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State v. Beaty

Supreme Court of South Carolina

April 25, 2018

The State, Respondent,
v.
Michael Vernon Beaty Jr., Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2015-000718

          Heard June 15, 2017

          Appeal from Laurens County W. Jeffrey Young, Circuit Court Judge

          Clarence Rauch Wise and E. Charles Grose Jr., both of Greenwood, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, and Assistant Attorney General Susannah Rawl Cole, all of Columbia; and Solicitor David Matthew Stumbo, of Greenwood, for Respondent.

          JAMES JUSTICE.

         Michael Vernon Beaty Jr. (Appellant) was convicted of murdering Emily Anna Asbill (Victim) and received a life sentence. We affirmed Appellant's conviction on December 29, 2016, in State v. Beaty, Op. No. 27693 (S.C. Sup. Ct. filed Dec. 29, 2016) (Shearouse 2017 Adv. Sh. No. 1 at 13). We subsequently granted the parties' petitions for rehearing and heard further argument. We affirm Appellant's conviction.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Appellant and Victim attended an evening party in their hometown of Clinton. They decided to leave the party between 9:00 pm and 10:00 pm and agreed to give their friend Will Alexander a ride home. Appellant drove the vehicle, Victim sat in the front passenger seat, and Alexander sat in the backseat. At approximately 11:00 pm, Appellant rang the doorbell at his parents' home and asked his stepfather for help. When Appellant's stepfather approached the car, he found Victim unconscious on the front passenger side floorboard and called 911. EMS arrived shortly thereafter and found Victim sitting on the floorboard with her head laid back on the passenger seat. She was not breathing and did not have a pulse. Appellant's shirt was wrapped around Victim's right arm. Victim was found to have severe "road rash" on her right and left arms and bruising to her neck. EMS transported Victim to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. An autopsy revealed the cause of Victim's death was asphyxia due to strangulation.

         At trial, the State introduced several of Appellant's statements to law enforcement into evidence. These statements varied materially. Appellant initially suggested Victim died of a self-inflicted cutting injury. Following law enforcement's receipt of the autopsy results, Appellant voluntarily returned to the police station and repeated his earlier version of events. However, in this statement, Appellant stated he had to undo Victim's seatbelt when he realized she was unconscious after arriving at his parents' home. When Appellant was informed of the autopsy results, which showed Victim had been strangled and had "road rash, " Appellant gave a written statement explaining he and Victim had argued during the car ride, Victim had opened the car door to jump out, and he had grabbed her shirt to pull her back into the car.

         At trial, the State and Appellant presented expert witnesses to support their theories as to the events leading up to Victim's death. The State's theory was that Appellant strangled Victim with a USB cord after a fight during which she tried to jump out of the moving car. Appellant's theory was that when Victim tried to jump out of the moving car, he held her in by her tank top, which caused the ligature marks on her neck and rendered her unconscious, and that once he pulled her back into the car, she succumbed to positional asphyxiation due to the awkward position she assumed on the floorboard.

         The pathologist who conducted the autopsy was called by the State and testified the ligature marks on Victim's neck were visible on the front and sides of her neck but not on the back of her neck. The pathologist identified a USB cord found in the car as consistent with the ligature marks and the abrasion on Victim's neck. DNA analysis of the USB cord showed Victim's DNA on the middle of the cord. The cord's ends had a mixture of at least two individuals' DNA, with Victim being the major contributor and Appellant being the minor contributor.

         A forensic pathologist also testified for Appellant and stated the USB cord did not cause the injuries to Victim's neck and opined positional asphyxiation played a role in Victim's death. A mechanical engineer testified for Appellant and stated the ligature marks on Victim's neck could have been caused by someone holding her up by her tank top as she hung out of the car and that both Victim's abrasions and her blood found on the outside of the car were consistent with this scenario.

         Appellant was convicted of murder and received a life sentence. Appellant timely filed a notice of appeal, and we certified the case from the court of appeals pursuant to Rule 204(b), SCACR. Appellant raised the following issues: (1) whether the State presented substantial circumstantial evidence proving Appellant committed murder; (2) whether the trial judge erred by denying Appellant's request to charge the lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter; (3) whether the trial judge erred in using certain language in his opening remarks to the jury; (4) whether the trial judge erred during the closing argument stage in not (a) requiring the State to open fully on the law and the facts of the case and (b) limiting the State's final closing solely to reply to new arguments presented during Appellant's closing arguments; (5) whether the trial judge erred in charging the law of circumstantial evidence as set forth in State v. Logan, 405 S.C. 83, 747 S.E.2d 444 (2013); (6) whether the trial judge erred in excluding testimony concerning a prior incident when Victim threatened to jump from an automobile; (7) whether the trial judge erred in denying one of Appellant's voir dire requests; and (8) whether a new trial should be ordered based on the cumulative error doctrine.

         In affirming Appellant's conviction in our prior opinion, we found two of the issues Appellant raised merited discussion. State v. Beaty, Op. No. 27693 (S.C. Sup. Ct. filed Dec. 29, 2016) (Shearouse 2017 Adv. Sh. No. 1 at 14-17). First, we addressed the trial judge's use of certain language in his opening remarks to the jury and the content requirements and order of closing argument. We affirmed Appellant's conviction but instructed trial judges to avoid language urging jurors to "search for the truth, " find "true facts, " and render a "just verdict." Second, we adopted a rule for closing argument in criminal cases, requiring the party with the right to open and close to open fully on the law and facts and limit its reply to those matters raised by the other party in its closing argument. We affirmed all of Appellant's remaining issues under Rule 220(b), SCACR.

         We granted the parties' petitions for rehearing and have heard further argument. We issue this opinion to again address both the trial judge's use of certain language in his opening remarks to the jury and the rules governing the content and order of closing argument.[1] We affirm Appellant's conviction.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Trial Judge's Opening Remarks

         After the jury was sworn, the trial judge gave preliminary remarks to the jury. The trial judge outlined the roles, duties, and responsibilities of the lawyers and the jury and explained trial procedure. During these remarks, the judge stated:

This . . . trial . . . is a search for the truth in an effort to make sure that justice is done. Searching for the truth and ensuring that justice is done is often slow, deliberate, and repetitive.
[The attorneys] are sworn to uphold the integrity and the fairness of our judicial system and to help you as jurors to search for the truth.
You also just took an oath to listen to the evidence in this case and reach a fair and just verdict and you are expected to be professional, reasonable and ethical.
You the jurors find [the facts] from the testimony from a witness from the witness stand or any other evidence, and after hearing that evidence you will deliberate and render a true and just verdict under the solemn oath that you just took as jurors.
In determining what the true facts are in this case you must decide whether or not the testimony of a witness is believable.
After argument of counsel and the charge on the law by me, you will then be in a position to determine what the true facts are and apply those facts to the law and ...

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