In Felder v. State, decided August 8, 2019, the SC Supreme Court granted PCR and reversed the defendant's convictions for murder and possession of a weapon during a violent crime.
The murder conviction was reversed because Felder's trial attorney allowed the government, without objection, to tell the jurors that Felder had a pending charge for lynching. The evidence against Felder was circumstantial, the state did not have a strong case, and admission of the pending charge was not harmless error.
When are prior convictions admissible against a defendant at trial? What about pending charges? Why does it matter?
If you or a family member have been charged with murder or a violent crime, get an experienced Myrtle Beach murder defense attorney on your side as soon as possible - call or email the criminal defense attorneys at Axelrod and Associates now for a free consultation about your case.
Why was the Murder Conviction Reversed?
At trial, a police officer testified that Felder gave a statement at the police station. The officer read a summary of Felder's statement into the record, which included 1) Felder's account of where he was, who he was with, and why he was not guilty; and 2) the fact that Felder was currently on bond for a lynching charge:
Antrell Felder began by stating he was 26 years old, that his date of birth was [redacted] 1982, and that he lived at [redacted]. He related that he was currently on bond for a lynching charge . . . .
Felder's attorney did not object to the testimony. He could have:
- Objected before the trial, when he told the Court he had no objections to the statement and that a Jackson v. Denno hearing on the voluntariness of the statement would not be necessary;
- Objected when the state moved to admit the summary of Felder's statement into evidence - instead, trial counsel told the Court that he did not object to the admission of the statement; and
- Objected when the officer mentioned the pending lynching charge - he should have objected, asked for a curative instruction, and then requested a mistrial, but instead said nothing.
The defense did not call any witnesses (a valid strategy in many cases), Felder was convicted, and the Court sentenced him to 42 years in prison.
Are Prior Convictions Admissible Against a Criminal Defendant?
Prior convictions may be admissible for impeachment purposes only if a defendant testifies - if they carried a potential sentence of more than one year in prison or if it was a crime of dishonesty, if the conviction is not more than ten years old (with some exceptions), and if they are more probative than prejudicial (a prior murder conviction would be more prejudicial than probative, for example, if the defendant is currently charged with murder).
Are Pending Charges Admissible Against a Criminal Defendant?
Unrelated pending charges are never admissible at trial against a criminal defendant - a fact that Felder's defense attorney, the prosecutor, and the trial judge all knew.
Why Does it Matter if the Jurors Hear About Pending Charges?
With few exceptions, pending charges against a defendant are never admissible at trial. It matters because, once jurors hear that the defendant has pending charges - for the violent crime of lynching, no less - they are more likely to convict the defendant on an improper basis.
Jurors will tend to believe it is more likely that he committed the murder he is charged with if he has also committed other violent crimes - regardless of the evidence in the case before them. The admission of the statement was particularly egregious because lynching is a violent crime:
In this case, the risks associated with propensity evidence were heightened due to the specific crime-lynching. The word "lynching" is extremely problematic in itself. It immediately evokes a visceral reaction and a grim mental image. The lynching reference could reasonably cause a juror to presume Felder was a violent person and deserving of a guilty verdict.
If Felder's attorney had objected, the trial court would have excluded the reference to the lynching charges:
Had trial counsel objected, it is almost certain the trial court would have excluded the reference to Felder's lynching charge under the South Carolina Rules of Evidence, particularly Rule 609.4 Consequently, but for trial counsel's error, the jury would have never heard any mention of Felder's lynching charge.
Why Wasn't it Harmless Error?
In many cases, mistakes like this do not result in a new trial because the appellate courts find that they are "harmless error," meaning the defendant probably would have been convicted anyway based on the strength of the state's case.
In this case, the state's evidence was purely circumstantial:
- Two eyewitnesses could not identify Felder as the shooter;
- There were discrepancies in the description of the shooter's car and Felder's car;
- There was no evidence in the record that directly linked Felder to the murder;
- Felder had valid defenses to the crime; and
- The officer's summary of Felder's statement was entered into evidence and sent to the jury room during deliberations.
The evidence against Felder was not overwhelming, and there was "a reasonable probability that the outcome of Felder's trial would have been different had trial counsel acted to exclude the reference to the lynching charge."
What did Felder's Defense Attorney Think?
Felder's trial counsel testified at the PCR hearing that:
- It was his client's fault because his client agreed to his stipulation allowing the statement in; and
- "[H]e did not believe the outcome of the trial would have been different if the reference to the lynching charge had been excluded."
His other trial counsel testified at the PCR hearing that "[w]hether our client had a pending charge or not was not as important to me as was getting across to the jury that he couldn't have done it."
What did the Prosecutor Think?
The prosecutor apparently thought it was important for the jurors to hear about Felder's inadmissible pending charge. Why?
The remainder of the statement that was admitted was Felder's account of why he was not guilty. The prosecutor would never have admitted the statement, and it likely would not have been admissible, unless Felder's attorney agreed to it.
The prosecutor knew they had a weak case and wanted the jurors to hear about an unrelated pending charge for lynching because the prosecutor knew that it would make the jurors more likely to convict on an improper basis.
Would the prosecutor have gotten a conviction without telling the jury about the pending lynching charge? Does the prosecutor have an ethical duty not to put inadmissible and irrelevant evidence in front of a jury, risking conviction on an improper basis?
The Axelrod team has extensive experience defending criminal charges in Horry County and SC courts, including violent crimes and murder charges.
If you or someone you love has been accused of murder or another violent crime, get Axelrod on your case immediately - do not delay. The state is building their case, preparing for trial, and they are likely determined to get a conviction and prison sentence.