THE STATE OF
In The Supreme Court
The State, Respondent,
Michael James Laney, Appellant.
Henry F. Floyd, Circuit Court Judge
Opinion No. 26123
Heard January 5, 2006 - Filed March 6, 2006
REVERSED AND REMANDED
Assistant Appellate Defender Robert M. Dudek, of
Columbia, for Appellant.
Attorney General Henry Dargan McMaster, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Assistant Attorney General Melody J. Brown, all of Columbia; and Robert M. Ariail, of Greenville, for Respondent.
JUSTICE BURNETT: Michael James Laney (Appellant) was charged with two counts of murder; two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of or attempted commission of a violent crime; arson to a dwelling; criminal sexual conduct, first degree; and kidnapping. He was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death. We reverse and remand for a new sentencing proceeding.
On September 25, 2000, Dorothy Hancock and Thelma Godfrey were murdered in Hancock’s home in
Dr. Michael Ward, the Greenville County Medical Examiner, performed autopsies on both victims and testified as an expert in forensic pathology. He testified Hancock had several broken ribs, a broken sternum, and had been sexually assaulted. He testified Hancock received three stab wounds including a fatal stab cutting her throat from side to side. Hancock’s cause of death was multiple blunt and sharp forced injuries.
Ward testified Godfrey had stab and incise wounds to the neck which included a cut trachea. He determined the incise wounds caused Godfrey’s death.
David Tafaoa of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) testified as an expert in arson investigation. He opined the fire in Hancock’s house was intentionally set by someone pouring an ignitable liquid in four different areas of the house. Alex Layton of SLED testified several swatches of carpet from Hancock’s house tested positive for the accelerant gasoline.
On September 26, 2000, Appellant was arrested in
During the sentencing phase of his trial, Appellant presented mitigating evidence regarding his mental ability and health. Two doctors testified Appellant was not mentally retarded but had mental illnesses. Another doctor testified Appellant’s IQ was between borderline intellectual functioning and mild mental retardation. The State sought the death penalty based on the following statutory aggravating circumstances: (1) the murder was committed while in the commission of a criminal sexual conduct in the first degree; (2) the murder was committed while in the commission of a kidnapping; and (3) two or more persons were murdered by Appellant by one act or pursuant to one scheme or course of conduct.
As part of the jury charges during the sentencing proceeding, the trial judge charged the jury to consider the above-referenced statutory aggravating circumstances and the following statutory mitigating circumstances: (1) whether Appellant was under the influence of a mental or emotional disturbance; (2) whether Appellant was mentally retarded; (3) whether Appellant’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law was substantially impaired; and (4) Appellant’s age or mentality. S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-20(C)(a) &(b) (2003 & Supp. 2004). After finding Appellant guilty as charged, a jury recommended the death penalty. Appellant was sentenced to death for each of the murders, thirty years imprisonment for criminal sexual conduct, and twenty years imprisonment for arson, to be served consecutively. Appellant was not sentenced for the kidnapping and weapon convictions. S.C. Code Ann. §§ 16-3-910 & 16-23-490 (2003). This appeal follows and Appellant seeks a new sentencing proceeding.
I. Did the trial court err by not charging the jury that a life imprisonment sentence meant life without parole because the State offered evidence of Appellant’s future dangerousness? II. Do the cases of Atkins v. Virginia and Ring v. Arizona, decided by the United States Supreme Court after Appellant’s trial, require Appellant’s case to be remanded for a new sentencing proceeding before a jury? III. Did the trial court lack subject matter jurisdiction to sentence Appellant to death because the murder indictments did not identify any statutory aggravating circumstances necessary to expose Appellant to a punishment of death?
STANDARD OF REVIEW
In criminal cases, this Court sits to review errors of law only and is bound by factual findings of the trial court unless an abuse of discretion is shown. State v. Wilson, 345 S.C. 1, 5, 545 S.E.2d 827, 829 (2001). An abuse of discretion occurs when the conclusions of the trial court either lack evidentiary support or are controlled by an error of law. State v. McDonald, 343 S.C. 319, 325, 540 S.E.2d 464, 467 (2000).
I. Jury Charge
Appellant argues the trial judge erred by failing to charge the jury that a life imprisonment sentence meant life without parole. We agree.
Appellant contends a jury charge that life imprisonment meant life without parole was required under Simmons v. South Carolina, 512
After reviewing the entire record, we find the issue sufficiently preserved for review on appeal. Further we find it unnecessary to address the State’s due process argument to resolve this issue.
In Shafer and Kelly, the United States Supreme Court held that where a defendant’s future dangerousness is at issue in a capital sentencing proceeding, and the only sentencing alternative to death
available to the jury is life imprisonment without parole, due process entitles the defendant to inform the jury of his parole ineligibility. The
In State v. Shafer, 352 S.C. 191, 202, 573 S.E.2d 796, 801-02 (2002), we stated, “given the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Kelly, the better practice is for trial judges to give the capital sentencing jury a parole eligibility charge whether it is requested or not.” Today we conclude where a defendant’s future dangerousness is at issue in a capital sentencing proceeding, and the only sentencing alternative to death available to the jury is life imprisonment without parole, the trial judge shall charge the jury, whether requested or not, that life imprisonment means until the death of the defendant without the possibility of parole. The trial judge erred in failing to charge the jury that life imprisonment meant until the death of Appellant without the possibility of parole because the State placed Appellant’s future dangerousness in issue during the capital sentencing proceeding.
II. New Sentencing Proceeding under
Appellant argues the intervening cases of Atkins v. Virginia, 536
Appellant’s trial began on October 8, 2001, and he was sentenced to death on October 19, 2001. The United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Atkins on June 20, 2002, which held the execution of a mentally retarded person is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court left to the states the task of developing methods to enforce this constitutional restriction upon the execution of sentences. In Ring, issued on June 24, 2002, the United States Supreme Court held an
We issued Franklin v. Maynard, 356 S.C. 276, 588 S.E.2d 604 (2003), on November 3, 2003. In
Appellant argues this Court should modify the procedure set forth in
Appellant has confused the issues of eligibility for the death penalty and a fact on which the legislature conditions an increase in a defendant’s maximum punishment. The General Assembly has not conditioned an increase in a defendant’s maximum punishment on the fact the defendant is not mentally retarded. The fact a defendant is not mentally retarded is not an aggravating circumstance that increases a defendant’s punishment; rather, the issue is one of eligibility for the sentence imposed by a jury. See People v. Smith, 751 N.Y.S.2d 356 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2002) (rejecting argument prosecution is required by Atkins and Ring to affirmatively prove defendant is not mentally retarded at sentencing phase of capital murder trial); State v. Williams, 831 So.2d 835, 860 n.35 (La. 2002) (“The Supreme Court would unquestionably look askance at a suggestion that in Atkins it had acted as a super legislature imposing on all of the states with capital punishment the requirement that they prove as an aggravating circumstance that the defendant has normal intelligence and adaptive function. Atkins explicitly addressed mental retardation as an exemption from capital punishment, not as a fact the absence of which operates ‘as the functional equivalent of an element of a greater offense.’”); Head v. Hill, 587 S.E.2d 613, 620 (Ga. 2003) (“[T]he absence of mental retardation is not the functional equivalent of an element of an offense such that determining its absence or presence requires a jury trial under Ring.”); Howell v. State, 151 S.W.3d 450, 464-65 (Tenn. 2004) (absence of mental retardation not an element of the offense and not required to be proven by the State nor found by a jury).
Prior to and during Appellant’s trial, mental retardation was a mitigating circumstance. In Atkins, the Supreme Court determined that mental retardation should be considered apart from mitigating circumstances. We conclude in post-Atkins cases, mental retardation is a threshold issue, decided by the trial judge as a matter of law in a pretrial hearing, that determines whether a defendant is eligible for capital punishment at all, and if not found as a threshold issue, mental retardation continues to be a mitigating circumstance under statutory law.
III. Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Appellant contends the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to sentence him to death because the indictments for murder did not allege any aggravating circumstance which exposed him to the death penalty. Appellant asserts the Sixth Amendment of United States Constitution; Ring; Apprendi; and Jones v. United States, 526
Subject matter jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong. State v. Gentry, 363 S.C. 93, 100, 610 S.E.2d 494, 498 (2005). Issues related to subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time. The indictment is a notice document, and a challenge to the indictment on the ground of insufficiency must be made before the jury is sworn.
We note the State, as required by statute, timely notified Appellant of its intention to seek the death penalty and identified the aggravating circumstances and related evidence the State intended to use at trial. See S.C. Code Ann. §§ 16-3-20(B) and 16-3-26 (2003 & Supp. 2004) (Notice of intention to seek the death penalty must be given at least thirty days prior to trial.).
This Court has recently addressed the issue of whether aggravating circumstances are elements of the offense of murder. In State v. Downs, 361 S.C. 141, 147-48, 604 S.E.2d 377, 380-81 (2004), this Court stated:
The [Supreme] Court expressly noted in both Apprendi and Ring that the cases did not involve challenges to state indictments. . . . More important, the Fourteenth Amendment has not been construed to incorporate the Fifth Amendment’s Presentment or Indictment Clause. . . . State law governs indictments for state-law crimes. Under
South Carolina law, aggravating circumstances need not be alleged in an indictment for murder. S.C. Code Ann. § 17-19-30 (2003). . . .The aggravating circumstances listed in S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-20(C)(a) (2003) are sentencing factors, not elements of murder.
(internal citations omitted). See also State v. Crisp, 362 S.C. 412, 419-20, 608 S.E.2d 429, 433-34 (2005) (under
Based on the above reasoning, we reverse Appellant’s death sentence and remand this matter to the circuit court for a new sentencing proceeding consistent with this opinion.
REVERSED AND REMANDED.
TOAL, C.J., MOORE, J., and Acting Justice Ralph King Anderson, Jr., concur. PLEICONES, J., concurring in a separate opinion.
JUSTICE PLEICONES: I concur, but write separately, because while I agree that the circuit court had subject-matter jurisdiction, and while I further agree that Appellant is entitled to a new sentencing proceeding because of the erroneous jury charge, I would not reach the issue of entitlement to a new sentencing under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002). I nonetheless wish to elucidate my understanding of Franklin v. Maynard, 356 S.C. 276, 588 S.E.2d 604 (2003), to the extent that it differs from that expressed by the majority.
As the majority observes, if on remand Appellant argues that he was mentally retarded at the time of the crime, then the circuit court will be required to follow the procedure set forth in
My understanding of
Only when the jury determines that the defendant is not mentally retarded does it consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Then, the jury must consider the state of the defendant’s mental health and determine whether it constitutes a “mitigating circumstance.” See § 16-3-20(C)(b)(2), (6), and (7). Logically, however, the jury cannot consider the defendant’s mental retardation as a mitigating circumstance under section 16-3-20(C)(b)(10), since, as explained above, if the jury believes that the defendant is mentally retarded, then the jury never even reaches issues of aggravation and mitigation.
In sum, I concur in the majority opinion in all substantive respects. I disagree only with the use of the term “mitigating circumstance” with respect to a jury’s determination in a post-Atkins case whether the defendant is mentally retarded.
 The State concedes the following evidence was submitted to support Appellant’s future dangerousness: (1) detention officers forcibly restrained Appellant after a struggle with him; (2) Appellant threatened to kill a detention officer and blow up his house; and (3) detention official testified Appellant had dug around the vents and walls in his cell. See, e.g., Kelly, 534
 See also Simmons, 512
 Under current statutory law, when requested by the State or the defendant, the judge must charge the jury that life imprisonment means until the death of the defendant without the possibility of parole. S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-20(A) (2003 & Supp. 2004) (effective May 28, 2002).
 The constitutionality of the designation of mental retardation in Section 16-3-20(C)(b)(10) as merely a mitigating circumstance in light of Atkins is not before us and we express no opinion on that issue. What constitutes a mitigating circumstance is a matter for the Legislature.
 In Schriro v. Smith, 126 S.Ct. 7, 2005 WL 2614879 (Oct. 17, 2005), the United States Supreme Court held the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals exceeded its limited authority on habeas review by commanding Arizona courts to conduct a jury trial to resolve a habeas petitioner’s mental retardation claim. The Supreme Court found the “Ninth Circuit erred in commanding the
 While Appellant’s first sentencing was pre-Atkins, his new sentencing will be post-Atkins.