South Carolina Supreme Court Decision, September 24, 2014

sc-supreme-courtThis morning, the South Carolina Supreme Court handed down a decision in State v. Sams.

Desmond Sams was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the strangulation of Jake Frazier.  While Sams and Frazier were drinking at home with companions, a fight suddenly broke out between the two men.  Sams got on top of Frazier, placing him in a chokehold.  Attempts by their companions to separate the two men failed.  911 was called.

When the 911 officer arrived ten minutes later, he ordered Sams to release Frazier.  Eventually Sams complied but the officer noticed that Frazier was blue, not breathing, and appeared lifeless.  An autopsy later confirmed that Frazier died of “…asphyxiation, lack of oxygen, due to strangulation.” 

Sams was indicated for the murder of Frazier.  At trial, the circuit court judge instructed the jury on murder, voluntary manslaughter, and self-defense.  The jury convicted Sams of voluntary manslaughter.  Sams appealed, arguing that the judge should have instructed the jury to consider involuntary manslaughter as he requested.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision so Sam appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari, considering whether the Court of Appeals “…erred in determining [whether] there was no evidence to support a charge of involuntary manslaughter….”  Sams argued that involuntary manslaughter should have been included in the charge as he claimed that he “….unintentionally killed Frazier while acting in self-defense.”

The South Carolina Supreme Court articulated the standard of review as an “…appellate court is bound by a trial court’s factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous.”

Voluntary manslaughter was defined as “…‘the unlawful killing of a human being in sudden heat of passion upon sufficient legal provocation.’ Cole, 338 S.C. at 101, 525 S.E.2d at 513. ‘Both heat of passion and sufficient legal provocation must be present at the time of the killing.‘ Id.”   The Court defined involuntary manslaughter as “…’the unintentional killing of another without malice while engaged in either (1) the commission of some unlawful act not amounting to a felony and not naturally tending to cause death or great bodily harm, or (2) the doing of a lawful act with a reckless disregard for the safety of
others.’ State v. Tucker, 324 S.C. 155, 478 S.E.2d 260 (1996); see also S.C. Code
Ann. § 16-3-60….”

After analyzing and discussing the charges of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter and applying them to the facts, the Court upheld the appellate court decision, concluding that “…Sams was not entitled to an instruction on involuntary manslaughter because, as found by the circuit court and the Court of Appeals, Sam’s actions did not fall within the range of conduct constituting involuntary manslaughter….”

About Lisa Smith-Butler

Associate Professor of Law Charleston School of Law 385 Meeting St., Suite 322B Charleston, S.C. 29403 843.377.2144
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