The S.C. Supreme Court on Monday overruled decisions on more than two-dozen murder and assault cases dating to 1894 when it ordered a new trial for a 42-year-old man convicted of killing his cousin.
In overturning the 2006 murder conviction of Johnny Rufus Belcher, the high court set a precedent for cases involving weapons and self-defense arguments. Belcher is serving a 30-year sentence in the Memorial Day 2004 shooting death of Fred Suber, who was shot and killed during a family cookout in Laurens County.
The jury could have chosen murder, voluntary manslaughter or self-defense. The high court said the jury was inappropriately told it could infer the death involved malice because a gun was used.
Defense attorney Rauch Wise argued it's an unfair assumption when both people are armed.
The high court agreed, saying the malice inference should no longer be used when the defense gives evidence that, if believed, would justify the actions of someone charged with murder or assault and battery with intent to kill.
"It has long been the practice for trial courts in South Carolina, as sanctioned by this court, to charge juries in any murder prosecution that the jury may infer malice from the use of a deadly weapon," Justice John Kittredge wrote in the unanimous decision.
But after reviewing historical cases, the justices found it "is no longer good law in South Carolina where evidence is presented that would reduce, mitigate, excuse or justify the homicide."
The decision listed 25 known cases between 1894 and 2006 that it overrules.
The justices note the decision applies to cases pending on appeal or not yet final. None of those 25 cited cases have an appeal pending, said Mark Plowden, a spokesman for Attorney General Henry McMaster.
The state's high court noted Belcher's 2006 trial revealed conflicting versions of what happened.
Prosecutors argued that after Belcher intervened in an argument between Suber and another man at the cookout, Belcher got a gun from that man and fatally shot Suber without justification.
But Belcher's defense presented evidence that after the argument was settled, Suber confronted Belcher with a pistol, and Belcher then ran to the other man's truck to get a gun and fired it as Suber was approaching, gun in hand.
Wise said the case "quickly illustrates" the unfairness of implied malice. He said the ruling Monday puts the state "back on track" with court rulings from more than a century ago.
"When you have a case in which both people are armed with a firearm, why is the jury told they can infer malice from use of the defendant's weapon only?" he said.
He said the ruling won't affect the overwhelming majority of cases involving firearms, but he called it significant for attorneys with self-defense cases, because the jury won't be told upfront to infer malice.
But it's still the jury's job to decide whether a case is murder or self-defense.
"It's not an opinion that makes the government's job insurmountable either," Wise said. "If self-defense is not proven, the state can still get a conviction."
Jerry Peace, the lead prosecutor for Abbeville, Greenwood, Laurens and Newberry counties, said he will likely try Belcher again next year. He called the opinion a "big change."
Previously, in any case involving a shooting, judges granted prosecutors' request that the jury be told they can infer malice.
"We can always argue the fact they used a weapon shows malice," he said. "What it does is prohibits the judge from giving the instruction."