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State v. Trenton Malik Barnes, filed 8/16/17, South Carolina Court of Appeals: Serious Issues Can Arise When Co-defendants Are Tried Together.

September 18th, 2017
Elizabeth Franklin-Best

This was a terrible crime, and it’s hard to believe that fact didn’t enter into the Court’s rulings to find errors “harmless” in this case. The Court states that the evidence in this case was overwhelming as to Barnes’s guilt and points to three pieces of evidence:  1) Barnes’s letter to his mother confessing to the crime, 2) his mother’s identification of him as the person wearing the gray sweatshirt in the surveillance video, and 3) the timeline of Barnes’s whereabouts on the night of the shooting.  So, keep that in mind when looking at the issues raised by Susan Hackett on appeal (who, of course, always does a fantastic job).

First, Barnes argues that the trial court judge abused its discretion in denying his motion to sever his trial from his co-defendant, Young.  The Court reviews this issue under an abuse of discretion standard.  Co-defendants are entitled to a severance “only when there is a serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of a codefendant or prevent the jury from making reliable judgment about a codefendant’s guilt.”  State v. Dennis, 337 S.C. 275, 282, 523 S.E.2d 173, 176 (1999). Here, because Barnes and Young were tried together, Barnes was not able to fully impeach one of the State’s witnesses, Rolanda Coleman, Young’s girlfriend.  He was not able to fully impeach her because he was not able to get into the fact that she and Young were codefendants in another pending burglary charge.  That information was excludable against Young because it would have been improper character evidence. So, Barnes couldn’t use it! The Court of Appeals essentially found that Barnes still could have impeached her with her bias due to their relationship, or her willingness to testify in hopes of reducing her exposure, without mentioning Young.  The Court also found that it did “not believe exclusion of this singular point of impeachment prevented the jury from making a reliable judgment about Barnes’s guilt” (read:  harmless error).  But also, trying the two together kept Barnes from cross-examining Young about statements he made to two other witnesses.  Young, since he was a co-defendant, could not be called by Barnes to testify. The Court found this “harmless” because the Barnes’s guilt was overwhelming.

Barnes also argued the trial court erred in admitting the testimony of two witnesses under the hearsay exceptions for statements against penal interest.  Two witnesses testified that Barnes was either “Trap” or “Trigg” who Young had claimed committed the crime with him. Finding error because this testimony was actually rank hearsay, the Court concluded the error was… that’s right, “harmless.”

Barnes also claimed it was error to allow the State to impeach the testimony of Barnes’s mother with a prior inconsistent statement, and without giving her an opportunity to explain or deny the statement. The Court found no error since the State properly confronted her with the statement, the time and place it was made, and then person to whom it was made.  And then she denied it.  The Court found no prejudice and held “we are unclear what difference playing the recording of the statement to her would have made.” Well, that may be true, but the rule states that the statement is not admissible unless the witness is “given the opportunity to explain or deny the statement.” Rule 613(b).  This also seems problematic given that the Court found the “overwhelming proof” of Barnes’s guilt was this identification. Apparently Ms. Barnes didn’t make the identification in court, but this piece of evidence was only established by the officer using the recording to impeach her court testimony.  In the end, the Court found that the South Carolina Court Rules provide the trial court with “vast discretion” in controlling the mode and order of witness testimony.

A difficult case and, in my opinion, clear legal error.  But this case just goes to show how challenging it can be to raise meritorious claims when the Court has concluded there is “overwhelming” evidence of guilt.

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