In Tyler v. State, decided on June 22, 2022, the SC Supreme Court reversed convictions for criminal solicitation of a minor, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and disseminating harmful material to a minor, based on trial counsel’s ineffective assistance in failing to move to sever these charges from a separate second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor charge.
In this article, we will look at the Court’s opinion in Tyler v. State, including:
- When it is appropriate for the trial court to sever charges,
- Why the charges in Tyler v. State should have been severed, and
- Why Tyler’s case might have been resolved more quickly on a directed verdict motion or a PCR claim based on trial counsel’s failure to argue a directed verdict motion on the three charges that were reversed.
PCR Granted for Failure to Move to Sever Unrelated Charges
Prosecutors like to try multiple charges in the same trial whenever possible.
Not because it saves the court’s time and expense. Not because it preserves the defendant’s or the state’s rights in the trial.
Why then? Because a jury is more likely to convict a defendant when they hear about other bad things the defendant has been accused of or convicted of…
Of course, this is the very reason that multiple unrelated accusations should not be admitted during a trial and multiple unrelated charges should not be tried together.
It often seems like the courts err on the side of letting the prosecutor admit unrelated damaging evidence, especially in child sexual abuse cases, but there is a standard that the courts must follow for when 1) multiple charges can be tried together and 2) uncharged bad acts can be admitted as evidence at trial.
When Should the Court Sever Charges?
In State v. Harris, the SC Supreme Court identified four requirements for when multiple charges can be tried together:
- They arise out of a single chain of circumstances,
- They are proved by the same evidence,
- They are of the same general nature, and
- No real right of the defendant has been prejudiced.
When multiple charges are of the same nature – child sexual abuse allegations, for example, they cannot be tried together unless they arise out of a “single chain of circumstances” and they are provable by the same evidence.
When all requirements are present, the prosecution is allowed to try the multiple charges together in the same proceeding.
Rule 404(b) Exceptions
Another strategy for the prosecution to get prior bad acts into evidence is what is called “Lyles evidence,” admissible under Rule 404(b).
404(b) says that “evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith,” but it may be admissible if the prosecution can show that it would prove:
- The existence of a common scheme or plan,
- The absence of mistake or accident, or
If a 404(b) exception applies, the prosecution may be able to tell the jurors about the other allegations, even though they are not charged in the same trial.
Example of When Severance Should Have Been Requested
In Tyler, there were two unrelated cases that should have been tried separately. First, there were three indictments for criminal solicitation of a minor, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and disseminating harmful material to a minor, based on text messages found on the defendant’s phone and photos that the defendant showed to the alleged victims.
The text messages, although incriminatory, were never sent to the minors. The photos that were shown to the minors, although inappropriate, did not show sexual acts or nudity.
The second case was a second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor charge that was based on exploitative photos found on the defendant’s computer and email account that showed an explicit sex act with a young girl. The evidence for this charge was unrelated to the evidence for the other three indictments and was only found when a search warrant was executed on the Defendant’s computer.
The charges were of the same general nature, but they did not arise out of a single chain of circumstances, they were not provable by the same evidence, and the introduction of the explicit photo that the exploitation charge was based on was extremely prejudicial as related to the other three indictments.
The alleged victims in the other three indictments never saw that photo, there was no connection between the two cases, and it was likely the jurors convicted the defendant on the first three indictments based solely on the prejudicial photo that should have only related to the exploitation charge…
The Court notes that not only does the exploitation charge not meet the requirements for the cases to be tried together, but the unrelated allegations would not have been admissible as a Rule 404(b) exception either.
Because Tyler’s trial counsel never moved for a severance of the exploitation charge, the SC Supreme Court reversed the convictions on the other three indictments – the jury should never have seen the prejudicial photo from the exploitation charge when considering those three indictments – but allowed the conviction for exploitation to stand.
What About Directed Verdict?
The Court also points out that the photos that were shown to the alleged victims, although they may have been inappropriate, did not show “sexually explicit nudity” or “sexual activity,” could not have supported a conviction on the dissemination charge (or, arguably, the other two charges), and, therefore, the guilty verdict on the dissemination charge must have been based on the inadmissible sexually explicit photo that was the subject of the exploitation charge.
There is no discussion of this in the appellate opinion, but what if 1) trial counsel had moved for a directed verdict based on the failure of evidence as to the dissemination charge (and, if denied, this could have been corrected in a direct appeal), or 2) PCR counsel had argued that it was ineffective assistance to not argue a directed verdict as to the first three charges?
Why does it matter?
If the Court of Appeals or the PCR court had found that a directed verdict should have been granted, Tyler’s case would be over as to that charge, because it would have been remanded with instructions to direct a verdict instead of remanded with instructions to grant a new trial…
What’s Next for Tyler?
Tyler’s conviction for second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor stands. It was an eight-year sentence, concurrent with three- and eight-year sentences for his other charges, so he is still facing an eight-year sentence.
If the state chooses to retry Tyler on the other three indictments, he could face a greater sentence if he is convicted again and if the trial court gives him a greater sentence or makes his sentences consecutive instead of concurrent…
If you have been charged with a crime in SC, or if you have been convicted of a crime and believe you have a PCR claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your case immediately.