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State v. Burdette

Supreme Court of South Carolina

July 31, 2019

The State, Respondent,
v.
Shane Adam Burdette, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2017-001990

          Heard February 21, 2019

          Appeal from Oconee County J. Cordell Maddox Jr., Circuit Court Judge.

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

          Appellate Defender Susan Barber Hackett, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Melody Jane Brown, Senior Assistant Attorney General William M. Blitch Jr., and Assistant Attorney General Susannah Rawl Cole, all of Columbia; and Solicitor David Rhys Wagner Jr., of Anderson, all for Respondent.

          JAMES JUSTICE.

         Shane Adam Burdette was indicted and tried for murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Over Burdette's objection, the trial court charged the jury that it could infer the element of malice from the use of a deadly weapon. The jury convicted Burdette of the lesser-included offense of voluntary manslaughter and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. The court of appeals affirmed Burdette's conviction, holding that although the trial court erred in giving the inferred malice jury instruction, Burdette suffered no prejudice. State v. Burdette, Op. No. 2017-UP-237 (S.C. Ct. App. filed June 7, 2017). We granted Burdette's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision. We hold the trial court's erroneous jury instruction was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial on the offenses of voluntary manslaughter and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. We also hold, regardless of the evidence presented at trial, a trial court shall no longer instruct a jury that malice may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Burdette shot and killed Evan Tyner (Victim). Victim died from a single shotgun pellet wound to the back of his neck. After the shooting, Burdette gave several inconsistent statements to law enforcement. The State's theory of the case and Burdette's theory of the case were substantially different. The State claimed murder; Burdette claimed accident. Burdette was indicted for murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

         At trial, evidence was presented in support of both the State's and Burdette's theories of the case. Following the close of the presentation of evidence, the trial court informed the parties it intended to charge the jury on the law of murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and accident. The trial court gave the parties a copy of its proposed jury charge for review. Burdette objected to the trial court's proposed instruction that inferred malice could arise when a deadly weapon is used. Citing State v. Belcher, [1] Burdette argued the instruction was inappropriate because there was evidence presented that could reduce, excuse, justify, or mitigate the homicide. The trial court gave the charge over Burdette's objection.

         The trial court charged the law of murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and accident. When charging the law of murder, the trial court defined murder as a killing with malice aforethought and stated to the jury, "Inferred malice may also arise when the deed is done with a deadly weapon." When charging the law of voluntary manslaughter, the trial court did not specifically inform the jury that malice is not an element of that offense. However, when charging the law of involuntary manslaughter, the trial court specifically informed the jury that malice is not an element of that offense. Of course, malice is not an element of either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

         After deliberating for about one hour, the jury requested additional instruction from the trial court on the law of murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter to provide the jury with "a better understanding" of the different charges. The trial court essentially repeated its previous instruction and again included in the murder instruction that the jury could infer the element of malice from the use of a deadly weapon. The trial court again did not inform the jury that malice is not an element of voluntary manslaughter but did inform the jury that malice is not an element of involuntary manslaughter.

         The jury found Burdette not guilty of murder but guilty of voluntary manslaughter and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. The trial court sentenced Burdette to twenty-five years in prison, suspended upon the service of fifteen years and five years' probation for voluntary manslaughter. The trial court also sentenced Burdette to a consecutive prison term of five years for the weapon possession charge.

         Burdette appealed, arguing the trial court erroneously instructed the jury that malice may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon because evidence was presented tending to reduce, mitigate, excuse, or justify the homicide. The court of appeals affirmed in an unpublished opinion. State v. Burdette, Op. No. 2017-UP-237 (S.C. Ct. App. filed June 7, 2017). Although the court of appeals agreed the inferred malice jury instruction was erroneous, it held Burdette "suffered no prejudice" from the erroneous instruction. Id. The court of appeals reasoned Burdette was convicted of voluntary manslaughter-not murder-and because malice is not an element of voluntary manslaughter, the inferred malice instruction could not have contributed to the verdict. Id. This Court granted certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision.

         II. ...


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