The state Supreme Court has upheld the conviction of an Alabama football fan stemming from a fatal, alcohol-fueled fight after a 2010 University of South Carolina home football game that resulted in the death of a USC football fan.
In a 3-2 decision, the high court ruled there were no errors serious enough in the 2013 Richland County trial of Curtis James Simms, now 30, to overturn his conviction on high and aggravated breach of the peace in connection with the gruesome death of avid USC football fan Martin Gasque, 20.
The trial brought attention to excessive drinking and fan mania around Williams-Brice Stadium before and after football games. Evidence at the trial showed both Gasque and Simms had been drinking.
Both men tailgated with friends in separate areas and drank alcohol liberally on Oct. 9, 2010, when underdog USC beat then-No. 1-ranked Alabama. The two men did not know each other before their 30-second chance meeting.
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According to evidence, Gasque had a .23 blood alcohol content – three times what is considered legal evidence for impairment. In a statement to police shortly after Gasque’s death, Simms admitted drinking 10-15 beers and three liquor-laced Jell-O shots that day.
Simms was tried on involuntary manslaughter charges. After a six-day trial, a Richland County jury found him guilty only of the breach of peace charge, determining he was not responsible for the death. Judge Diane Goodstein gave Simms five years. Goodstein later reduced that to three years, making Simms eligible for parole after 18 months.
Witnesses said Simms walked to the pickup Gasque was riding in on Shop Road and punched him in the face, effectively tumbling him out of the truck and under it. Then Gasque’s friend Adam Paxton, who was driving the truck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, started up and began to move. Paxton did not know his large truck with oversized tires was rolling over Gasque’s body and head as he tried to move the truck out of the roadway and onto the shoulder, Paxton testified at trial.
Paxton did not face charges.
Simms entered state prison following the trial, in February 2013, and was released on probation on Aug. 1, 2014, according to S.C. Department of Corrections records. He pursued the appeal despite his release.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said that “high and aggravated breach of the peace” conviction was warranted because the fight between Gasque and Simms happened as a capacity crowd at Williams-Brice was leaving the stadium.
“Thousands of fans were attempting to exit all corners of the stadium on foot and in vehicles,” the high court said. “... the resultant melee caused previously slow-moving traffic to come to a standstill for over two hours as the fight occurred on a particularly busy thoroughfare.
“Further, many members of the public witnessed the victim’s death,” the high court majority wrote.
Simms’ “direct involvement in the incident, which led to the victim’s unfortunate demise, contributed to the distress of many members of the community and the general public upheaval that followed,” the majority wrote.
Chief Justice Jean Toal, an avid USC sports fan, wrote the opinion and was joined by associate justices John Kittredge and Don Beatty. Associate justices Costa Pleicones and Kaye Hearn dissented.
After being found guilty, but before sentencing, a remorseful Simms apologized to Gasque’s parents for events that day. Simms chose not to testify during his trial. At the time of the fight, he outweighed Gasque by more than 100 pounds and was 5 inches taller – a disparity prosecutors used at trial to show Simms bore responsibility for what happened.
Simms’ attorney, Johnny Gasser of Columbia, said Wednesday his client has been out of prison and is working in the Columbia area with the employer he worked with prior to the trial.
“He’s got a good job, and he’s advancing in the company,” Gasser said, explaining that Simms wants to put the incident in the past and look positively toward the future. Simms does not want to be interviewed, the lawyer said.
Noting that the high court opinion was divided, Gasser said, “It’s not too often you get a 3-2 decision in a criminal case, but it’s important that both the dissent and majority opinion found that my client was not legally responsible for Mr. Gasque’s death.”
The charge that the jury found Simms guilty of is a misdeamor. And it was so unusual, Department of Corrections personnel couldn’t recall ever seeing it, and didn’t know what level prison to put him in, Gasser said. “They ended up assigning him to a work-release camp,” he said.