S.C. Supreme Court case: Expert Testimony, Confrontation Clause, Hearsay...

The SC Supreme Court handed down an opinion (State v. Prather) on a murder case that involved a multitude of issues. The main issue in the case is the testimony by an expert witness who was called in rebuttal.


Very brief facts: During the state’s case in chief, the state presented evidence that the victim was murdered and after his murder, the room/crime scene was staged and altered. The defendant testified and claimed that he did not stage or alter the crime scene. The state then called a SLED agent as a rebuttal witness in the field of “crime scene analysis.” Specifically the agent testified “that he would combine forensics and crime scene reconstruction with the psychology and behavior exhibited at the crime scene to give an opinion as to the number of people present after the crime.” The agent testified that in his opinion there were two people present who staged the crime scene. The defense objected to the expert testimony on two grounds: improper reply testimony and improper expert testimony.


Expert Testimony, SCRE 702

Expert testimony generally falls into two categories: scientific and non-scientific. In this case, the court held that “crime scene analysis” is non-scientific. The test for non-scientific expert testimony: “a trial court must determine whether: (1) the qualifications of the expert are sufficient and (2) the subject matter of the expert's testimony is reliable.”


The court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the expert testimony because the expert was qualified and the testimony was reliable. The court emphasized that the expert testimony was not a “criminal profile” which is prohibited as unreliable and is similar to propensity evidence:


Because expert testimony can overlap with profile testimony and permissible opinion testimony, the court again emphasized that trial courts should limit any profile testimony:


Rebuttal Testimony

The court also held that the reply testimony by the SLED expert was proper:


The court also addressed several other issues:

Confrontation Clause

The Confrontation Clause was also an issue in this case. The codefendant gave a six page written statement. In that statement, the codefendant wrote the word “rapeist” several times. This was significant to the state because the victim’s body had the word “rapist” carved into him. The state introduced cutouts from the statement of just the word “rapeist” as used by the codefendant. The codefendant did not testify and the defense objected that this violated the Confrontation Clause because the cutouts were testimonial. The defense essentially argued that by introducing the word/statement “rapeist” that statement was the equivalent of the non-testifying codefendant telling the jury that I didn’t write rapist on the victim’s body.

The court disagreed and held that the word "rapeist” “did not infer anything about what specifically transpired that night or who killed Victim. Like the statement in Evans, the word ‘rapeist’ did not incriminate Prather on its face. Although the incriminating nature of the single misspelled word could be inferred in light of the other evidence presented at trial (specifically that the word was spelled correctly as carved on Victim's back), the word did not facially incriminate Prather.”

Therefore, the word “rapeist” was not testimonial and did not violate the Confrontation Clause.


Present Sense Impression or Excited Utterance

At trial, the defense tried to introduce a statement that a witness gave to law enforcement, and the witness subsequently died before the trial. The statement was essentially that the witness talked with the victim and the victim complained of rib pain. Remember, the actual statement was from the witness to law enforcement about that conversation.


The court explained that even if the actual statements/conversation between the witness and the victim fell under “present sense impression” or “excited utterance” the actual statement to law enforcement did not qualify.


The court did a great job of providing an analysis for both of these exceptions:


Dissent

The dissent agreed with the majority about the expert testimony on everything except about the actual testimony that was given:



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