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What the Court Should Consider in a Criminal Case

Posted on Apr 05, 2016

In 2014 we touched on a Court of Appeals decision that reversed a conviction of Kevin Bennett, stating that the trial court should have dismissed the case before allowing it to go to a jury because the state failed to present sufficient evidence.

The South Carolina Supreme Court last week reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed Bennett’s convictions.

Why the Court of Appeals Reversed the Trial Verdict

The case of The State vs. Kevin Bennett was not a slam dunk for the prosecution. In 2010, officers responded to an alarm at C.C. Woodson Community Center in the middle of the night to find a shattered window and open door. A computer and television were missing from the computer room, and a mounted television was manipulated as if someone tried to remove it.

Later, two drops of blood were found near the missing computers and a fingerprint was found on the television. DNA from the blood droplets matched Bennett, as did the fingerprint.

However, there was testimony that Bennett was a regular visitor to the community center, although there was evidence that he did not frequent the television and computer room. No one argued that the DNA and fingerprint did not belong to Bennett; at issue was whether the mere presence of DNA in a fingerprint from a man who regularly visits the community center enough evidence to allow the jury to decide whether Mr. Bennett was guilty or not guilty.

As the trial concluded, Mr. Bennett’s lawyers asked the judge for a directed verdict: a dismissal of the charges because the evidence against the defendant isn’t strong enough to sustain the prosecution’s case. The judge refused, and the case went to the jury, which found Bennett guilty on multiple charges.

The Court of Appeals said the case should have been dismissed, but in its opinion discussed what appears to be its consideration of an alternative hypothesis—that the DNA could have come from earlier in the week when Bennett visited.

Why the South Carolina Supreme Court Overruled the Court of Appeals

After reviewing the case, the Supreme Court explains the standard as to whether the state has presented sufficient evidence to overcome a motion for directed verdict. The Supreme Court states that, when considering a motion to dismiss charges, a court should only consider the existences or nonexistence of evidence, not its weight.

To put it simply, the Supreme Court says that the jury has the job of weighing whether the evidence in a case is strong enough for a conviction. The court—meaning the judge—can only look at whether evidence exists (or not), and not speculate about the value of the evidence. It is the jury’s job to consider alternate hypotheses, not the court’s job. Since the State did present evidence that could allow one to conclude his guilt, there was, in the Supreme Court’s view, enough to go to the jury.

This case reminds us of how much must occur prior to the person’s charges ever even being presented to a jury for a determination of guilt.

If you have been charged with a crime and need criminal defense representation, please contact the lawyers of Holland & Usry at 864.582.0416 or toll-free at 888.230.1841, for your free, confidential consultation.