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State v. Barnes

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

August 16, 2017

The State, Respondent,
v.
Trenton Malik Barnes, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2014-002771

          Heard April 17, 2017

         Appeal From Richland County Robert E. Hood, Circuit Court Judge

          Appellate Defender Susan Barber Hackett, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Assistant Attorney General Susannah Rawl Cole, and Solicitor Daniel Edward Johnson, all of Columbia, for Respondent.

          HILL, J

         After a joint trial, Trenton Barnes and Lorenzo Young were convicted by a jury of murder, kidnapping, second-degree burglary, and attempted armed robbery. We set forth the relevant facts in State v. Young, Op. No. 5501 (S.C. Ct. App. filed July 19, 2017) (Shearhouse Adv. Sh. No. 27 at 96-101). On appeal, Barnes argues the trial court erred in (1) denying his motions for severance; (2) admitting the testimony of two jailhouse informants as statements against interest under Rule 804(b)(3), SCRE; and (3) allowing the State to improperly impeach the testimony of his mother, Latoya Barnes. We affirm.

         I.

         Barnes first contends the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion to sever his trial from Young's. Denial of a severance motion is an abuse of discretion if unsupported by the evidence or controlled by an error of law. State v. Spears, 393 S.C. 466, 475, 713 S.E.2d 324, 328 (Ct. App. 2011).

         Codefendants in a murder case are not automatically entitled to separate trials. State v. Kelsey, 331 S.C. 50, 73, 502 S.E.2d 63, 75 (1998). They are entitled to a severance "only when there is a serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of a codefendant or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about a codefendant's guilt." State v. Dennis, 337 S.C. 275, 282, 523 S.E.2d 173, 176 (1999). See also Hughes v. State, 346 S.C. 554, 559, 552 S.E.2d 315, 317 (2001); see also Zafiro v. United States, 506 U.S. 534, 540 (1993) ("[I]t is well-settled that defendants are not entitled to severance merely because they may have a better chance of acquittal in separate trials."). We will only reverse the denial of a severance motion when it is reasonably probable the defendant would have received a more favorable outcome had he been tried separately. Hughes, 346 S.C. at 559, 552 S.E.2d at 317.

         Barnes argues being tried with Young compromised his right to effectively cross-examine Young's girlfriend, Rolanda Coleman. Barnes believes Coleman was a key witness whose credibility was central, as she identified him as the gunman in the gray sweatshirt on the surveillance video, and also testified she had seen him with a gun on another occasion. Barnes claims in a separate trial he would have been able to elicit that Coleman and Young were codefendants in an unrelated pending burglary charge. Barnes believes this would have allowed him to better portray to the jury that Coleman's testimony lacked credibility because she was seeking to protect Young, with whom she shares two children.

         The record reveals the trial court only prohibited Barnes from telling the jury Young was charged in the pending burglary case, presumably because to do so would have introduced improper evidence of Young's character and prior bad acts, transgressing Rule 404, SCRE. Nothing stopped Barnes from confronting Coleman about her bias in favor of Young based on their relationship or her willingness to testify in hopes of reducing her exposure to substantial prison time on the burglary charge. In fact, these areas were explored during her testimony. Being tried with Young did not hamper Barnes' right to cross-examine Coleman effectively; consequently, no prejudice accrued to him. Moreover, we do not believe exclusion of this singular point of impeachment prevented the jury from making a reliable judgment about Barnes' guilt. See Dennis, 337 S.C. at 282, 523 S.E.2d at 176. Coleman's testimony was cumulative to other evidence, including Barnes' letter to his mother and his mother's identification of him in the video.

         Barnes also claims the joint trial prevented him from cross-examining Young about the statements he made to Alfred D. Wright and Michael Schaefer identifying "Trigg" and "Trap" as his accomplices. Because Young did not take the stand, Barnes maintains he could not confront Young and consequently Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968), required Barnes be granted a separate trial.

         This is a closer issue. As we noted in Young, the State's decision to try Barnes and Young together was fraught with risk. It also placed the trial court in difficult positions throughout the almost three week trial. Yet, as we concluded in Young's appeal, the trial was fundamentally fair and we can confidently say the jury was not prevented from making a reliable judgment about Barnes' guilt. As more fully explained in Section II, infra, the evidence of Barnes' guilt was overwhelming. The probability Barnes would have fared better in a separate trial is remote. Accordingly, even if the denial of severance compromised Barnes' right to confront Young, the error was harmless. See State v. McDonald, 412 S.C. 133, 142, 771 S.E.2d 840, 844 (2015) ("In some cases the properly admitted evidence of guilt is so overwhelming, and the prejudicial effect of the codefendant's admission is so insignificant by comparison, that it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the improper use of the admission was harmless error." (quoting Schneble v. Florida, 405 U.S. 427, 430 (1972))).

         II.

         Barnes next argues the trial court erred in admitting the testimony of Wright and Schaefer under the hearsay exception for statements against penal interest, Rule 804(b)(3), SCRE. We agree.

         In criminal cases, an appellate court reviews only errors of law. State v. Baccus, 367 S.C. 41, 48, 625 S.E.2d 216, 220 (2006). The admission of evidence is within the discretion of the trial court, and we may only check that discretion if it is abused. State v. Saltz, 346 S.C. 114, 121, 551 S.E.2d 240, 244 (2001). An abuse of discretion occurs when the decision of the trial court is controlled by an error of law or lacks evidentiary support. State v. Pagan, 369 S.C. 201, 208, 631 S.E.2d 262, 265 (2006).

         Over Barnes' objections, Wright testified in part:

Q: . . . . What did [Young] tell you about ...

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