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2004-UP-158 - State v. Bowman
Steven Wayne Bowman was convicted murder by jury in the Circuit Court of Edgefield County

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 239(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals


The State,        Respondent,

v.

Steven Wayne Bowman,        Appellant.


Appeal From Edgefield County
Marc H. Westbrook, Circuit Court Judge


AFFIRMED


Unpublished Opinion No. 2004-UP-158
Submitted January 12, 2004 – Filed March 10, 2004


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 S. Creighton Waters, all of Columbia; and Solicitor Donald V. Myers, of Lexington, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM:  Steven Wayne Bowman appeals his conviction for murder, claiming the trial court improperly admitted evidence of a prior bad act.  We affirm.

FACTS

In the early morning of October 26, 2000, Jean Holmes drove past her son Phillip’s home in Edgefield County on the way to work.  As she was driving, she noticed her son’s vehicle was still parked in the driveway.  When she stopped to investigate, she saw what she thought was a “mummy.”  As she approached the body, she discovered it was her son.  An investigation revealed that Phillip had been shot twice in the upper body.  His body had also been partially burned.

Prior to his death, Holmes had been involved in a relationship with Debi Blankenbecker.  They had been dating since January 2000.

Blankenbecker testified she had an affair with Bowman several years earlier, and that Bowman became extremely jealous of her new relationship with Holmes.  She claimed Bowman committed several threatening and violent acts against her from February to October 2000.  For example, Blankenbecker claimed:  Bowman made threatening calls demanding that she stop seeing Holmes; Bowman “trashed” her house on one occasion; Bowman had attempted to “carry her away;” her ribs and chest were injured after a violent episode during which Bowman washed her mouth out with soap after she spoke of Holmes; and Bowman broke into her home at night, entered her bedroom, and demanded sex.

The crux of the present controversy concerns Blankenbecker’s testimony regarding the incident in July 2000 in which she claimed Bowman broke her ribs.  On direct examination at trial, Blankenbecker initially described what happened that day.  She testified that she and Bowman got into a fight while returning from a trip they had taken together to Atlanta, Georgia.  They returned to Bowman’s house against her wishes.   She claimed that Bowman “ripped the phone out of the wall so I couldn’t call anybody.”   The solicitor then asked Blankenbecker: “Now, while there at his home, did you receive some injuries to your ribs?  That’s all I want to know.  Did you receive some injuries to your ribs?”  She responded: “Yes, I did.”   Blankenbecker further testified that she asked Bowman if she could call Holmes, at which point Bowman put soap in her mouth and told her “not to mention [Holmes’s] name in his house.”   The examination regarding this event then concluded as follows:

Solicitor:                    Also during this same night, was there a bruise on your chest area?

Blankenbecker:          Yes.

Solicitor:                    Did the Defendant tell you that you should show that bruise to anyone?

Blankenbecker:          Yes.  He said, “You can show this to [Holmes].”

Defense counsel did not object to any of this testimony.

A few minutes later, the solicitor’s examination turned to another topic.  Blankenbecker was asked when she had last heard from Bowman.  She responded: “I had not heard very much from him since July 5th, since he broke my ribs.” Defense counsel immediately objected, arguing testimony from a witness regarding a prior bad act of a defendant that is not directly related to the deceased is not admissible and that a mistrial should be declared.  The solicitor responded that the testimony was not offered to show the character of Bowman, but rather offered to show Bowman’s malice and animus toward the victim.   The trial court denied defense counsel’s request for a mistrial, finding the probative value of the testimony outweighed any harm that may have been done by the statement.   The court then instructed the jury that it should not consider Blankenbecker’s statement as a reflection of the defendant’s character, but only as an explanation of events that had occurred.

The State continued its case and presented evidence in an attempt to connect Bowman to the murder.  The night before the murder, Bowman borrowed his father’s Dodge Dakota truck.  According to investigators, the truck’s engine was “very loud.”  A neighbor of Holmes testified that at approximately 12:15 to 12:30 a.m. on October 26, 2000, he heard three gunshots.  At approximately 12:55 a.m, he saw a truck driving down the road at a high rate of speed.  He noted the truck’s engine was so loud that it rattled the windows.   

Two other neighbors of Holmes testified that a week before the murder they saw a man, who they later identified as Bowman, jump out of ditch and run to a car parked near Holmes’s house.  A map of Edgefield County found in Bowman’s car was admitted into evidence.  The map had Bowman’s fingerprints on it, some of which were located right below the area depicting the roads around Holmes’s house.

The State also called Vicky Redfern as a witness.  Redfern, a co-worker who had dated Bowman, testified that a week before the murder Bowman asked to borrow her Ruger .357 pistol to practice for a hunting trip.  Redfern loaned him the weapon and gave him three bullets.  The night of the murder Bowman left work with Redfern.   She testified Bowman asked her to “cover” for him because a man named “Phillip” had been killed in Edgefield and he did not have an alibi.  He told her that Phillip had been dating a girl that he used to date and that he and Phillip had had “verbal confrontations.”  According to Redfern, Bowman admitted killing Holmes, but recanted shortly thereafter.   Redfern testified that when she asked Bowman for her gun, he told her she could not have it because he had used it.   

A security guard at Bowman’s work testified that when Bowman walked through his security station in the early morning of October 26, 2000, he detected the smell of burnt leaves or barbeque.   An inmate incarcerated with Bowman at the Edgefield County Jail testified Bowman told him that he had told “this girl” that he had committed the murder but recanted.  Bowman also said that the authorities would never find the murder weapon in South Carolina. 

Bowman presented several witnesses.  Three witnesses, who officiated high school football with Bowman, testified Bowman acted normally the weekend after the murder.  In an effort to explain the Edgefield County map that was admitted into evidence, a friend of Bowman’s who was a federal inmate in Edgefield County testified Bowman was planning to visit him.  Additionally, a mechanic testified regarding the exhaust system in Bowman’s father’s truck.  He testified the original muffler on the truck had not been altered.

Bowman testified in his own defense.  Although his testimony was lengthy, Bowman essentially testified he was being sarcastic when he told Redfern that he had committed the murder.  He denied committing the murder.   He explained that the night of the murder he borrowed his father’s truck because he thought he was going to transport items to work for Redfern.   He testified that night he went to his work to talk with Redfern who ended her day around 10:30 p.m.  When he arrived around 11:25 p.m., he discovered that she was not there.  He then went to a nearby Waffle House and Wal-Mart.  Afterwards, he drove to Redfern’s house and arrived around 12:40 a.m., but did not go in because her lights were off.   He then decided to go back to work to get caught up.  He testified his previous work week had included the 11:00 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. shift.  After working for a while, Bowman left work around 2:40 a.m. 

In reply, the State presented an employee where Bowman worked who testified that the night of the murder Bowman went through security at 1:55 a.m. and logged on his computer at 2:05 a.m.  A SLED agent also testified to inconsistencies in Bowman’s statements.

The jury convicted Bowman of murder.  The trial court sentenced Bowman to life imprisonment without parole.  Bowman appeals.

DISCUSSION

Bowman argues the trial court erred in admitting Blankenbecker’s statement that “I had not heard very much from him since July 5th, since he broke my ribs.”  Specifically, Bowman claims the probative value of this statement did not outweigh its unduly prejudicial effect, particularly where the State’s case was entirely circumstantial.  We disagree.

In reviewing the trial court’s decision to admit evidence of a defendant’s prior bad acts, our scope of review is limited to determining whether there is any evidence reasonably supporting the trial court’s decisions. State v. Wilson, 345 S.C. 1, 6, 545 S.E.2d 827, 829 (2001).  “If there is any evidence to support the admission of the bad act evidence, the trial judge’s ruling will not be disturbed on appeal.” Id. (noting in footnote that “[a]lthough we have never articulated this standard of review in the context of bad act evidence, we have in fact applied it on review of such cases;” citing four previous Supreme Court decisions applying the “any evidence” standard of review in cases analyzing the admissibility of prior bad acts).

As a general rule, “[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith.” Rule 404(b), SCRE; see State v. Jenkins, 322 S.C. 414, 416, 472 S.E.2d 251, 252 (1996) (stating evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove a defendant committed the specific crime charged).  However, evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is admissible if it tends to establish motive, intent, the absence of mistake or accident, identity, or the existence of a common scheme or plan. Rule 404(b), SCRE; Anderson v. State, 354 S.C. 431, 435, 581 S.E.2d 834, 835-36 (2003) (“Rule 404, SCRE, the modern expression of the Lyle rule, excludes ‘evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts’ offered to ‘prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith.’  The rule creates an exception when the testimony is offered to show motive, identity, the existence of a common scheme or plan, the absence of mistake or accident, or intent.” (quoting Rule 404(b), SCRE)). 

To admit evidence of prior bad acts, there must be a logical relevance between the acts in question and the purpose for introduction.  State v. Lyle, 125 S.C. 406, 416, 118 S.E. 803, 807 (1923); State v. King, 349 S.C. 142, 153, 561 S.E.2d 640, 645 (Ct. App. 2002).  Even if the prior crime evidence is relevant, it must be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice to the defendant. Rule 403, SCRE; State v. King, 334 S.C. 504, 512, 514 S.E.2d 578, 582 (1999).

Generally, it is improper to introduce incidents of violence involving the defendant and someone other than the decedent. See State v. Braxton, 343 S.C. 629, 634-36, 541 S.E.2d 833, 836 (2001) (holding evidence of an argument between defendant and his brother the night before the victim’s murder was inadmissible character evidence); cf. State v. Taylor, 333 S.C. 159, 168, 508 S.E.2d 870, 874 (1998) (“In homicide cases, evidence that the accused and the decedent had previous difficulty is admissible.  The evidence is admissible to show the animus of the parties and to aid the jury in deciding who was the probable aggressor.”).

The instant case, however, is distinguishable given the interrelationship between Bowman, Blankenbecker, and Holmes.  Evidence was presented at trial demonstrating the violence Bowman inflicted on Blankenbecker was directly related to Bowman’s envy and ill feelings toward Holmes. This evidence is sufficient to support a finding that Bowman’s act of breaking Blankenbecker’s ribs was part of a series of violent acts committed by Bowman, all of which involved his hatred for Holmes.  Thus, the evidence was admissible to show Bowman’s motive and animus with regard to the victim.  See State v. Alford, 264 S.C. 26, 32, 212 S.E.2d 252, 254 (1975) (“‘Evidence is inadmissible to show a difficulty between accused and a third person in no way connected with the victim or offense . . . However, where [the] connection with the offense sufficiently appears, evidence of prior difficulties between accused and a third person is admissible to show malice, premeditation, or general state of mind, as is evidence . . . that accused had a grudge against the companion of the victim at the time of the assault.’” (quoting 40 C.J.S. Homicide § 209 (pre-cursor to 41 C.J.S. Homicide § 207 (1991))); see also Mitchell v. United States, 629 A.2d 10, 13-14 (D.C. 1993) (“[W]e have also recognized that the web of spousal discord often entangles third parties, and accordingly, have extended the scope of the motive exception to allow evidence showing wrongful acts against the spouse when the ultimate crime was committed against a third party . . . [F]or admissibility determinations under the ‘motive’ exception, we see no reason to artificially distinguish between those situations where the victim of the initial wrongful conduct and the ultimate crime are identical, and where the ultimate victim is a third party with a clear nexus to the initial misconduct.”). [1]

Even assuming the court erred in admitting Blankenbecker’s testimony, any error in its admission was harmless.  As described above, the brief statement regarding the injury to Blankenbecker’s ribs that prompted defense counsel’s objection occurred after earlier, more extensive testimony on the same incident. That testimony and the testimony of Blankenbecker regarding numerous other violent acts directed against her was admitted without objection.  Viewed in context, therefore, the statement that is the subject of this appeal was merely cumulative.  Thus, its admission did not constitute reversible error.  See State v. Haselden, 353 S.C. 190, 196, 577 S.E.2d 445, 448 (2003) (stating the erroneous admission of prior bad act evidence is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt if its impact is minimal in the context of the entire record); State v. Schumpert, 312 S.C. 502, 507, 435 S.E.2d 859, 862 (1993) (finding any error in admission of evidence cumulative to other unobjected-to evidence is harmless).

Accordingly, we find the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting Blankenbecker’s statement regarding Bowman’s prior bad act.  Additionally, even if it had been error to admit this testimony, the error was a harmless one, not warranting the intervention of this Court.  We affirm Bowman’s murder conviction and sentence.

AFFIRMED.

GOOLSBY and ANDERSON, JJ., and CURETON, AJ., concur.


[1]    To the extent Bowman argues the evidence was inadmissible because it was too remote in time to the homicide, we find this argument is not preserved for our review because it was not raised at trial.  See State v. Byram, 326 S.C. 107, 113, 485 S.E.2d 360, 363 (1997) (stating to be preserved for appellate review, an issue must be raised to and ruled on by the trial judge).  In any event, the remoteness did not negate the relevance of the evidence.  See Commonwealth v. Pacell, 497 A.2d 1375, 1378 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985) (finding evidence that defendant struck common-law wife five days before the murder of wife’s paramour was relevant to defendant’s motive, and remoteness did not vitiate relevance given incident was part of the sequence of events leading directly to the homicide).