Stephen Smalls v. State of South Carolina, filed 2/7/18: South Carolina Supreme Court Reverses Conviction Finding that COA Did Not Properly Assess State’s Evidence of Guilt. Also, Court Clarifies It Reviews PCR Legal Conclusion De Novo.

Important case for the Bench and Bar— Court clarifies its standard of review for PCR court conclusions of law, and how to properly assess strength of State’s case in assessing Strickland prejudice.

The title of this post is probably a bit misleading, given the procedural posture of this case.  What really happened is that the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ finding that, although Smalls showed that his lawyer rendered ineffective assistance of counsel, he failed to show he was prejudiced by his performance given the court of appeals’ finding that the State provided overwhelming proof of guilt. But that’s a whole lot of words to put in a headline, so I’m not changing it.  The point is the same– Smalls can show prejudice because his case was not one of overwhelming guilt, which the Court takes time, in this opinion, to explain.

What’s really important in this case, though, and what lawyers in South Carolina handling these cases need to know, is that the Supreme Court uses this case to clarify that the appellate courts will NOT give “great deference to the PCR court’s … conclusions of law.”  In fact, this opinion goes through a whole list of cases that should not be quoted to suggest that’s the proper standard of review. The Court here clarifies that appellate courts review questions of law de novo, with NO deference to the trial courts.  This is huge, so be aware of it.

The Court also explains how the lower courts should be regarding the relative strength of the State’s case is assessing whether an applicant has shown prejudice in PCR actions. Again, this is a major change in the way these cases have been handled in the past, and in a positive way.

Simmons and Smith[1] illustrate the proper consideration of the strength of the State’s case in the PCR court’s analysis of prejudice: it is one significant factor the court must consider– along with the specific impact of counsel’s error and other relevant considerations– in determining whether the applicant has met his burden of proving prejudice. In this case, however, neither the PCR court nor the court of appeals appears to have considered the specific impact of counsel’s error.  Rather, both courts used what they considered “overwhelming evidence of guilt” as a categorical bar that precluded a finding of prejudice, without the necessity of separately considering the impact of counsel’s error.

The Court further notes that for evidence to be “overwhelming” it must include something conclusive, such as a confession, DNA evidence demonstrating guilt, or a combination of physical and corroborating evidence that is incredibly strong.  So, a mechanistic finding of “overwhelming evidence of guilt” is not going to suffice going further.  Courts need to assess the errors in the context of the particular case before it.  And, if they do conclude there’s strong evidence of guilt, it better really be strong. It looks to me that the Court has perhaps tired of seeing these conclusory statements without analysis, and is indicating that it will be looking much more closely at these cases.  That’s great news for our criminal justice system.

As for specifics of ineffective assistance of counsel, it’s best to read the opinion. Suffice to say, if the State dismisses carjacking charges against its key witness on the morning of trial, competent counsel will bring that important fact to the attention of the jury.

Great lawyering by Kat Hudgins!

[1]           Simmons v. State, 331 S.C. 333, 503 S.E.2d 164 (1998) and Smith v. State, 375 S.C. 507, 654 S.E.2d 523 (2007).