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State v. Owens

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

January 23, 2019

The State, Respondent,
v.
Ahshaad Mykiel Owens, Appellant Appellate Case No. 2016-000298

          Heard October 9, 2018

          Withdrawn, Substituted and Refiled July 10, 2019

          Appeal From Charleston County R. Markley Dennis, Jr., Circuit Court Judge

         Originally Filed as 2019-UP-421

          Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek, of Columbia, 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 Scarlett Anne Wilson, of Charleston, all for Respondent.

          HILL, J.

         In criminal law, the defense of accident is a recluse: it is seldom seen and often misunderstood. This appeal requires us to examine in full light the defense and the language trial courts use when explaining it to juries, focusing on when a defendant who is engaged in unlawful conduct may still be entitled to the defense. While we conclude the charge given here was sufficient, we propose a recommended charge for future cases. We also hold the trial court erred by admitting a family photograph of Jarrod Howard (Victim) in violation of Rule 403 of the South Carolina Rules of Evidence (SCRE), but find the error harmless. We therefore affirm appellant Ahshaad Mykiel Owens' convictions.

         I.

         Owens shot Victim while he, Victim, and Victim's best friend, Hunter Bessinger, were transacting a drug deal in the back seat of a parked car near the intersection of Percy and Bogard streets in Charleston. Bessinger testified Owens pulled a gun on him and Victim and shot Victim in the back when Victim tried to flee. Testifying in his own defense, Owens stated Bessinger entered the car first and sat in the middle of the back seat next to him, while Victim got in second and sat next to Bessinger. Owens explained he told Victim he wanted to purchase five Xanax pills, and Victim told him the price. According to Owens, as he reached into his book bag to retrieve his wallet, Bessinger pointed a gun in his face and demanded Owens hand him the book bag. Owens testified he knocked the gun out of Bessinger's hand and, as he wrestled the gun from Bessinger, he accidentally fired the gun, hitting Victim. Owens testified he did not bring a gun to the scene (no gun was ever found).

         The trial judge instructed the jury on murder, involuntary manslaughter, self-defense, accident, and armed robbery. Regarding accident, the judge instructed:

The defendant has also raised the defense of accident. An act may be excluded on the ground of accident if it is shown that the act was unintentional, that the defendant was acting lawfully, and that reasonable care was used by the defendant in handling the weapon. The burden is on the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that th[e] act was not an accident . . . but was caused by the negligence or carelessness on the part of the defendant in [the] handling of a dangerous instrumentality or by unlawful activity by the defendant himself.

         Owens objected to the instruction, arguing the jury might interpret it to mean Owens could not claim accident because he was involved in the unlawful activity of a drug deal (although neither the State nor Owens mentioned such an interpretation in their closing arguments). Owens requested the trial judge clarify to the jury that a defendant engaged in unlawful activity is still entitled to the defense of accident unless the unlawful activity proximately caused the death. The judge declined, explaining it would be an impermissible comment on the facts and he had adequately charged the elements of the defense.

         The jury convicted Owens of murder, armed robbery, and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. He now appeals, contending the trial court erred in (1) refusing his request for specific language in a jury instruction on the defense of ...


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