Stephen Smalls v. State (No. 27764)
In this PCR case, the Court of Appeals held that trial counsel was deficient, but found that the evidence against Smalls was overwhelming, undermining his Strickland claim. The Supreme Court now reverses, finding that the evidence was not overwhelming, and therefore Smalls is entitled to relief.
The underlying case involves an armed robbery of a Bojangles restaurant in Columbia. As two employees were closing the restaurant for the evening, a man burst in the door with a shotgun, demanding money. Police who responded to the scene recovered the shotgun in the area where the alleged perpetrator fled from the scene. A fingerprint expert determined that Smalls’ fingerprints were on the shotgun. An investigator created a photo lineup and showed it to both Bojangles employees. One employee identified Smalls, the other did not identify anyone (though he narrowed it down to two people one of which was Smalls).
The contested issues on appeal are as follows: (1) that Smalls’ trial attorney failed to impeach the Bojangles employee when it was revealed that the State dismissed a pending carjacking charge against him on the morning of Smalls’ trial, and (2) trial counsel failed to object when one of the State’s other witnesses implied that Smalls had obtained the shotgun used in the robbery by committing a burglary approximately one year before the armed robbery took place.
Regarding the impeachment issue, trial counsel erroneously believed that the Bojangles employee could not be impeached with a charge that had been dismissed. The magnitude of this error was revealed at the PCR hearing, when the employee revealed that he had repeatedly told the solicitor that he did not want to participate in the prosecution of the armed robbery case against Smalls, and that the only reason he agreed to testify against Smalls was because the solicitor dropped the pending carjacking charge against him (the employee).
Regarding the prior burglary, one of the State’s witnesses testified that the shotgun used in the robbery was stolen, “it was taken in a burglary.” During the State’ presentation of this evidence, the following exchange took place, without any objection from trial counsel:
Q: To make it perfectly clear, the shotgun wasn’t stolen from the defendant’s house in 1999?
A: No, it was not.
Q: He burglarized somebody else’s house?
A: That’s correct.
Q: So is there any reason why his fingerprint would be on this weapon-
A: Not that I know of, sir.
Q: -other than he robbed the Bojangles?
A: That’s correct.
Having found that counsel was deficient on both of these grounds, the Supreme Court then turns its consideration to the question of whether the evidence against Smalls was overwhelming, to the extent that it would undermine his Strickland claim. The Court combs through several of its precedents on this issue, and ultimately clarifies the standard in cases such as these: “for evidence to be overwhelming such that it categorically precludes a finding of prejudice – as we found it did in Rosemond and Harris – the evidence must include something conclusive, such as a confession, DNA evidence demonstrating guilt, or a combination of physical and corroborating oevidence so strong that the Strickland standard of “a reasonable probability . . . the factfinder would have a reasonable doubt” cannot possibly be met. Turning to the present case, the Court notes that “when potentially strong evidence such as the fingerprint and [the Bojangles employee’s] identification is tainted by a significant error of counsel, it should not be considered a part of “overwhelming evidence” that precludes a finding of prejudice.” The Court went on to specifically say that “We do not believe the jury could have heard about the dismissal of the charge without seriously questioning the credibility of everything [the Bojangles employee] said, including he pre-trial identification of Smalls as the man who committed the robbery.” (Note: in FN 8 of the published opinion, the Court notes that”the annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken identification,” and “eyewitness evidence is inherently imperfect.”).
Bearing all of this in mind, the Supreme Court reverses, granting Smalls’ PCR.