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State v. Otts

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

June 27, 2018

The State, Respondent,
Steven Otts, Appellant.

          Heard April 20, 2016

          Appeal From Saluda County Thomas A. Russo, Circuit Court Judge Appellate Case No. 2014-000274

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

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Assistant Attorney General J. Anthony Mabry, of Columbia; and Solicitor Samuel R. Hubbard, III, of Lexington, for Respondent.

          SMCDONALD, J.

         Steven Otts appeals his conviction for the murder of Hydrick Burno, arguing the circuit court erred in (1) denying his motion for a directed verdict; (2) failing to tailor a self-defense instruction to the evidence presented; (3) instructing the jury on the law of defense of others with no accompanying explanation of the necessary elements or the burden of proof; and (4) declining to provide the jury with specific and clarifying language regarding involuntary manslaughter. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On January 27, 2011, Steven Otts, Saca Jawea Coleman, Lakeisha Stallworth, and Antonio Valentine were out for the evening in the town of Ridge Springs in Saluda County. The group took Valentine's Ford Explorer to Orchard Park Apartments (Orchard Park), where Otts lived with Hydrick Burno's (Victim's) aunt and uncle. Valentine drove, Stallworth sat in the front passenger seat, and Coleman and Otts sat in the back.

         When the group arrived at Orchard Park, Otts and Coleman (Otts's girlfriend), were arguing because Otts wanted Coleman to go home with him, but she wanted to continue partying with Stallworth and Valentine. Stallworth testified Otts was "kind of aggressive" with Coleman and was "pulling" on Coleman to get her out of the Explorer. According to Stallworth, Otts pulled Coleman's coat over her head, leaving her in only a bra because she was not wearing a shirt under her coat.[1]

         Coleman testified that when the group arrived at Orchard Park, Otts wanted her to get out of the Explorer, but she was not ready to go because she had not "finished partying yet." She admitted the two argued but denied that Otts assaulted her in any way. Otts denied hitting Coleman but admitted the two argued. When Otts grabbed Coleman's arm to escort her from the vehicle, she refused to exit.

         As Otts and Coleman continued to argue, several Orchard Park residents heard the commotion. Angela Creech, who walked outside to her apartment balcony to see what was happening, testified she could see Otts and Coleman "arguing and tussling inside the vehicle." Creech said she could hear "licks" inside the Explorer; Otts was pulling on Coleman in an effort to get her out of the vehicle, and the two were "tussling and fighting." Victim, the couple's mutual friend, [2] then intervened in an attempt to break up the scuffle.

         Stallworth did not remember Victim striking Otts and explained he "wasn't that type of guy." However, Creech testified Victim put his hand around Otts once and held him in a "bear hug." Creech further testified Otts said to Victim, "Motherf****r, when you let me go, I'm going to knock your punk ass out." Coleman testified Victim "kept grabbing" Otts. She heard Otts tell Victim that if he did not let him go, he was going to hit Victim. However, Coleman did not see Otts strike Victim.

         Otts testified that Victim grabbed him in a "bear hug" and carried him away from the Explorer. Otts admitted telling Victim he was going to hit him if he did not let him go but denied threatening to "knock [his] punk ass out." When Otts escaped Victim's bear hug and attempted to walk back to the vehicle, Victim grabbed Otts again, ripping his coat. Otts then turned and struck Victim once on the left side of his head. Otts explained that he was "basically trying to get out of the situation" and "never meant to hurt [Victim]." When Otts threw the punch, Victim was knocked unconscious and fell to the ground, striking the back of his head on the pavement. Creech stated Victim had a seizure after falling to the ground. Stallworth testified she put her hands under Victim's head to try to stop him from seizing. Otts instructed Victim to "get up" and "stop playing." When Creech announced she was going to call the police, Otts, Coleman, Stallworth, and Valentine left Orchard Park.[3]

         Victim was awake and sitting on a curb when law enforcement and emergency medical services (EMS) arrived. He smelled of alcohol, was swaying, and was "a little confused." Initially, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) were unsure if the swaying and confusion were the result of Victim's head injury or intoxication.[4]However, during the transport to Lexington Regional Medical Center (LRMC), Victim's behavior changed-he became combative and uncooperative. He also showed more persistent signs of confusion, leading the EMTs to believe Victim had suffered a more serious head injury than they first recognized.

         By the time Victim arrived at LRMC-about fifty minutes after EMS arrived at Orchard Park-he was unresponsive. Victim died shortly after his admission to the hospital.

         According to the pathologist, Victim died from brain herniation due to cerebral edema, which was caused by blunt-force trauma to the left side of his head. The pathologist testified Victim's death was the result of the blow to the left side of his head and not the injury he suffered when he fell and hit the ground.[5] The pathologist further testified Victim suffered only two blows to the head-one on the left side of his head from the punch and the other on the back of his head from hitting the ground.

         Otts remained in hiding until January 31, 2011, when he turned himself in to police. On May 4, 2011, he was indicted for murder. After a four-day trial, the jury considered the murder charge, along with the lesser-included offenses of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The jury convicted Otts of murder.

         Standard ...

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