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State v. Brooks

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

November 20, 2019

The State, Respondent,
v.
Gregory Lamont Brooks, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-002301

          Heard October 14, 2019

          Appeal From Lexington County Eugene C. Griffith, Jr., Circuit Court Judge

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

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General W. Jeffrey Young, Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Melody Jane Brown, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General William M. Blitch, Jr., and Assistant Attorney General Samuel Marion Bailey, all of Columbia; and Solicitor Samuel R. Hubbard, III, of Lexington, for Respondent.

          GEATHERS, J.

         Appellant Gregory Lamont Brooks seeks reversal of his convictions for murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Appellant argues the circuit court erred by instructing the jury that malice may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon because there was evidence that could have reduced the murder charge to voluntary manslaughter and, therefore, the instruction was confusing and prejudicial. Appellant also argues the circuit court erred by excluding from evidence two photographs found on the cell phone of a bar patron present at the shooting and in communication with a suspect because the photographs, which depicted a gun, were relevant to Appellant's defense of third party guilt. We affirm.

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In the early morning hours of February 2, 2014, Fred Moss, Brandon Ratliff, and Andre Bunch visited the Cockpit Bar and Grill on Berryhill Road in Columbia. Andre drove separately and met Fred and Brandon at the bar. Andre had to park his car in the road because all of the spaces in the parking lot were taken. The three friends separated after they arrived, and Fred began a conversation with a female sitting at the bar.

         Two or three minutes later, Fred noticed several people on the dance floor looking at him. A man wearing a skull cap was held back by others as he tried to approach Fred. Fred had the impression that he must have been speaking with "somebody['s] girl." Then a young man with dreadlocks extending past his shoulders approached Fred, "said something slick," and asked "What's up?" Fred responded, "What's up?," and "things started escalating." Andre observed Fred and several other people "fussing back and forth." Andre was concerned, so he briefly talked with Fred and, separately, with Brandon, then went to close out his tab. As Andre was paying his tab, he noticed a bouncer escorting Fred and Brandon out of the bar. Andre walked outside approximately five minutes later.

         The group of people arguing with Fred followed him and Brandon into the parking lot.[1] Brandon went to the driver's side of Fred's car, and Fred went to the passenger's side and tried to open the door, but it was locked. Fred then noticed the hostile group behind him. Fred adjusted his belt in an attempt to convey the impression he was armed and to "scare them away," but he later testified that the hostile group did not see that. Fred testified the man with the long dreadlocks and Appellant, who had shorter, shoulder-length dreadlocks, were displaying their guns, pacing back and forth, and stating, "What's up now?" As soon as Fred saw that they were armed, Fred raised his hands to show he was unarmed.[2] Nevertheless, Appellant unleashed a hail of gunfire toward Brandon and then Fred as Appellant paced back and forth. Appellant then started shooting at Fred's car as he paced backwards, approaching Rickena Knightner's parked car. Rickena, who had previously met Appellant and knew him by the nickname "Dink," testified that as he was approaching her car, she saw he had a gun and said, "[N]o, Dink, No, Dink." Appellant responded, "Get down" while gesturing with his arm for her to stay out of the way. After Appellant stopped firing his gun, he immediately ran to, and entered, a car that had pulled up behind Rickena's car and fled the scene.

         Fred began looking for Brandon and discovered him lying in the middle of the road with blood on his chest. Andre, who had been walking to his car when he heard the gunshots, realized Fred and Brandon might be in trouble, so he jumped in his car and raced to Brandon's location. Andre placed Brandon in the back seat of his car with Fred and rushed to Lexington Medical Center. Tragically, Brandon bled out on the way to the hospital due to a bullet lacerating his heart.

         Appellant was indicted for murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. After the jury found Appellant guilty on both charges, the circuit court sentenced Appellant to thirty-five years' imprisonment for murder and five years' imprisonment for weapon possession, to be served concurrently. This appeal followed.

         ISSUES ON APPEAL

         1. Did the circuit court err by charging the jury that malice may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon?

         2. Was the implied malice jury charge harmless beyond a reasonable doubt?

         3. Did the circuit court abuse its discretion by excluding the two gun photographs from evidence?

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         An appellate court will not reverse a trial court's decision regarding a jury instruction unless there is an abuse of discretion. State v. Cottrell, 421 S.C. 622, 643, 809 S.E.2d 423, 435 (2017). Likewise, "[t]he admission of evidence is within the circuit court's discretion and will not be reversed on appeal absent an abuse of that discretion." State v. Dickerson, 395 S.C. 101, 116, 716 S.E.2d 895, 903 (2011). "An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court's ruling is based on an error of law or, when grounded in factual conclusions, is without evidentiary support." State v. Pittman, 373 S.C. 527, 570, 647 S.E.2d 144, 166-67 (2007).

         LA ...


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