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State v. Smith

Supreme Court of South Carolina

November 20, 2019

The State, Respondent,
Terrell Artieth Smith, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2017-001178

          Heard October 15, 2019

          Appeal From Charleston County Kristi Lea Harrington, Circuit Court Judge

          Appellate Defender Lara M. Caudy, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General W. Jeffrey Young, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Melody J. Brown, and Assistant Attorney General Sherrie Butterbaugh, all of Columbia; and Solicitor Scarlett A. Wilson, of Charleston, for Respondent.

          John H. Blume, of Cornell Law School, of New York, and Lindsey S. Vann, of Justice 360, of Columbia, for Amici Curiae, Justice 360 and Cornell Juvenile Justice Project.


         Four months shy of his eighteenth birthday, petitioner Terrell Smith stabbed his friend Brandon Bennett (the victim) to death and, when the victim's father Darryl Bennett walked in on the stabbing, laughed at Bennett's anguish and attempted to stab Bennett to death as well. Following a jury trial, Smith was convicted and sentenced to thirty-five years' imprisonment for murder and thirty years' imprisonment for attempted murder, the sentences to be run concurrently.[1]

         Section 16-3-20(A) of the South Carolina Code (2015) imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of thirty years' imprisonment on those convicted of murder, whether the offender is a juvenile or an adult. Despite receiving a sentence longer than the mandatory minimum, Smith argues the statute is unconstitutional because it places juvenile and adult homicide offenders on equal footing for sentencing purposes, and the Eighth Amendment, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court (the Supreme Court) in Miller v. Alabama, [2] forbids such a result. In accordance with the overwhelming majority of states that have addressed similar arguments, we hold the mandatory minimum sentence imposed by section 16-3-20(A) is constitutional as applied to juveniles and affirm Smith's convictions and sentences.


         On June 11, 2014, at approximately 7:00 a.m., Bennett awoke and walked past the victim's bedroom on the way to the kitchen. The house was quiet, as Bennett and the victim lived there alone, [3] and Bennett observed the victim asleep in his bed. After putting out food to later prepare breakfast, Bennett returned to his own room. Several minutes later, Bennett heard loud noises coming from the victim's room and went to investigate.

         Upon entering the victim's room, Bennett saw Smith stabbing the victim in his bed and telling the victim, "Didn't I tell you I was going to get you[?]" Bennett ran in to the room and threw Smith off of the victim. Smith then attacked Bennett, stabbing at him unsuccessfully with the knife while Bennett tried to shove the knife away and disarm Smith. The victim attempted to assist Bennett but was too weak from his wounds and collapsed on the floor. Bennett accused Smith of killing his son (the victim), and Smith laughed and said, "I'm going to kill you too motherfucker." Eventually, Bennett was able to disarm Smith, and Smith fled the scene. The victim died from his wounds within minutes. Smith was apprehended shortly thereafter.

         Following a jury trial, Smith was convicted of murder, attempted murder, and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Because Smith was seventeen at the time of the murder and faced a potential sentence of life without the possibility of parole, he was given an individualized sentencing hearing pursuant to Aiken v. Byars, 410 S.C. 534, 765 S.E.2d 572 (2014) (plurality opinion). At the Aiken hearing, a mitigation expert testified at length about each of the five factors of youth identified in Miller and Aiken and how those factors applied to Smith.

         Smith also filed a motion requesting the circuit court declare section 16-3-20(A) unconstitutional as applied to juveniles because the statute did not sufficiently allow for an individualized consideration of the unique characteristics of youth, instead applying the same mandatory minimum sentence to juveniles and adults alike. The circuit court summarily denied the motion.

         At the conclusion of the Aiken hearing, the circuit court summarized the testimony related to each of the five factors and sentenced Smith. Smith appealed, and we certified his appeal ...

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