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State v. Middleton: “Consciousness of Guilt” Rule Applies to More than Evidence of Flight

State v. Middleton: “Consciousness of Guilt” Rule Applies to More than Evidence of Flight
Axelrod & Associates, P.A.

When is evidence of flight or evidence of “consciousness of guilt” admissible? In State v. Middleton, the SC Supreme Court reversed a conviction for CSC third-degree (rape) in Charleston County.

At trial, the court permitted a detective to testify that Middleton’s reluctance to subject himself to interrogation was “evasive” and showed “consciousness of guilt,” without first proving there was a “nexus between the [conduct] and the offense charged.”

This issue – evidence of consciousness of guilt – often arises when there is evidence that a defendant actively fled from prosecution, and it is often not relevant and inadmissible because there is no connection between the defendant’s actions and the crime charged.

Below, we will review State v. Middleton, looking at:

  • When evidence of flight is admissible in a criminal trial,
  • Other types of evidence of consciousness of guilt that may be inadmissible, and
  • What happens to Middleton now that his conviction has been reversed.

When is Evidence of Flight Admissible in a Criminal Trial?

Middleton was accused of CSC 3rd-degree – rape, but not forcible rape. CSC 3rd degree is charged when the state alleges someone had nonconsensual sex with another person who was incapable of consenting.

In this case, Middleton was accused of having nonconsensual sex with a coworker who was allegedly too intoxicated to consent. At trial, the prosecutor asked a detective “how many times did you schedule an interview with him?” in an obvious attempt to show that Middleton was evading the police.

After the court overruled an objection on grounds of relevance, the detective testified that Middleton rescheduled interviews multiple times for several weeks before he finally met with the detective for an interview. On cross-examination, the detective added that “Your client is the only one who was ducking and dodging me.”

The Supreme Court found that the objection was preserved, although defense counsel made only a general objection on grounds of relevance and did not object to later inadmissible testimony like the “ducking and dodging” comment.

When is “Consciousness of Guilt” Evidence Admissible?

Evidence of “consciousness of guilt” might be admissible in a criminal trial, but, first, the state must prove that there is a “nexus” between the conduct and the offense charged.

In other words, the conduct must be relevant under Rule 401, SCRE – did the conduct have “any tendency” to make Middleton’s consciousness of guilt more probable than it would be without the evidence?

In this case, the Supreme Court found that the state did not establish a nexus between the failed interview attempts and the offense charged because:

  • No arrest warrant or indictment had been issued against Middleton,
  • Middleton was free to refuse to meet with the detective if he chose,
  • The failure to appear for interrogation was inaction, whereas most cases involving flight or consciousness of guilt involve some type of action on the part of the defendant (fleeing prosecution or arrest, for example), and
  • There was no connection between the crime and the failure to meet with the detective – Middleton had always maintained that 1) he had sex with the alleged victim and 2) it was consensual.

There were multiple possible reasons for Middleton to avoid the detective that have nothing to do with guilt or innocence, including:

  • The defendant wanted to conceal the incident from his wife or girlfriend,
  • The defendant was embarrassed that he had even consensual sex with a coworker,
  • The defendant had a busy schedule, or
  • The defendant distrusted authority.

Unless the prosecutor proves that there is some connection between the evidence of consciousness of guilt and the crime charged, it is irrelevant and inadmissible.

Consciousness of Guilt Covers More than Just Evidence of Flight

Any time the prosecution attempts to introduce evidence of “consciousness of guilt,” they must show why the evidence is relevant to the crimes charged – although this usually involves evidence of flight, there many possible scenarios including:

  • Avoiding voluntary interrogation (State v. Middleton),
  • Attempting suicide (State v. Cartwright, 425 S.C. 81, 819 S.E.2d 756 (2018)),
  • Threatening an alleged victim (State v. Edwards, 383 S.C. 66, 68, 678 S.E.2d 405, 406 (2009)),
  • Lying to police to conceal identity (State v. Martin, 403 S.C. 19, 28, 742 S.E.2d 42, 47 (Ct. App. 2013)),
  • Fleeing the scene of arrest (State v. Crawford, 362 S.C. 627, 636, 608 S.E.2d 886, 891 (Ct. App. 2005),
  • Fleeing residence after an investigator told the defendant to stay there (State v. Walker, 366 S.C. 643, 655, 623 S.E.2d 122, 128 (Ct. App. 2005)), and
  • Fleeing from a patrol car (State v. Robinson, 360 S.C. 187, 195, 600 S.E.2d 100, 104 (Ct. App. 2004)).

What’s Next for Middleton?

Middleton’s conviction has been reversed, but his case is not over. When you win your criminal appeal, the usual remedy is reversal of the conviction and remand to the trial court for a new trial – that is what happened in this case.

As the Supreme Court noted, the evidence against Middleton was not “overwhelming” – the case turned on the sole issue of whether the alleged victim was so intoxicated that she could not consent to sex, which is never a slam-dunk for the prosecution.

On remand, Middleton may be eligible to be released on bond, and his case will be retried by a new jury unless it is dismissed, or an agreement is reached.

Got Axelrod?

If you have been charged with a crime in SC, if you have been convicted of a crime and need help filing your appeal, or if you won an appeal and need help retrying your case, call now at 843-353-3449 or email us online to speak with a Myrtle Beach criminal defense lawyer on the Axelrod team today.

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