State v. Niles – murder conviction reversed

In State v. Niles, decided November 14, 2012, the S.C. Court of Appeals reversed a murder conviction in a case from Myrtle Beach, because the trial court failed to charge voluntary manslaughter to the jury.  I represented a fourth co-defendant in this case, who passed away before trial began and is not mentioned in the opinion.

The allegations were essentially that this was a drug deal gone bad in the parking lot of the Best Buy in Myrtle Beach.  According to the opinion, Niles, his girlfriend, and a third co-defendant who testified for the State, met the alleged victim with the intent of “hitting a lick,” or robbing the alleged victim of his drugs.  The Court of Appeals reverses Niles’ murder conviction, holding that where there was testimony that the alleged victim shot first and Niles returned fire, the trial court should have charged voluntary manslaughter in addition to self defense.

“Voluntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being in [a] sudden heat of passion upon sufficient legal provocation.” State v. Wharton, 381 S.C. 209, 214, 672 S.E.2d 786, 788 (2009). Both sufficient legal provocation and heat of passion must be present at the time of the killing to support a jury instruction on voluntary manslaughter. Hernandez, 386 S.C. at 660, 690 S.E.2d at 585.

Where there is any evidence of sufficient legal provocation and heat of passion, the jury must be given the option of voluntary manslaughter.  Voluntary manslaughter and self-defense are not mutually exclusive, and both must be charged if supported by the evidence.  “An unprovoked attack with a deadly weapon or an overt threatening act can constitute sufficient legal provocation,” and the fact that “there is no evidence Niles had a period of time to cool down or reflect before reaching for his gun and firing back” supports sudden heat of passion.

The Court finds that there is prejudice because no part of the jury instructions covered voluntary manslaughter.  As a practical matter, the decision has no effect on Niles’ sentence – he was convicted of armed robbery as well as murder and received 30 year concurrent sentences for each, so he is still serving the same 30 years sentence.


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