Submitted September 27, 2017
from Pickens County Eugene C. Griffith, Jr., Post-Conviction
Attorney General Alan Wilson and Assistant Attorney General
Ruston W. Neely, both of Columbia, for Petitioner.
Appellate Defender David Alexander, of Columbia, for
Brandon Garren pled guilty to assault and battery of a high
and aggravated nature (ABHAN) and criminal domestic violence
of a high and aggravated nature (CDVHAN) in connection with a
series of brutal attacks on his live-in girlfriend (Victim).
He was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of fifteen years
and ten years, respectively. No direct appeal was taken.
Garren then filed an application for post-conviction relief
(PCR). The PCR court granted relief, finding plea counsel was
ineffective for failing to obtain a competency evaluation
prior to Garren's guilty plea and that Garren's plea
was involuntary due to his use of medication. We reverse and
reinstate Garren's guilty plea and sentence.
January 2012, the Pickens County Sheriff's Office
responded to a call and found Garren screaming at the Victim
with a pistol in his pocket. The Victim was crying and had
visible injuries. The Victim stated Garren repeatedly struck
her and swung an ax at her head, barely missing her. The
responding officers found an ax on the premises and saw a
hole in the wall which the Victim indicated occurred when
Garren swung the ax at her head. The Victim also indicated
Garren had pointed the gun at her when she called law
in June 2012, the Sheriff's Office responded to another
call, this time from neighbors, who heard the Victim
screaming and noticed the Victim outside, badly beaten and
partially clothed, wandering in the yard while holding her
pants. The Victim told deputies she and Garren had been
apart, but Garren picked her up and held her against her will
for a week, threatening to kill her if she left and beating
her repeatedly over the last two days.
attack began in the bathroom, where Garren forced unknown
pills down the Victim's throat and asked her if she
wanted to die. Then Garren submerged the Victim in the
bathtub and told her that he was authorized, as her husband,
to beat her. Garren tied up the Victim and dragged her
throughout the house, beating her with golf clubs, wine
bottles, a medicine cabinet, a toaster oven, a lantern, and a
belt, all of which were recovered from the scene. The Victim
believed she was going to die, so she encouraged Garren to
take some pills, which eventually caused him to pass out. At
that point, the Victim grabbed her clothes and tried to
escape, but she could not see due to her facial swelling, and
she was found wandering along a fence by neighbors who heard
her screams and called police.
Victim's injuries were extensive. Her eyes were swollen
shut and her face was severely beaten, with broken bones
requiring multiple facial reconstructive surgeries. She had
blood and glass throughout her hair, and her hair had to be
cut off to remove the debris. The Victim also required dental
reconstructive surgery to replace the teeth knocked out
during the attacks, and she underwent neurological
evaluations due to the extreme nature of her injuries and
resulting trauma. When law enforcement arrived, the Victim
was transported to the Intensive Care Unit in Greenville.
result of these incidents, Garren was charged with attempted
murder, kidnapping, CDVHAN, and pointing and presenting a
firearm, and Garren retained counsel to represent him. Garren
faced up to a total of eighty-five years in prison-up to
thirty years each for the attempted murder and kidnapping
charges; up to twenty years for the CDVHAN charge; and up to
five years for the firearm charge. See S.C. Code
Ann. § 16-3-29 (attempted murder); id. §
16-3-910 (kidnapping); id. § 16-25-65(B)
(CDVHAN); id. § 16-23-410 (pointing and
presenting). Following plea counsel's negotiations with
the State, Garren entered a "straight up" guilty
plea to CDVHAN and the lesser charge of ABHAN. The more
serious charges (and the firearm charge) were dropped.
the plea proceeding, the assistant solicitor stated
"[the victim's] face was beaten worse than any
woman's face I've ever seen. I've never seen
anything like that." Garren informed the plea judge that
he understood the offenses to which he was pleading guilty;
the constitutional rights, as enumerated by the plea judge,
that he was waiving; and the possible sentences that could be
imposed. Garren stated he had discussed his situation with
plea counsel and that he was "most satisfied" with
counsel's services. Notably, Garren confirmed he was not
under the influence of any drugs or alcohol and that no one
promised him anything or forced him to plead guilty.
the plea hearing, plea counsel told the judge that Garren
suffered from various physical health problems and that
Garren "obviously has some mental problems."
Counsel claimed that at the time of the incidents, both
Garren and the Victim abused prescription medications and
that Garren had "little" memory of the incidents.
However, counsel explained that since entering the detention
facility, Garren was much improved, as he had "gotten
off pills" and gained weight- almost fifty pounds.
counsel asked the plea court to consider a three- to
five-year sentence with five years' probation and
substance abuse treatment; however, the plea court found
"[t]his case is beyond [the] pale" and sentenced
Garren to concurrent prison terms of fifteen years for ABHAN
and ten years for CDVHAN. No direct appeal was taken.
filed a PCR application alleging counsel was ineffective for
failing to request a mental health evaluation and that
Garren's guilty plea was rendered involuntary as a result
of medications he was given while in jail which impaired his
ability to understand the plea proceedings. Specifically,
Due to being in a state of lethargy from medication given to
me by the [P]ickens County Jail which was mind altering, and
the result of medical treatment being given me by the Cancer
Center of the Carolinas, The combined effects rendered me
unable to, or incompetent to enter a plea.
nevertheless failed to offer at the PCR hearing any evidence
as to the specific medications and dosages he was
administered at the Pickens County jail while awaiting trial
and during the time period immediately prior to his guilty
PCR hearing, plea counsel testified that Garren initially
faced several serious charges and that the photographs
depicting the Victim's extensive facial injuries were
"devastating" to Garren's case. Plea counsel
testified that he negotiated a reduction in charges, as well
as a plea offer from the State for a total of fifteen years,
which Garren rejected.
counsel testified that there was no indication Garren had any
mental health issues at the time of the plea that
necessitated further evaluation. Plea counsel explained that
he never saw the need for Garren to undergo a competency
evaluation, but that he was bothered by the length of the
sentence Garren ultimately received. It is abundantly clear
from the record that counsel was anticipating a different
plea judge. As plea counsel testified, Garren was expected to
appear before a different plea judge in the morning, but
Garren was not transported from jail until the afternoon.
Counsel stated he firmly believed that "the switch in
judges . . . added something to [Garren's] sentence. I
can't say how much. But I think it did add
something." Counsel stated Garren came from "a
great family" and explained that, in hindsight, based on
the actual sentence received:
I really wish that we had taken the time to get a
psychological evaluation. Because while I did, at that time,
believe him to be competent[, ] and I continue to believe he
is competent, I believe there are some psychological issues
that would have mitigated his punishment and
materially affected the sentence that he got. And I
really regret that I did not do that.
asked if Garren seemed confused or "out of it" at
the plea proceeding, counsel stated Garren's affect is
always "a little bit spacey" but Garren
nevertheless appeared to follow everything that was
happening, and at no time did Garren indicate he did not
understand what was going on.
testimony was similar to counsel's, as he, too, focused
on the length of his sentence. Garren testified that he was
unhappy with his sentence, specifically claiming he believed
he was going to receive a sentence of two to five years, plus
probation, but that fell through when he "got the wrong
judge." Garren admitted that plea counsel never promised
Garren he would receive a two- to five-year sentence. And the
plea judge, in a thorough guilty plea colloquy, explained the
potential sentence Garren was facing.
it is manifest the focus of Garren's PCR is the length of
his sentence, he may not challenge a lawful sentence merely
because he was hoping for a more lenient one. Garren, of
course, understands that, and he has postured his PCR on the
basis that his plea counsel was ineffective for failing to
request a competency evaluation. Garren is uncertain whether
he ever requested a competency evaluation, but he thinks his
mother may have asked for one. Garren's mother did not
testify at the PCR hearing, and Garren offered no evidence of
what a mental health evaluation would have shown had one been
sought prior to his guilty plea.
the voluntariness of his guilty plea, Garren claimed he did
not understand or have any recollection of the plea
proceeding itself-including that he informed the judge his
plea was not induced by any promises or threats and that he
was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. As to the
issue of medication, Garren testified on direct examination:
Q: Now, I know you've raised some issues in regards to
your case. And one of them is dealing with medication and the
effects on you regarding-understanding what was going on. Can
you go into some detail about that?
A: I don't know what kind of medication they was giving
me in the county. But they have a way of giving medication
that's-they have a bunch of little glasses on a tray. And
they just give you medicine. I don't know if they give me
the wrong medicine or what they done. But I had a reaction
two different times to that medicine they give me.
Q: Okay. Have you at any time ever had a mental evaluation?
A: No, sir. They never did have me one for - while I was in
the county ...