, thus, exempt from the death penalty, the trial court held a pre-trial hearing pursuant to Franklin. During this hearing, the court heard testimony from three mental health experts: (1) Dr. Kimberly Harrison, a forensic psychologist with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health ("SCDMH") who was offered by the State, testified that she had evaluated Blackwell, deemed him competent to stand trial, and did not discern any evidence of mental retardation; (2) Dr. Ginger Calloway, a forensic psychologist who was offered by the defense, opined that Blackwell met the definition of "mental retardation" because he exhibited: sub-average intellectual ability based on his I.Q. scores; significant deficits in adaptive functioning such as communication, home living, social interaction, self-direction, and functional academics; and that these deficits existed prior to the age of eighteen; and (3) Dr. Gordon Brown, a forensic psychologist employed with the SCDMH who was offered by the State to rebut Dr. Calloway's opinion, opined that Blackwell did not meet the criteria for mental retardation.

         Following the hearing, the court considered the voluminous evidence that formed the basis of the experts' conclusions and reports, which included Blackwell's school records, I.Q. scores, employment records, medical and mental health records, records from Blackwell's immediate family, and interviews with several of Blackwell's family members and acquaintances.

         By written order, the trial court ruled that, while there were several factors that would "raise the possibility of mental retardation, " Blackwell had failed to prove by the preponderance of the evidence that he was ineligible to receive the death penalty. As will be discussed, we are unpersuaded by Blackwell's claim that the trial court committed reversible error in rendering the pre-trial Atkins determination.

         In Atkins, the USSC held the execution of a mentally retarded person is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which is applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Atkins, 536 U.S. at 321. However, the USSC in "Atkins 'did not provide definitive procedural or substantive guides for determining when a person who claims mental retardation' falls within the protection of the Eighth Amendment." Hall v. Florida, 134 S.Ct. 1986, 1998 (2014) (quoting Bobby v. Bies, 556 U.S. 825, 831 (2009)). Instead, the USSC left to the states "the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences." Atkins, 536 U.S. at 317 (quoting Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 405 (1986)).

         Our General Assembly has defined "mental retardation" to mean "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period." See S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-20(C)(b)(10) (2015). While this Court has strictly adhered to this statutory definition, it has recognized that the USSC in Atkins "relied on a clinical definition of intellectual disability which required not only sub-average intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills such as communication, self-care, and self-direction that manifested before age eighteen." State v. Stanko, 402 S.C. 252, 286, 741 S.E.2d 708, 726 (2013).

         Further, this Court has outlined the procedure for the determination of whether a defendant is mentally retarded under Atkins. Franklin v. Maynard, 356 S.C. 276, 588 S.E.2d 604 (2003). In Franklin we explained that:

the trial judge shall make the determination in a pre-trial hearing, if so requested by the defendant or the prosecution, after hearing evidence, including expert testimony, from both the defendant and the State. The defendant shall have the burden of proving he or she is mentally retarded by a preponderance of the evidence.
If the judge finds the defendant to be mentally retarded by a preponderance of the evidence in the pre-trial hearing, the defendant will not be eligible for the death penalty. If, however, the judge finds the defendant is not mentally retarded and the jury finds the defendant guilty of the capital charge, the defendant may still present mitigating evidence that he or she had mental retardation at the time of the crime. See S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-20(C)(b)(10) (2003). If the jury finds this mitigating circumstance, then a death sentence will not be imposed.

Franklin, 356 S.C. at 279, 588 S.E.2d at 606 (footnote and citations omitted); see State v. Laney, 367 S.C. 639, 649, 627 S.E.2d 726, 732 (2006) (concluding that "mental retardation is a threshold issue, decided by the trial judge as a matter of law in a pre-trial hearing, that determines whether a defendant is eligible for capital punishment at all").

         Although this Court has established the procedural guidelines for a pre-trial Atkins determination, it has never expressly enunciated the appellate standard of review. We conclude, as have other jurisdictions, that a pre-trial Atkins determination is analogous to a preliminary finding of whether a defendant is competent to stand trial and, thus, should be reviewed under the same appellate standard. See State v. Maestas, 316 P.3d 724 (Kan. 2014) (concluding that preliminary finding that there is "reason to believe" the defendant is mentally retarded is comparable to the preliminary "reason to believe" finding of whether a defendant is competent to stand trial and determining that the same appellate standard of review should apply to both initial determinations); see also Franklin, 356 S.C. at 279, 588 S.E.2d at 606 (comparing defendant's burden of proving that he or she is mentally retarded with defendant's burden of proving incompetence by a preponderance of the evidence).

         As a result, we hold that a trial judge's ruling regarding an Atkins determination will be upheld on appeal if supported by the evidence and not against its preponderance. Cf. State v. Weik, 356 S.C. 76, 81, 587 S.E.2d 683, 685 (2002) ("The defendant bears the burden of proving his lack of competence [to stand trial] by a preponderance of the evidence, and the trial judge's ruling will be upheld on appeal if supported by the evidence and not against its preponderance."); see State v. Strode, 232 S.W.3d 1, 8 (Tenn. 2007) ("When an accused is afforded an evidentiary hearing on the merits of a motion [to determine whether the defendant was mentally retarded at the time of the offense] in the trial court, the findings of fact made by that court are binding upon the appellate court unless the evidence contained in the record preponderates against those findings.").

         Employing this standard of review, we now analyze the trial court's Atkins determination. Although Blackwell suggests the trial court committed an error of law in reaching its conclusion, he fails to identify any specific error. Instead, he expresses his disagreement with the trial court's credibility determinations and the weight afforded to the experts' opinions and then appears to argue that these decisions equate to errors of law. Because the trial court is the sole judge of the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony, we must defer to the court's determinations. See State v. Kelly, 331 S.C. 132, 149, 502 S.E.2d 99, 108 (1998) (recognizing, in reviewing a trial judge's determination of a defendant's competency to stand trial, that the judge is the sole judge of the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony and is entitled to evaluate conflicting testimony).

         Further, as we discern no legal error, [10] we believe Blackwell merely seeks for this Court to re-evaluate the testimony and evidence presented during the pre-trial Atkins proceedings. Under this Court's highly deferential standard of review, we find the trial court correctly determined that Blackwell failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he is mentally retarded and, thus, ineligible to receive the death penalty.

         Initially, we note the trial court correctly identified and made its determination applying the statutory definition of "mental retardation." Moreover, contrary to Blackwell's claim, the trial court did not base its decision solely on the fact that Blackwell was able to successfully obtain a commercial driver's license and be employed as a truck driver. The court relied on other factors, including Blackwell's school performance and full employment history. Additionally, the court explained why it gave greater weight to Dr. Brown's report, noting that the report was directed at an evaluation of Blackwell's "formative years" and was consistent with the "functional adaptions" required by the statutory definition of "mental retardation." The court also discounted some of Dr. Calloway's findings as it questioned whether "adequate information" was used and believed Dr. Calloway improperly "made subjective determinations concerning the results obtained and weighted responses of various informants differently."

         We also find the trial court's factual determinations are supported by evidence in the record. Admittedly, it is concerning that Blackwell, at 54 years old, scored 63 and 68 on the I.Q. tests given in preparation of the Atkins hearing. However, in terms of "significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, " the trial court readily acknowledged the recent I.Q. scores but was persuaded by evidence that: (1) Blackwell, prior to the age of 18, scored between 68 and 87 on standard school I.Q. tests; (2) Blackwell made "reasonably sufficient grades during his school career"; (3) at the age of 18, Blackwell was found to read at the 5.8 grade level, completed arithmetic problem solving at the 6.6 level, and completed arithmetic computation at the 5.2 level; and (4) Blackwell dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade despite having earned significant credits toward graduation.

         The court also recognized that Blackwell's recent I.Q. scores may have been caused by events in his adult life that adversely affected his current cognitive ability. For example, the court accurately referenced the fact that Blackwell received chemotherapy for Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 1986, had an accident in 2003 or 2004 while riding a four wheeler which rendered him unconscious for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, had several major depressive episodes that resulted in involuntary commitments in 1990 and 2008, and was taking Thorazine, an anti-psychotic medication, at the time of his Atkins evaluation.

         With respect to Blackwell's adaptive behavior, the court found "no evidence that he was unable to function at his home during the time before his eighteenth birthday." Although the court acknowledged evidence that Blackwell had difficulty living independently after the dissolution of his marriage, the court declined to find this translated into deficits in Blackwell's adaptive behavior. Rather, the court accepted the testimony of Dr. Calloway that Blackwell's major depressive episodes after the separation were the cause of Blackwell's inability to function normally. The court also found that Blackwell adapted to life well as he was able to achieve his goal of becoming a commercial truck driver, maintain employment with consistent increases in his earnings, and raise two children during his twenty-six-year marriage.[11] Additionally, the court found significant the fact that Blackwell was never diagnosed with mental retardation until the Atkins issue was raised and also noted that Dr. Harrison, who evaluated Blackwell as to his competency to stand trial, reported no finding of mental retardation.

         After thoroughly reviewing the record, we conclude Blackwell has not shown the trial court committed an error of law or that its decision is unsupported by the evidence or against its preponderance. Accordingly, we find the case properly proceeded as a capital trial.[12]

         B. Jury Selection

         With respect to jury selection, Blackwell contends the trial court erred in qualifying a juror and denying his Batson challenge to the State striking two African-American male jurors.

         1. Capital Juror Qualification

         Blackwell asserts the trial court erred in qualifying Juror 43. Based on Juror 43's responses during voir dire, Blackwell claims the juror was opposed to considering all categories of mitigating evidence, particularly a defendant's background, and mistakenly believed the defense had the burden of proving Blackwell deserved a life sentence rather than the death penalty.

         In reviewing an error as to the qualification of a juror, this Court engages in a three-step analysis. State v. Green, 301 S.C. 347, 352, 392 S.E.2d 157, 159 (1990). First, an appellant must show that he exhausted all of his peremptory challenges. Id. Second, if all peremptory challenges were used, this Court must determine if the juror was erroneously qualified. Id. at 352, 392 S.E.2d at 160. Third, if the juror was erroneously qualified, an appellant must demonstrate this error deprived him of a fair trial. Id.

         "A prospective juror may be excluded for cause when his or her views on capital punishment would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath." State v. Woods, 382 S.C. 153, 159, 676 S.E.2d 128, 131 (2009); S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-20(E) (2015) (providing that a juror may not be excused in a death penalty case unless the juror's beliefs or attitudes against capital punishment would render the juror unable to return a verdict according to law).

         "When reviewing the trial court's qualification or disqualification of prospective jurors, the responses of the challenged juror must be examined in light of the entire voir dire." Woods, 382 S.C. at 159, 676 S.E.2d at 131. "The determination whether a juror is qualified to serve in a capital case is within the sole discretion of the trial judge and is not reversible on appeal unless wholly unsupported by the evidence." Id.

         After reviewing the entire voir dire and giving due deference to the trial court, we find Juror 43's responses do not demonstrate that she was unable to render a verdict according to law.[13] During voir dire, Juror 43 repeatedly acknowledged that the State always had the burden of proof in a criminal case. In terms of sentencing, she characterized herself as the type of juror who would decide between a sentence of death or life imprisonment after considering the aggravating and mitigating factors.

         Though she did express her concern that "something needs to be done" about repeat offenders, she recognized the finality of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and that it could be an appropriate punishment. Further, even though she seemed to minimize a defendant's difficult background as a mitigating factor, stating "I know everybody's life is hard, " she later clarified that in determining a sentence "you have to hear everything and work it out."

         Additionally, although Juror 43's initial responses to defense counsel appear to indicate her belief that the defense had to prove why a life sentence was the appropriate penalty, she later expressed her understanding that "the defendant never has a burden of proof." Finally, as noted during the trial court's ruling, at the time Juror 43 gave her responses she had not been instructed by the court as to the correct burden of proof.

         Because Juror 43 repeatedly affirmed that she would listen to and apply the law as instructed by the trial court, we conclude that certain questionable responses during voir dire did not disqualify her from service on a capital case or deny Blackwell a fair trial. Accordingly, we find the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Blackwell's motion to excuse Juror 43 for cause. See State v. Stanko, 402 S.C. 252, 276, 741 S.E.2d 708, 720 (2013) (holding trial judge did not err in qualifying juror in capital case, despite the juror's responses that she would always vote for the death penalty when murder and an aggravating circumstance were proven beyond a reasonable doubt, where the overall balance of her answers "demonstrate[d] an ability and willingness to be impartial and carry out the law as explained to her").

         2. Batson Challenge

         Blackwell argues the trial court erred in denying his Batson challenge to the State striking two African-American male jurors, Juror 45 and Juror 79. Specifically, Blackwell claims the State failed to present racially neutral reasons for striking these jurors given the State did not strike similarly situated Caucasian jurors, who also had criminal records and expressed "pro-life" sentiments during voir dire.

         "The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the striking of a venire person on the basis of race or gender." State v. Shuler, 344 S.C. 604, 615, 545 S.E.2d 805, 810 (2001) (citing Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986)).

         "The United States Supreme Court has set forth a three-step inquiry for evaluating whether a party executed a peremptory challenge in a manner which violated the Equal Protection Clause." State v. Inman, 409 S.C. 19, 26, 760 S.E.2d 105, 108 (2014). In Giles, this Court outlined the steps as follows:

First, the opponent of the peremptory challenge must make a prima facie showing that the challenge was based on race. If a sufficient showing is made, the trial court will move to the second step in the process, which requires the proponent of the challenge to provide a race neutral explanation for the challenge. If the trial court finds that burden has been met, the process will proceed to the third step, at which point the trial court must determine whether the opponent of the challenge has proved purposeful discrimination. The ultimate burden always rests with the opponent of the challenge to prove purposeful discrimination.

State v. Giles, 407 S.C. 14, 18, 754 S.E.2d 261, 263 (2014) (internal citations omitted). "Step two of the analysis is perhaps the easiest step to meet as it does not require that the race-neutral explanation be persuasive, or even plausible." Inman, 409 S.C. at 26, 760 S.E.2d at 108. As explained in Giles:

in order for the explanation provided by the proponent of a peremptory challenge at the second stage of the Batson process to be legally sufficient and not deny the opponent of the challenge, as well as the trial court, the ability to safeguard the right to equal protection, it need not be persuasive, or even plausible, but it must be clear and reasonably specific such that the opponent of the challenge has a full and fair opportunity to demonstrate pretext in the reason given and the trial court to fulfill its duty to assess the plausibility of the reason in light of the evidence bearing on it.

Giles, 407 S.C. at 21-22, 754 S.E.2d at 265.

         "In contrast, step three of the analysis requires the court to carefully evaluate whether the [opponent of the peremptory challenge] has proven racial discrimination by demonstrating that the proffered race-neutral reasons are mere pretext for discriminatory intent." Inman, 409 S.C. at 27, 760 S.E.2d at 108. "During step three, [the opponent of the peremptory challenge] should point to direct evidence of racial discrimination, such as showing that the [proponent of the peremptory challenge] struck a juror for a facially neutral reason but did not strike a similarly-situated juror of another race." Id. at 27, 760 S.E.2d at 108-09. "In doing so, the party proves that the 'original reason was pretext because it was not applied in a neutral manner.'" Id. at 27, 760 S.E.2d at 109 (quoting State v. Oglesby, 298 S.C. 279, 281, 379 S.E.2d 891, 892 (1989)).

         "Whether a Batson violation has occurred must be determined by examining the totality of the facts and circumstances in the record." Shuler, 344 S.C. at 615, 545 S.E.2d at 810. "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. Haigler, 334 S.C. 623, 630, 515 S.E.2d 88, 91 (1999).

         After the jury was selected, Blackwell made a Batson motion challenging the State's use of peremptory challenges to remove three African-American males from the jury. The jurors that were struck were Juror 45, Juror 79, and Alternate Juror 147.

         The State explained that it struck: (1) Juror 45 because he "seemed very pro-life" and had a conviction for criminal domestic violence; (2) Juror 79 because "we felt that he'd be a pro-life juror" and had a criminal record; and (3) Alternate Juror 147 because he gave the impression that he would be a "pro-life juror" and he expressed that he was afraid that something would happen to his family as a result of the death penalty case.

         In response, Blackwell claimed the State's reasons were pretextual and then listed five Caucasian jurors he believed were similarly situated to those struck by the State. However, on appeal, Blackwell limits his challenge to Juror 45 and Juror 79 in comparison with four Caucasian jurors: (1) Juror 70, (2) Juror 154, (3) Juror 188, and (4) Juror 266.

         As noted by the State, the primary reasons for striking Juror 45 and Juror 79 were that these individuals had criminal records[14] and appeared, based on their voir dire responses, to be predisposed to voting for a life sentence. In contrast, of the four jurors identified by Blackwell, only Juror 70 had a criminal record as he had been convicted of criminal domestic violence. Juror 154 had no criminal record as prior charges had been dismissed, Juror 188 had minor pending charges subject to Pre-Trial Intervention, and Juror 266 had no criminal record. Thus, strictly based on this comparison, the only juror that possibly could be deemed similarly situated would have been Juror 70.

         However, Juror 70 was not similarly situated to Juror 45 and Juror 79 given his voir dire responses revealed meaningful distinctions. See State v. Scott, 406 S.C. 108, 115, 749 S.E.2d 160, 164 (Ct. App. 2013) ("[I]n determining whether potential jurors are similarly situated, our courts have focused their inquiry on whether there are meaningful distinctions between the individuals compared." (citation omitted)).

         During his questioning, Juror 45 expressed his disapproval of the criminal justice system and the death penalty. Notably, the State voiced concern over Juror 45's qualification even at that point. Juror 79 also gave the impression that he would not be comfortable voting for a death sentence, stating "I was just thinking about it, . . . that's a lot to have on you . . . dawning on you that you somewhat participated in someone's death." As the State claimed, these responses revealed Jurors 45 and 79 were inclined to vote for a sentence of life imprisonment even before hearing the evidence of the case.

         In comparison, Juror 70 gave responses that appeared sentence neutral. For example, the juror talked about mercy, implying he could vote for a life sentence, but also indicated he was open to voting for a death sentence if the circumstances warranted. Therefore, while Juror 70 had a criminal record like the two African-American jurors struck by the State, he was not similarly situated to these jurors. We find Juror 70's responses distinguished him from Jurors 45 and 79, thus, negating Blackwell's claim that the State's reasons for striking these jurors were pretextual.[15]Accordingly, in view of all of these factors, we find the trial court correctly determined that Blackwell failed to prove a Batson violation.

         C. Right to Cross-Examine State Witness with Privileged Mental Health Records

         During the guilt and penalty phases, Blackwell sought to impeach his ex-wife, Angela, with statements she made after the murder during counselling sessions with a licensed mental health counselor. Blackwell claimed the statements in the mental health records revealed that Angela was "biased" and "motivated to misrepresent" what actually happened at the time of the murder. The trial court denied Blackwell's request, finding Angela had not waived her statutory privilege to release the ...


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