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State v. Sims

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

February 27, 2019

The State, Respondent,
Heather Elizabeth Sims, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-001385

          Heard December 4, 2018

          Appeal From Horry County J. Cordell Maddox, Jr., Circuit Court Judge.

          L. Morgan Martin, of Law Offices of L. Morgan Martin, P.A., and Benjamin Alexander Hyman, of The Hyman Law Group, P.A., both of Conway; and Blake A. Hewitt, of Bluestein Thompson Sullivan, LLC, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson and Assistant Attorney General William Frederick Schumacher, IV, both of Columbia; and Solicitor Jimmy A. Richardson, II, of Conway, for Respondent.

          GEATHERS, J.

         Heather Sims appeals her conviction of voluntary manslaughter for which she was sentenced to twenty-five years' imprisonment, suspended to ten years' imprisonment and five years' probation. Sims argues the circuit court erred in instructing the jury on voluntary manslaughter. We reverse.

         I. FACTS

         The facts of the instant case are tragic for the individuals and the families involved. At 6:16 p.m. on August 11, 2013, authorities in Conway responded to a 911 call from Heather Sims, who claimed to have shot her husband, David, after he charged at her with a knife. First responders arrived on scene at 6:36 p.m.[1] Upon entering the house, first responders found Sims in the bathroom performing CPR on David, but David was already deceased. Sims was taken to the hospital for her injuries, which included three lacerations on her arm and a puncture wound to her stomach. In the bathroom, Officers found a 9mm Ruger handgun on the vanity and a paring knife in David's right hand. Officers also determined that David had suffered a single gunshot wound to the chest. Sims was indicted for murder on August 22, 2013.

         A. The State's Case

         From the beginning, the State's case centered on the theory that the killing was a premeditated murder motivated by financial gain. First, the State presented evidence to show that Sims gave inconsistent accounts of what happened.

         To show Sims had a financial motive for killing David, the State offered evidence that David had been issued a life insurance policy on July 23, 2013. David's policy was valued at $750, 000 and listed Sims as the beneficiary. Additionally, the State offered into evidence text messages between Sims and David from May 2013 in which Sims asked David to look into getting a life insurance policy.

         The State theorized that Sims had taken steps to cover up a premeditated murder. First, the State alleged that Sims altered the scene of the crime. The State offered evidence that some of the blood on the floor had been wiped. Officer Cestare testified that while listening to the 911 call he heard Sims's father telling her to both "stop wiping" and to "wipe the blood from the door." The State also alleged that Sims placed the knife in David's hand after she shot him. The State offered evidence that David was holding the knife "upside down"[2] and the crime scene investigator testified that when a light was shined obliquely on the blade, there appeared to be a latent fingerprint.[3] Additionally, the State had an expert in blood spatter analysis testify that if David had been holding the knife, the motion of reaching for his gunshot wound would have left more blood on his palm or the tops of his fingers.

         Consistent with its cover-up theory, the State alleged that Sims hid David's phone and later wiped the memory. Officers testified that they only removed one cell phone from the residence and that David's phone could not be found.[4] The State then offered evidence that Sims called AT&T asking how to bypass David's lock code and access his phone. Sims eventually restored the phone to factory settings, erasing the memory. Sims's father ultimately turned the phone over to police on August 15, 2013, claiming the phone had been in a drawer at Sims's residence. This drawer was the same drawer police searched on the night of the shooting.

         The State also presented evidence suggesting Sims's wounds were self-inflicted. The State offered Dr. Werner Spitz as an expert in forensic pathology. Dr. Spitz testified that the wounds on Sims's arm were superficial and "meticulously drawn very carefully, very slowly on her skin." Dr. Spitz also indicated the positions of the wounds were inconsistent with defensive wounds and that Sims's arm exhibited a faint hesitation mark. Dr. Spitz testified that the puncture wound was also self-inflicted, claiming it was deliberately superficial so as not to penetrate the interior of her body. Dr. Spitz opined that the puncture wound was produced with the tip of the knife, claiming the hospital described the wound as being "less than a quarter of an inch." However, on cross examination, Dr. Spitz indicated he did not need to read Sims's CT scan because he "took for granted that what they told [him] in the medical record was correct," but conceded the depth of the wound was not indicated in the medical records. Additionally, the State presented testimony indicating Sims did not have any bruising on her arms on the night of the incident.

         Ultimately, the State alleged that no altercation took place in the bathroom and that Sims was not acting in self-defense. Rather, the State alleged that Sims had been planning to murder David and calmly and coolly made the decision to accelerate her plan on the night in question. The State offered testimony from several witnesses indicating the house was "pristine" and contained no evidence of an altercation other than David's body. Dr. Spitz testified that the lack of gunshot residue on David's shirt indicated that Sims shot him from over two feet away. Additionally, the State introduced evidence of irregularities surrounding the gun. First, the gun was registered to a man named Michael White.[5] Second, the gun was loaded with only two rounds. Third, Sims claimed to have moved the gun to the bathroom in her attempts to child proof the house, but a .38 revolver was found in David's nightstand.[6] Finally, Sims claimed she drew the gun from the bathroom vanity, but Officer Cestare testified that the gun case was located in Sims's nightstand with the clasps unfastened. In its closing argument, the State argued Sims left the bathroom, walked around the bed to her nightstand, and returned with the gun to trap an unarmed David in the bathroom. At no point did the State offer any evidence to suggest Sims lost control or was overcome with an uncontrollable impulse to do violence when she shot David.

         B. The Defense's Case

         The Defense argued that Sims shot David in self-defense. Sims testified about her history with David and how the marriage eventually deteriorated. The defense also presented evidence of incidents in which David frightened Sims. Sims's friend, Lisa, testified that during a phone conversation Sims abruptly ceased communicating. When communication was reestablished, Sims explained that David had jerked the phone out of her hand because he wanted to see who she was talking to. Sims indicated David had been eavesdropping around the corner and she kept trying to recall whether she had said something that would have made him mad. Sims's friend testified that this was the first time she realized Sims was afraid of David. Sims also testified concerning two incidents. During one incident, David lost his temper after playing with their puppy. Sims indicated that the puppy scratched David and David's demeanor changed from playful to "I'm about to hurt this dog." Sims testified that the puppy hid behind her as David angrily demanded that she hand the puppy to him. Sims later texted David indicating her concerns about the incident, to which David replied, "So are you saying that the next time he needs discipline, that I should instead just punch you in the face?" Sims also described an incident in which David got physical with her. Sims, a nurse anesthetist, explained that in July 2012, she had been on call when David took her phone to the other side of the house to go through it. Sims told David she needed her phone because she was on call, and David responded by stating that her job was "so important" and "so much more important than his," but he did not return the phone. As a result, Sims took the house phone to the bathroom to let the hospital know to call her at that number. Sims testified that David followed her into the bathroom and put his arms around her. Sims said she thought David was going to hug her, but instead he began to beat on her back with a closed fist. Sims indicated that she tried to push away from David but he grabbed her arms so tightly that it hurt. She continued to struggle with David and ultimately bloodied his lip. At that point, Sims, who was pregnant and in her first trimester at the time, testified that David wrapped his hands around her throat and slammed her into the wall. She indicated that David let go of her throat after she asked him what he was doing, and she then called 911.[7]

         Sims then testified that on August 11, 2013-the day of the shooting-David had "woken up looking to argue." David wanted to go to Ruby Tuesdays and Bass Pro Shop, but he became frustrated with Sims as she was packing their baby's diaper bag and tidying the house. Once they were on their way, Sims indicated that David began questioning her and making snide remarks about the diet pills her OB/GYN had given her. Sims testified that David seemed frustrated throughout their outing, and that on the ride home he purposefully drove over the rumble strips on the highway in an attempt to get on her nerves. At some point on their ride home, Sims asked David if he wanted to separate. David indicated that they needed to talk and Sims said they could talk after she put their son to sleep.

         Once they arrived home, David wanted to speak with Sims immediately and began calling her name louder and louder. However, Sims indicated that she wanted to wait until the baby was asleep to speak with David. Instead of engaging with David, Sims began doing chores so that she would not have anything to do after putting the baby to sleep. After doing some chores, Sims decided to take a bath. Sims began filling the tub, sitting on the edge while she texted her mother.

         While waiting for the tub to fill up, Sims testified that David came into the bathroom with tools in his hands. Sims could tell David was frustrated, but assumed he had come in to work on the toilet because it had been having problems.[8] However, David told Sims he was going to talk to her "right now." David asked Sims if she wanted to separate and she responded no, but that she did not want to be married to someone who did not love her. David told Sims that he did not want to be married to a "d**n liar," indicating he had counted the number of diet pills she had taken. David then asked how many times Sims had been to see the marriage counselor by herself, as David did not want her talking to the counselor alone. Sims indicated she had gone to see the counselor once. David accused Sims of lying about being unable to schedule an appointment for both of them in the following two weeks because he had visited the counselor twice by himself. Sims then reached for her phone to show David the scheduling conflicts with the counselor, but David tried to wrestle it away, resulting in a struggle for the phone. At some point during the struggle, Sims was cut three times on her arm.

         Sims testified that after David took her phone, he turned around with the knife in his hand. Sims claimed David got in her face, held the knife in her face, and called her a "stupid b***h." Sims asked David why he was so angry with her and began backing up, to which David responded by taunting her with the knife. Sims indicated that David was trying to scare her, calling her a "stupid b***h" and telling her he wanted to knock the "F'ing teeth out of [her] head." Sims testified, "I've seen him mad before, but I've never seen him this mad; this was something different. This was something that I had never experienced before, and I was scared." Sims indicated that, because she was scared, she reached for the gun she had placed in the bathroom vanity.[9]

         Sims testified that after pulling the gun from the vanity drawer, she held it by her side. She indicated that after doing so, David asked her, "What the 'F' are you going to do with that?" Sims told David, "I'm not going to do anything with it, you're just scaring me, and I want you to stop." David responded by telling her, "You're not going to do s**t," and Sims indicated that the presence of the gun seemed to make him angrier. David continued to call her names and taunt her with the knife, and Sims indicated that she kept trying to back out of the bathroom. However, as she backed up, David again told her, "I would like to knock your F'ing teeth out of your head," and lunged at her with the knife, stabbing her in the stomach. When he lunged at her, Sims testified, "[M]y hand went up and I shot, and I shot out of reaction. I didn't think, nor did I ever want to do that, but it was a reaction because I was scared." After shooting David, Sims called 911 and began administering CPR.

         To support its theory of self-defense and counter the allegations that Sims's wounds were self-inflicted, the defense offered Adrienne Hefney, the SLED agent who analyzed the DNA swabs collected by the Horry County Police Department. Agent Hefney testified that the DNA profile developed from one side of the knife handle matched David's profile, and the probability of selecting an unrelated individual having a matching DNA profile is "approximately 1 in 3.1 quintillion." Agent Hefney indicated this side of the knife handle tested positive for David's blood and touch DNA. Agent Hefney also testified that the partial DNA profile developed from the other side of the knife handle matched David's DNA and that such DNA was likely touch DNA. Conversely, Agent Hefney indicated that none of the DNA found on the knife handle matched Sims's DNA. Agent Hefney further explained that it would be highly unlikely for a person to self-inflict wounds with a knife without leaving touch DNA on the handle. Additionally, when testing one side of the knife blade, Agent Hefney indicated she found a mixture of blood DNA and that Sims was the major contributor. Agent Hefney also testified that Sims was the major contributor of the blood DNA found on the grip of the pistol.

         The defense offered two experts to further corroborate Sims's self-defense theory. First, Dr. Joshua Tew was offered as an expert in radiology. Dr. Tew testified that Sims's puncture wound was consistent with a stab wound and the depth ranged from 3.2-3.5 cm, or approximately 1.3 inches. Dr. Tew explained that Sims's stab wound was superficial in the sense that it did not penetrate the peritoneal cavity, [10] but had it done so it would have penetrated the colon.

         The defense also offered Dr. Kim Collins as an expert in forensic pathology. Dr. Collins testified that the wounds on Sims's arm were defensive wounds, noting they did not run in the same direction and were located on her dominant arm, whereas self-inflicted wounds are typically located on the non-dominant side. Dr. Collins indicated Sims's puncture wound was consistent with the knife found at the scene and came within one millimeter of puncturing the peritoneal cavity. Dr. Collins further indicated that had Sims's peritoneal cavity been penetrated, the injury could have been fatal as it may have resulted in a ruptured colon, spleen, or major blood vessel. With regard to Sims's bruises, Dr. Collins explained that bruising takes time to appear, and that it would not be unusual for bruises to appear a day or two after the injury. Additionally, based on the entry and exit wounds, Dr. Collins determined David was leaning forward with his right side forward and his left side back at the time the shot was fired. However, Dr. Collins testified that, without a ballistics test, there is no way to determine the distance from which Sims shot David, only that there was no visible gunshot residue. Concerning the knife, Dr. Collins testified that David could have maintained control of it after being shot and that the blood transfer pattern on his hand was consistent with reaching for a wound while gripping a knife.

         C. Jury Charges and Deliberations

         After the defense rested its case, the court asked both parties if they had reviewed its proposed charge. Defense counsel indicated he did not believe charges for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter were supported by the evidence, but the court said it would address counsel's concerns after the State presented its rebuttal witnesses. Later, during the charge conference, the State objected to the court charging the jury with involuntary manslaughter, as the State argued there was no evidence that the shooting was accidental. Similarly, defense counsel objected to the court charging voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, indicating he wanted the court to charge "murder or nothing." The court indicated it believed evidence of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter was in the record, stating,

There is testimony from the defendant herself she pulled the weapon up and it just kind of went off. And like I said, I understand you both disagree . . ., but there are cases that are very specific about if you charge voluntary, you need to charge involuntary if the facts are sufficient.

         Defense counsel maintained his position, stating, "I don't see evidence in the record for voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, but I understand your ruling."

         Before the court gave its charge to the jury, defense counsel again objected to the decision to charge the jury on voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Conversely, the State switched its position, arguing that facts in the record justified charging the jury on voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The court ultimately charged the jury with murder, self-defense, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. Additionally, before the jury began deliberations, the court instructed the jury that, "The fact that there [are] three charges does not mean you have to find her guilty of anything. If you find the defendant not guilty of all three, then she's not guilty of anything."

         During deliberations, the jury asked a question concerning unanimity. The court clarified the question asking, "Mr. Foreman, the question is: We understand that a guilty charge must be unanimous, but does a finding of not guilty on a particular charge have to be unanimous as well before moving onto another charge? Is that the question?" After the foreman replied affirmatively, the court answered, "The answer to that is, yes. So to move down, you have to unanimously do away with the one you are dealing with to move on. So, yes."

         Ultimately, the jury found Sims guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Conversely, the jury acquitted her of murder and involuntary manslaughter, checking "not guilty" for both charges on the verdict form. After considering several factors, including the jury's plea that the court be merciful, the court sentenced Sims to "[twenty-five] years provided upon the service of [ten] years, balance suspended for probation for five."

         D. New Trial Hearing

         On December 16, 2015, the court held a hearing to rule on several motions, including whether Sims was entitled to a new trial as a result of the court instructing the jury on voluntary manslaughter. Defense counsel argued the court erred by charging voluntary manslaughter because there was no evidence in the record suggesting Sims lost control or was overcome by an uncontrollable urge to do violence. The court indicated it gave the voluntary manslaughter instruction because Sims testified that, "[the gun] went up and I shot. I shot out of reaction." In response, defense counsel relied on Niles[11] and Cook[12] for the proposition that reacting out of fear during an altercation by itself is not enough to charge voluntary manslaughter, but required further inquiry. The court found the cases distinguishable, stating,

We had two people in a bathroom. And based upon her testimony, she's got a gun in the bathroom. . . . [S]he's got a gun in the bathroom in it, and he is fixing a toilet with a knife and some type of pliers. They have an argument. He says, I'm going to knock your effing teeth out. She says back to him, I just want a marriage. They have some verbal altercation. And then there's a gap, a very, very small gap, and he's dead with one bullet in his chest.

         The court also stated, "That did strike me-quite frankly, at the time she testified that way, that was the first time I had heard that. That suddenly, oh, I was there and I fired a pistol and shot." Further, the court indicated the jury could have acquitted Sims of everything if it had believed her self-defense theory. Defense counsel continued to argue that the evidence suggested Sims shot David out of fear, not an uncontrollable urge to do violence. Ultimately, the court denied Sims's motion for a new trial, finding the verdict was justified by the evidence at trial. This appeal followed.

         II. ...

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