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State v. Westmoreland

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

July 12, 2017

The State, Respondent,
v.
Sandy Lynn Westmoreland, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2014-002636

          Heard April 12, 2017

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

          Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Assistant Attorney General Caroline M. Scrantom, all of Columbia, and Solicitor Barry Joe Barnette, of Spartanburg, for Respondent.

          THOMAS, J.

         Appellant Sandy Lynn Westmoreland appeals his convictions for murder and hit and run involving a death. He argues the trial court erred by allowing the coroner to testify as a lay witness that the cause of the victim's death was a homicide and instructing the jury that voluntary intoxication was not a defense. We affirm Appellant's conviction for hit and run and reverse his murder conviction.

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A grand jury indicted Appellant in October 2012 for murder and hit and run involving a death. The indictments alleged Appellant purposefully hit Michael Daniels (Victim) with his vehicle and failed to remain at the scene to give information or render aid. The murder indictment claimed Victim died due to his injuries. The solicitor called Appellant's case to trial in December 2014.

         Travis Haney testified he was a security guard at Mary Black Hospital and was on duty on March 14, 2012. Haney testified he was walking down a hallway when Victim "stumbled" out of a room crying and with a bloody nose. Haney asserted Appellant was inside the room. Haney testified he contacted the sheriff's office per hospital policy. According to Haney, Victim did not want to press charges against Appellant but wanted to gather his things and leave. Haney asserted he and a deputy walked Appellant to his automobile following his discharge from the hospital and watched him drive away alone.

         Deputy Jeffery Valentine testified he responded to a report of Appellant assaulting Victim inside the hospital. Valentine's testimony was consistent with Haney's testimony. Additionally, Valentine testified that when he and Haney escorted Appellant to his vehicle after the initial altercation, Appellant noticed Victim had forcibly entered Appellant's vehicle and absconded with some of Victim's possessions. Valentine claimed Appellant became "pretty upset" when Valentine declined to charge Victim with breaking into the vehicle. The following morning, someone discovered Victim dead in the bushes in the hospital parking lot.

         The trial court qualified Dr. John Wren as an expert in pathology. Wren testified Victim died almost immediately due to a "vehicle versus pedestrian encounter." Wren asserted Victim was standing and facing away from the vehicle at the time of the collision.

         Jason Bryant testified he was a sergeant and supervisor in the violent crime division and he went to Appellant's house shortly after the incident to question him. According to Bryant, during his initial conversation with Appellant, Appellant claimed he left the hospital without incident and hit a deer on his way home from the hospital. However, Bryant testified that, after he discussed "discrepancies" with Appellant, he admitted he hit Victim with his vehicle when leaving the hospital. Appellant explained to Bryant he did not "drive well at night" and attempted to pull the vehicle over to allow Victim to get inside when he accidently hit him with the vehicle. According to Bryant, Appellant claimed he stopped and checked on Victim but, after realizing Victim was not breathing, became scared and left the scene.

         Michael Duncan testified he was a trooper for the highway patrol and was a member of the Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT). He asserted the MAIT's primary job was reconstructing traffic incidents, and the trial court qualified Duncan as an expert in "accident reconstruction." Duncan claimed he responded to the scene of Victim's death and performed an investigation. Duncan asserted he found "tire tracks going off into the grass at a sharp angle" and there were no "skid marks" leading to where the tire tracks entered the grass. Duncan concluded the vehicle did not attempt to stop based on his observation that there were "acceleration marks in the grass" beyond where Victim's body was found. He contended the vehicle did not decelerate at the point of impact or after; "[i]t was one continuous motion." Duncan estimated the vehicle's speed at a range of twenty-nine and thirty-seven miles per hour. Duncan also surmised there was "severe steering input" to maneuver this vehicle into the grass to strike Victim. He explained this meant the vehicle "did not just drift off the road" and it was more akin to taking a right hand turn into the grass.

         Rusty Clevenger testified he was the coroner for Spartanburg County. Following some preliminary testimony regarding his experience, the State offered Clevenger as an "expert in determining the manner of death." Appellant objected to admitting Clevenger as an expert based on his qualifications. After a short colloquy between the trial court and counsel, the State withdrew its attempt to admit Clevenger as an expert. However, Clevenger proceeded to testify his responsibilities as coroner included determining any deceased's manner of death. He explained any death presents five options when deciding the manner of death: natural, accident, homicide, suicide, and undetermined. Clevenger also explained the process of determining the manner of death included considering the pathologist report and the findings of investigators and law enforcement. Clevenger testified a homicide was "the intentional act of you taking the life of another." In a situation when one person takes the life of another person, he admitted he cannot always determine whether the act was intentional. Clevenger then asserted he "ruled this case a homicide." Appellant objected and claimed Clevenger gave improper opinion testimony. The trial court responded, "I think coroners are required to give rulings on death by law" and "[h]e's stating what his ruling is. I'll overrule the, the objection."

         Following the State's case, Appellant testified he was involved in a romantic relationship with Victim for approximately eighteen years. Appellant claimed he and Victim went to the hospital on the day in question because he was experiencing stomach pains and bleeding. Appellant claimed his argument with Victim in the hospital room began because Victim spent their last $20 purchasing what he thought was a crack rock but turned out to be a piece of soap. He asserted his walking cane hit Victim's nose by accident during the argument. Appellant contended he was "high" when the hospital discharged him due to all of the medication he had taken. Appellant testified he was driving away from the hospital when he "saw a glimpse of [Victim] way off the road." Appellant claimed he "jerked the car to pull over and pick him up" and he "felt a bump." Appellant admitted he realized what happened so he "turned around and came back" to check on Victim but realized he was dead. Appellant claimed he did not seek help for Victim because he was already dead and he "just flipped out." Appellant asserted it was an accident.

         After both parties rested, they discussed a potential jury charge regarding voluntary or involuntary intoxication with the trial court. Appellant objected to a charge on voluntary intoxication because he was taking prescribed medication. Following the discussion, the trial court indicated it would give Appellant time to research case law supporting his argument and would issue its ruling later. Subsequent to closing arguments, the trial court reopened the discussion on intoxication. Appellant maintained his position that a charge on voluntary intoxication would be improper because everything Appellant took was prescribed. The following colloquy then took place:

THE COURT: Well, I mentioned to all of you the possibility of me charging the jury that they will have to make a finding of fact-
[Appellant's Counsel]: And that will be fine.
THE COURT: -as to whether or not this was a voluntary or involuntary ...

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