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State v. Wright

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

August 1, 2018

The State, Respondent,
v.
Nathaniel Wright, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-000272

          Heard April 18, 2018

          Appeal From Jasper County Michael G. Nettles, Circuit Court Judge

          Appellate Defender Kathrine Haggard Hudgins, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Megan Harrigan Jameson, Assistant Attorney General Joshua Abraham Edwards, all of Columbia; and Solicitor Isaac McDuffie Stone, III, of Bluffton, for Respondent.

          LOCKEMY, C.J.

         In this criminal action, Nathaniel Wright appeals his convictions for voluntary manslaughter, possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime, and failure to stop for a blue light. Wright asserts the trial court erred in finding the public defender's office did not have an actual conflict of interest and denying Wright's request for a continuance. We affirm.

         FACTS

         On October 1, 2014, Wright fatally shot his brother, Maurice Wright, at their mother's home. That afternoon the two began arguing about money each accused the other of owing. The afternoon ended with Maurice dead-shot eight times. After a short police chase, Deputy Leonard Brown arrested Wright, who told him, "I'm not going to let [anyone] disrespect me." The State charged Wright with murder, possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime, and failure to stop for a blue light.

         Prior to trial, Wright's appointed counsel filed a motion for a continuance as well as a motion to be relieved as counsel. Wright's motion for a continuance centered on evidence that had been produced by the State in the week prior to trial. Specifically, Wright's counsel asserted she had not been given enough time to review medical records, jail house phone calls, or speak with a confidential informant the State indicated it intended to use as a witness. Wright's counsel admitted she intended to listen to the phone calls that evening and the State conceded it did not intend to use the recordings in its case in chief. Wright's counsel also admitted she had the medical records, but had not had an opportunity to review them thoroughly.

         With regard to the motion to be relieved, Wright's counsel requested the court relieve her because there was a conflict of interest in the public defender's office. Wright's counsel argued her direct supervisor represented one of the witnesses against her client in obtaining a deal for his testimony against Wright. The conflict did not manifest itself until the State disclosed the witness the week prior to trial. Wright's counsel argued she should not be forced to continue representing Wright against his wishes based on the conflict.

         The trial court then took sworn testimony from the Chief Public Defender and Wright's counsel's supervisor. The trial court asked both attorneys whether they discussed the case with Wright's counsel and whether any confidential information was disclosed regarding the two cases. They each testified no confidential information was discussed.

         The trial court found, based on Rule 1.10(e) of the South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, that no actual conflict of interest was present in this case. The trial court found there had been no confidential information discussed or disclosed between the lawyers representing Wright or the witness. The trial court noted the rules allow for a "Chinese Wall" to screen lawyers in the public defender's office representing competing sides and since the lawyers in this office had not discussed the case, no actual conflict of interest existed.

         After the trial court's ruling on the conflict of interest issue, Jared Newman, a private attorney, indicated a family member had retained him to represent Wright. Newman stated he did not believe he had time to review the evidence in this "complex" murder case. The trial court indicated his question to Newman was "what's your role in the case here today? We're going forward. What's your role?" Newman indicated he could serve as co-counsel, but did not believe he could accept the role of lead counsel. The trial court indicated he would allow Newman to act as co-counsel.

         During the trial, Newman performed the cross-examination of each of the State's witnesses and performed the direct examination of each of Wright's witnesses. He also presented the closing statement. ...


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