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State v. Sledge

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

August 7, 2019

The State, Respondent,
v.
John Calvin Sledge, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-000641

          Heard October 1, 2018

          Appeal From Greenville County D. Garrison Hill, Circuit Court Judge

          Laura Ruth Baer, of Collins & Lacy, PC, of Columbia, 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 Caroline M. Scrantom, all of Columbia; and Solicitor William Walter Wilkins, III, of Greenville, for Respondent.

          HUFF, J.:

         John Calvin Sledge appeals from his convictions and sentences for murder, unlawful conduct toward a child, and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. On appeal, Sledge raises three issues: (1) whether the trial court erred in admitting portions of a 911 call because they amounted to inadmissible hearsay and were more prejudicial than probative; (2) whether the trial court erred in admitting his statements to police because they were not freely and voluntarily given; and (3) whether the trial court erred in imposing a five-year sentence for possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime because he was given a life sentence for the murder charge and section 16-23-490 of the South Carolina Code expressly prohibits such. We affirm the convictions but vacate the sentence imposed for the weapon possession.

         FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On the night of January 29, 2014, Kimberly Sledge (Victim) was killed by a single gunshot to the back of her head. After receiving two hang-up calls at 10:15 and 10:16 p.m. that night, 911 communications received a third call from Victim's ten-year-old son, M.W., at 10:17 p.m. In the 911 call, M.W. reported that his mother had been shot and stated that his mother was married to John Sledge. When the dispatcher asked who shot Victim, M.W. replied, "John Sledge." Asked when this occurred, M.W. replied, "Just a minute ago." M.W. told the dispatcher he thought his "dad just ran off." The dispatcher asked M.W. if Victim and Sledge were arguing, and M.W. stated that they were. M.W. provided a description of Sledge's vehicle to the dispatcher. The young boy can be heard crying often and expressing shock, disbelief, and fear during the twenty-two-minute call.

         Officers arrived at the incident location at 10:34 p.m. Once in the home, they found M.W. on the phone in the living room and Victim deceased in the bathroom. After a "be on the lookout" was dispatched for Sledge, Deputies Robert May and John Williams observed a car matching the description of Sledge's and activated their blue lights and stopped Sledge. Because they were responding to an incident involving a gunshot victim, the deputies drew their firearms and ordered Sledge to show his hands and get out of his car and on the ground. Deputy May acknowledged repeatedly using profane language with Sledge while instructing Sledge to put his hands out the window of his car. The deputies placed Sledge in handcuffs and escorted him to Deputy May's vehicle, placing him inside it. Though Deputy May was holding on to Sledge, he testified Sledge was "able to walk just fine." Deputy May then read Sledge his Miranda[1] rights. Deputy May testified Sledge appeared to be intoxicated, and he noted Sledge had a strong odor of alcoholic beverage coming from his person.[2] However, he testified Sledge was not "fall-down drunk," and he appeared to understand what was being said and was able to carry on a conversation. Review of Deputy May's in-car video reveals very clear Miranda warnings were given and Sledge responded "Yes, sir" when asked if he understood his rights. Further, Sledge appeared to get on the ground without difficulty when instructed to do so, and he did not stumble or falter when walking to the deputy's car. When asked if he would like to speak to the deputies, Sledge said he would and asked "what's going on?" Deputy May informed Sledge he was being detained because there was a crime scene at his house. Sledge asked the deputy "why" and indicated he did not know why there would be a crime scene. Deputy May then asked Sledge what he was doing before he left the house, and Sledge described some of his activities and indicated he left the house after getting into an argument with his wife. During the drive, Sledge questioned what was happening and Deputy May responded, "Well you and your wife got in a fight, right?" Sledge asked what was wrong with his wife and what was wrong with his family. The deputy responded he was going to let someone else tell Sledge about it, but told him that his child was fine.

         While Deputy May was transporting Sledge to the Law Enforcement Center (LEC), the deputy was instructed to stop and meet with a forensic officer. Deputy May stopped at a business where the forensic technician, Iona Ooten, swabbed Sledge's hands for gunshot residue. Review of the in-car video reveals as follows: During this time-at around forty-nine minutes into the video-Sledge asked to use the bathroom, but the officers told him it was too cold. Deputy May buckled Sledge back in the vehicle, and Sledge again asked to use the bathroom. Ooten again stated that it was too cold, and Deputy May told Sledge he could use the bathroom downtown once they arrived there. About a minute after he first asked, Sledge asked to use the bathroom a third time and received the same response. They arrived at the LEC at about one hour and eighteen minutes into the video, or twenty-nine minutes after Sledged first requested to use the bathroom.

         Once at the LEC, Sledge encountered Sergeant Ramon Rivera before being brought into an interview room, at which time Sledge asked if he could use the restroom. Sergeant Rivera was in the process of obtaining search warrants related to the matter at that time and told Sledge he would be back in five minutes. When Sergeant Rivera returned and asked Sledge if he still needed to use the restroom, Sledge stated he did not. Before Sledge was interviewed, a search warrant was served on him. While Sergeant Rivera stepped away to retrieve something, Sledge was escorted into the interview room where the search warrant was served on him, and he was stripped naked, processed for DNA, and photographed by Ooten. When Sergeant Rivera returned a few minutes later he was informed Sledge may have urinated on himself, and he noticed the chair Sledge had been sitting in was wet, and there was something wet on the floor. Sergeant Rivera and Investigator Tracy King then interviewed Sledge for two and a half hours after Sledge waived his Miranda rights. In the interview room, Sergeant Rivera asked Sledge whether he had been drinking. Sledge stated he had. The sergeant then asked Sledge if he was under the influence of alcohol, and Sledge replied that he was not, stating he drank two beers three or four hours ago. During the interview, Sledge claimed he and Victim only bickered that night and did not fight. He denied that he left the home after shooting his gun, denied knowing what happened to Victim, denied M.W. came out of the room during their bickering to see him sitting or lying on top of Victim as described by M.W., and adamantly denied shooting or harming Victim that night.

         Meanwhile, Sergeant Ragan Marling, who at that time worked in criminal investigation involving crimes against children, met with M.W. at her office. She testified M.W. was visibly upset, asking a lot of questions concerning Victim. When Sergeant Marling informed him that his mother did not survive, M.W. broke down, started crying, and kept asking over and over, "Why would he do this?" On cross-examination, the defense elicited the following from Sergeant Marling: M.W. told her he heard arguing and yelling throughout the day; M.W. went into the den to see what was happening; he said Victim's shoulder appeared to be injured; at one time when he came out of his room, Victim and Sledge were in a physical altercation-with Sledge on top of Victim on the floor in front of the fireplace-and M.W. tried unsuccessfully to push Sledge off of Victim; M.W. then went back into his bedroom; before entering his bedroom, he stood at the doorway to his bedroom talking to Victim, who was in the bathroom near his bedroom, and Sledge stated something about taking Victim to the hospital; M.W. turned around and went into his bedroom and, thereafter, heard a loud bang; when he came out of his bedroom about ten minutes after hearing the bang, he did not see Sledge in the house. Notably, defense counsel asked the sergeant if M.W. went to bed after he tried to push Sledge off Victim, and she stated M.W. went back to his room at that time, but she did not believe he went to bed at that time.

         M.W. testified at trial concerning the events of that day. He stated they did not have any visitors. He ate dinner in his room that evening and spent most of his time in his bedroom once he came back into the house. At some point, Victim entered M.W.'s room trying to get away from Sledge. Before Victim entered his room, M.W. heard Victim and Sledge arguing. Victim left M.W.'s room and, thereafter, M.W. went out of his room to check on Victim because Victim and Sledge were being loud and M.W. was trying to go to sleep. When he exited his room, he saw Sledge sitting on Victim in a squatting position as Victim was on her back. M.W. pushed Sledge off Victim and Victim told M.W. to "just go," so M.W. went to his room. Victim followed M.W. back into his room. M.W. thought Victim had a broken collarbone, and he asked her about her shoulder. Victim stated to M.W. that Sledge was really mad and might kill her, which scared M.W. Victim then left M.W.'s room. M.W. estimated the time of this incident was 8:30 or 9:00 because that was his normal bedtime, he was in his pajamas, and he was "trying to go to sleep." He was not able to relax, though, as he heard arguing while he was in his bedroom. M.W. did not emerge from his room again until after he heard a loud bang and he felt the house shake and smelled gun smoke. M.W. waited about five minutes before he came out of his room. He found his mother face down on the floor between the hall and the bathroom, and Sledge was no longer there. M.W. found a phone in the bathroom and called 911.

         Law enforcement did not find evidence of a robbery or burglary. Additionally, the evidence did not support that the crime involved a home invasion. Investigation into the lives of Victim and Sledge did not reveal any other individuals who had a problem with either of them. After the 10:15 and 10:16 p.m. hang-up calls, the third 911 call from M.W. started at 10:17 p.m. Review of surveillance video from a convenience store-identified by Sledge as the place he had driven to that night to purchase beer after he left his home-showed Sledge was at the location at 10:27 p.m. The drive from Sledge's house to the store took approximately nine minutes. One of the investigators testified he found a fairly large quantity of long, blond hair consistent with Victim's in the bathroom but found no hairbrushes in the room, which indicated some type of altercation occurred there. Victim sustained a single gunshot to the back of her head, which would have resulted in a very quick demise. The cause of death was determined to be a gunshot wound to the head, and the manner of death was ruled a homicide.

         After the matter was submitted to the jury, it found Sledge guilty of murder, possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime, and unlawful conduct toward a child. The trial court sentenced Sledge to life on the murder charge, five years for possession of a weapon during the ...


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