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State v. Simpson

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

January 23, 2019

The State, Respondent,
Suzanna Brown Simpson, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-001387

          Submitted September 19, 2018

          Appeal From Pickens County Brian M. Gibbons, Circuit Court Judge

          J. Falkner Wilkes, of Greenville, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Melody Jane Brown, and Assistant Attorney General Susannah Rawl Cole, all of Columbia; and Solicitor William Walter Wilkins, III, of Greenville, all for Respondent.

          LOCKEMY, C.J.

         Suzanna Simpson appeals her convictions for murder, attempted murder, and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Simpson argues the trial court erred in (1) admitting forensic expert testimony, (2) excluding expert testimony, and (3) denying her motion for a directed verdict. We affirm.


         On May 14, 2013, a neighbor of Suzanna and Michael Simpson heard a noise in his yard and found Suzanna Simpson's truck in a ditch near some downed trees. When the neighbor approached the truck, Simpson told him her back hurt. The neighbor repeatedly asked Simpson where her husband and children were, and Simpson only responded "I don't know" and "Am I going to be okay?" According to the neighbor, Simpson was coherent, and he had no trouble communicating with her.

         Simpson was transported to the hospital for treatment. According to a nurse who treated Simpson, Simpson told him, "I shot my husband and kids . . . [a]nd then I had an accident." When the nurse asked Simpson why she shot her family, she responded, "because it's an awful world." When the nurse asked why Simpson did not kill herself instead, she replied, "I thought about it and tried, but I couldn't do it." According to the nurse, Simpson was alert, knew where she was, and spoke clearly. Simpson refused to talk to the police at the hospital.

         While Simpson was receiving treatment, police went to the Simpson home and found the bodies of Simpson's five-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter in their bedrooms, both with gunshots to the head. Michael Simpson was also shot and found still breathing on the floor of the master bedroom. Police later found a .40 caliber handgun at the scene of Simpson's wreck.

         In February 2014, Simpson was indicted by the Pickens County Grand Jury for two counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. A jury trial was held on June 20-23, 2016.

         During pre-trial motions, Simpson moved for a directed verdict, arguing that after she informed the State she intended to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, the State was required to put her on notice of any expert witnesses to rebut her insanity claim. Because the State had not given Simpson notice of its intention to call an expert witness, she argued the State would not meet its burden of proof. The State argued the motion for a directed verdict was not appropriate as a pre-trial motion because the defense of insanity is an affirmative defense requiring Simpson to present some evidence. The State also asserted it was not obligated to give Simpson notice of an expert witness and an expert witness was not required to combat the affirmative defense of insanity. The trial court denied Simpson's motion for a directed verdict.

         Simpson also sought to limit the opinion testimony of lay witnesses, again arguing the State could not prove she was sane without expert testimony. The State countered they could prove their case with lay witnesses. The trial court denied Simpson's motion. Simpson then asserted the State could not prove through lay witnesses that she had a mental impairment, and, thus, could not conform her conduct to the requirements of the law. The trial court denied Simpson's motion to limit witness testimony.

         Simpson next moved to bar the testimony of her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Jeff Smith. Simpson's expert witnesses had consulted Dr. Smith and he was a known witness. The State informed the court it might ask to qualify Dr. Smith as an expert in psychiatry, but it was not sure how it would use his testimony. The trial court decided to rule on any objections to the testimony at the appropriate time.

         During trial, several witnesses testified as to Simpson's behavior leading up to the shootings. Nathan Stegall, a friend of the Simpsons, testified he visited the Simpson's home the day before the shootings. Stegall testified that while he waited for Michael, Simpson seemed angry. Stegall believed Simpson and her husband were arguing. Later that evening, Stegall received a text message from Simpson that read, "Hell on earth?"

         At Simpson's children's school, another parent testified he saw Simpson in the school office the day before the shootings. The parent observed Simpson withdrawing her daughter from school. When asked for the reason, Simpson said she was picking up her daughter because her son was sick, and she was afraid her daughter might also be sick. Simpson's son, who was with her, said, "I'm not sick, Mom." The parent observed Simpson pacing back and forth and growing impatient while waiting for her daughter. When the parent suggested Simpson's daughter was likely collecting her backpack, Simpson replied "Where she's going to go, she don't need no backpack." Simpson also appeared angry and snapped at the parent as she left the building with her children.

         Simpson's mother-in-law, Allison, testified regarding a conversation the night before the shootings in which Simpson asked her why her mother-in-law and father-in-law did not come to visit and help with the kids more often. Allison also recalled another conversation with Simpson the previous year following Simpson's release from a behavioral care center. After Simpson was discharged, Michael left on a hunting trip, and Simpson called Allison asking if she thought Michael would return home to his family.

         Simpson's mother, Susan, testified Simpson called her the day before the shootings and asked her if her parents really wanted her. Later that day, Simpson called again and asked her mother if various relatives who were deceased were better off in heaven. In another call, Simpson spoke to Susan about the evils of the world and how you could not protect your children from those evils. When Simpson called again that evening, Susan testified Simpson sounded happy, saying she and her husband were going to seek marital counseling. Later that evening, however, Simpson called Susan again and said, "Mike's through with me. He thinks I can't take care of the children." When Susan pressed her for details, Simpson said Michael told her she stares into space all the time. Susan also testified Simpson had what appeared to be a psychotic episode in 2012. Simpson was hospitalized for five days after this episode and was then transferred to a behavioral health center where she remained for three days. Susan recalled several instances in which her daughter told her she believed the family was being watched.

         At the close of the State's case, Simpson renewed her motion for a directed verdict, arguing the State had failed to give the defense notice of their intent to call an expert witness. The State argued the law presumes the defendant is sane and an affirmative defense requires the defense to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Simpson was insane at the time of the shootings. The trial court asked the State if it intended to call an expert witness, and the State said it could not be sure without knowing how Simpson would present her case, but if it did call a witness, it would be Dr. Smith. The trial court again denied Simpson's motion for a directed verdict.

         Simpson presented three expert witnesses at trial. Dr. Leonard Mulbry testified he met with Simpson three times after the shootings and examined her medical records. Dr. Mulbry diagnosed Simpson with schizoaffective disorder bipolar type. Dr. Mulbry outlined her medical treatment in the years before the shooting, beginning with mild depression in college, followed by episodes of post-partum depression. He further noted that in 2010 Simpson began seeing Dr. Smith who treated Simpson with several medications in an effort to control her symptoms. After a review of Simpson's medical records and Dr. Smith's notes, Dr. Mulbry explained that Simpson's moods cycled through depression, sleeplessness, confusion, and paranoia. Dr. Mulbry opined Simpson was unable to distinguish legal and moral right from wrong at the time of the shootings.

         On cross examination, Dr. Mulbry testified he examined Simpson nine months after the shootings. Dr. Mulbry also acknowledged he never consulted with Dr. Smith and relied only on Dr. Smith's notes in forming his opinion. Dr. Mulbry noted that after Simpson received treatment for her bipolar disorder at the treatment facility in 2012, her mood improved, she had no hallucinations or homicidal thoughts, and she didn't mention any concerns for her children. Dr. Mulbry also noted Simpson had not been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder prior to the shootings. Dr. Mulbry admitted that during the period he believed Simpson suffered from schizoaffective disorder in the hours before the shooting, he could not opine whether Simpson knew right from wrong when she spoke to the officials at the children's school, interacted with Nate Stegall and her neighbor, and had several conversations with her mother and mother-in-law.

         Simpson's second expert witness, Dr. David Price, evaluated Simpson by meeting with her and Dr. Smith and reviewing Simpson's extensive medical records. Dr. Price also diagnosed Simpson with schizoaffective disorder bipolar type and opined Simpson was not able to distinguish between right and wrong at the time of the shootings. Dr. Price testified there was "no question" about Simpson's psychosis, delusions, and paranoia on the night of the shootings. Dr. Price testified Dr. Smith agreed with his opinion, and the State objected based on hearsay. The trial court sustained the objection.

         Dr. Richard Frierson, a court appointed psychiatrist, also diagnosed Simpson with schizoaffective disorder bipolar type. Dr. Frierson testified Simpson suffered from episodes of mania, depression, and delusional or paranoid thinking. Dr. Frierson opined Simpson could not distinguish right from wrong at the time of the shootings.

         At the conclusion of the defense's case, the State informed the court it sought to call Dr. Smith as a reply witness. Simpson renewed her motion for a directed verdict, arguing the State was not entitled to present a rebuttal witness because her due process rights were violated when the State did not present evidence of her sanity beyond a reasonable doubt in its case-in-chief. Simpson further argued she did not consent to Dr. Smith's testimony, nor had she waived her physician/client privilege. The State argued Simpson waived her privilege in accordance with section 44-22-90 of the South Carolina Code (2018) when she released her medical records to her retained experts. The State also argued it was entitled to call Dr. Smith pursuant to Rules 703 and 705, SCRE, because Simpson's experts relied on Dr. Smith's treatment of Simpson in forming their opinions about her diagnosis. The State said Dr. Smith would be qualified as a psychiatrist and as a fact witness to his treatment of Simpson in the years prior to the shootings. The State informed the court it also expected Dr. Smith to explain that Simpson's remediation within forty-eight hours of the shootings was atypical, and that he would not expect to see that in a patient with a true psychosis.

         Simpson argued Dr. Smith should not be permitted to testify whether she knew right from wrong or could conform her behavior. The trial court replied, "Because you say he's not qualified to because he's not a forensic psychiatrist." The court informed Simpson it would make that determination after voir dire. The following day, the State argued Dr. Smith was qualified to testify about Simpson's ability to conform her behavior to the requirements of the law because of his qualifications as a psychiatrist. The State argued any distinction between a treating psychiatrist and a certified forensic psychiatrist would be a matter of weight for the jury to ...

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