An appeal that has delayed the trial of a former Bluffton tow-truck driver accused of manslaughter has been dismissed, and his case can now go before a jury.
Preston Oates is accused of killing 34-year-old Carlos Olivera on Christmas Eve 2010 after a dispute erupted as Oates tried to put a boot on Olivera’s van.
Oates’ trial had been delayed as he appealed a ruling that he could not escape prosecution under the state’s castle doctrine. That provision gives defendants immunity from prosecution if a judge rules they killed someone while defending themselves or others from intruders in their homes, workplaces or vehicles.
His appeal was tossed Aug. 21 by the S.C. Court of Appeals, the same day the state Supreme Court ruled that such appeals should not delay the start of prosecution. Those convicted could still appeal castle-doctrine rulings after their trials.
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Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said he plans to start the trial in the three-year-old Oates case as soon as he finishes another case scheduled to begin Oct. 14, which he expected to last about two weeks.
“I think the delay never helps the prosecution — that is in all types of cases, including this one — and this decision was a very important one and stops the delays we were seeing on this type of case,” Stone said. “So we are preparing the case and getting ready to go.”
Oates’ attorney, Jared Newman, said he and his client are prepared for trial.
A Circuit Court judge ruled in March 2012 that Oates was not immune from prosecution. Newman appealed the next month, and the S.C. Attorney General’s Office filed its final briefs in June 2013. Before the high court ruling, Oates could not be tried until that appeal was settled.
However, the recent Supreme Court decision indicates such appeals cannot not be filed until after the defendant is tried. If the defendant appeals after trial, it would start at the S.C. Court of Appeals.
Stone said the ruling will mean speedier trials, but he notes the high court seemed to allow for one exception.
A footnote in the decision says the defense can submit a writ of appeal to the Supreme Court before trial, asking the court to look at the lower court’s castle-doctrine decision and decide whether it was proper. But it will only do so under “extraordinary” or “exceptional circumstances.”
Newman said he will decide by next week whether he will file for such a writ.
He said he thinks he could make the claim of such circumstances based on several factors: first, because the appeal was filed early and not as a delay tactic; second, because Olivera was armed during the incident; and finally, because the briefs for appeal are ready.
“We’ve gone through a lot of time and expense (preparing for the appeal process),” Newman said. “We are prepared to brief; the Attorney General’s Office submitted their briefs; the case is ready to go, and the Supreme Court could hear it without delay.”