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State v. Robinson

Supreme Court of South Carolina

May 8, 2019

The State, Respondent-Petitioner,
v.
Stephon Robinson, Petitioner-Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2017-000990

          Heard January 10, 2019

          Appeal from Barnwell County Doyet A. Early III, Circuit Court Judge

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

          Appellate Defender Victor R. Seeger, of Columbia, for Petitioner-Respondent.

          Attorney General Alan M. Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka and Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General J. Benjamin Aplin, all of Columbia; and Solicitor James Strom Thurmond Jr., of Aiken, all for Respondent-Petitioner.

          JAMES, JUSTICE

         Stephon Robinson was convicted of first-degree burglary and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Robinson appealed, and the court of appeals remanded the matter to the trial court to conduct an on-the-record balancing test regarding the admissibility of certain prior convictions the State used to impeach Robinson's credibility pursuant to Rule 609(a)(1) of the South Carolina Rules of Evidence. State v. Robinson, Op. No. 2014-UP-068 (S.C. Ct. App. filed Feb. 19, 2014). After the remand hearing, the trial court ruled Robinson's prior convictions were properly admitted; consequently, the burglary and weapon convictions remained in place.

         Robinson appealed again, and the court of appeals issued an unpublished opinion holding that although the trial court erred in applying two of the five factors we set forth in State v. Colf, [1] any error in the admission of Robinson's prior convictions for impeachment was harmless. State v. Robinson, Op. No. 2017-UP-065 (S.C. Ct. App. filed Feb. 1, 2017). We granted cross-petitions for writs of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision. We affirm the court of appeals as modified. The court of appeals reached the correct result by affirming Robinson's convictions; however, as we will discuss below, the court of appeals' analysis of the admissibility of the prior convictions was erroneous.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         At around 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 20, 2011, Eddie Williams was relaxing in his home when he heard a car pull into his driveway. Williams testified he heard a knock at the front door, looked through a window, and saw Robinson and the white car Robinson had driven to his house on prior occasions. Williams ignored the knock at the door because he figured Robinson had come to the house to play video games with his nephew, who was not home. Williams testified Robinson got back into the car and left. Williams made his lunch and retired to his bedroom to watch a NASCAR race.

         Williams testified that about ten minutes later, he again heard a car pull into his driveway and then heard his front door being kicked in. He grabbed a handgun from his nightstand and went to investigate. Williams testified he started down the hallway and confronted Robinson face-to-face. Williams testified he also saw

         Robinson's brother (Reginald Felder) and another individual he did not recognize inside his home. Williams fired his handgun, and the intruders ran away. Williams testified Robinson also had a handgun and fired it in his direction while fleeing the home. Williams testified he then retrieved a shotgun and fired it into the air outside the house as the three individuals escaped in a white car. Williams called law enforcement around 2:20 p.m. and told police the intruders were driving a white four-door vehicle he thought to be a Pontiac. In two separate photo lineups, Williams identified Robinson and Robinson's brother as two of the three intruders. The third intruder was never identified.

         On cross-examination, Robinson attacked Williams' credibility, establishing that Williams initially failed to tell law enforcement he had fired his handgun. Williams admitted that on the day of the incident, he falsely informed law enforcement that the bullet holes in his home were not from the burglary but had been there since he purchased the home. Williams testified he was not truthful with law enforcement because he thought his handgun had to be registered in order for it to be legal. The gun had been reported stolen in Beaufort County, but Williams testified he was unaware of this when he purchased the gun.

         Shelly Leanna Gunnels testified she had been in an "on and off" relationship with Robinson for the last six or seven years. She testified she allowed Robinson to use her white Pontiac sedan "whenever he wanted to use it." Gunnels testified Robinson borrowed her car on February 19 and returned it on February 20 (the day of the incident) "around that afternoon."

         At the close of the State's case-in-chief, the trial court informed Robinson of his right to testify in his defense and warned him the State might be permitted to impeach his credibility with his prior criminal convictions. When Robinson stated he wanted to testify, the State requested to impeach him pursuant to Rule 609(a)(1), SCRE, using 2009 convictions for second-degree burglary and attempted strong arm robbery and two 2007 Georgia convictions for breaking into an automobile. As we will discuss, Rule 609(a)(1) provides that prior convictions punishable by imprisonment for more than one year "shall be admitted" to impeach the credibility of a defendant who testifies, "if the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to the accused." This test places the burden on the State to convince the trial court the evidence should be admitted.

         Robinson objected, arguing "the prejudicial value outweighs the probative value." Without conducting the requisite on-the-record analysis of the Colf factors, the trial court ruled the strong arm robbery conviction and the two breaking and entering into an automobile convictions were admissible. The trial court ruled the second-degree burglary conviction was also admissible but ruled it had to be referred to generically as a "prior felony conviction carrying more than one year in prison." The use of the burglary conviction for impeachment is not an issue in this appeal.

         Robinson testified and denied any involvement in the incident but admitted to knowing Williams and previously going to Williams' house a "good bit of times" to "get things from [him]." Robinson later clarified he knew Williams because Williams sold him marijuana. Robinson testified he was at his own house with his brother and cousin at the time of the incident. Robinson testified he borrowed Gunnels' vehicle the night before the burglary so he, his brother, and his cousin could go to a club that night. Robinson testified he took the car back to Gunnels around noon or 1:00 p.m. the next day, which would have been prior to the burglary.

         On cross-examination, the State questioned Robinson about his prior convictions as follows:

Q: Are you the same Stephon Robinson that was convicted of strong arm robbery in 2009?[2]
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And you're the same Stephon Robinson that had another felony conviction in 2009 that carried more than a year, aren't you?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And you're the same Stephon Robinson that in 2007 had two convictions for breaking and entering automobiles with the intent to commit a felony or theft?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: But you want this jury to believe that you don't know anything about this?
A: Yes, sir, because for one, I plead guilty to all of my charges and take my responsibility because I know I was guilty of those charges. And two, that was back in my past when I did stupid things to get a little money to do things because I didn't have. But my parents recently passed away and we got insurance money and all kind of money back off that, and I have no reason to kick in this man's door. Nothing.
Q: Let me ask you this, in 2007, was your brother with you whenever you broke into the cars?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Did he plead guilty to his charges?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And in 2009, with the strong arm robbery, was your brother with you then?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Who else was with you?
A: No one.
Q: You and your brother?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And that other felony charge from 2009, was your brother with you then?
A: No, sir.
Q: He wasn't?

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