Marion Bowman v. State (No. 27661)
During the sentencing phase of this capital murder case, defense counsel elicited testimony regarding the defendant’s adaptability to the prison environment, in hopes of convincing the jury to impose a life sentence. During one witness’ testimony on this subject, counsel elicited testimony that the defendant would not be going to a “kiddy camp” or a place where he would be “mollycoddled” if he received a life sentence. On cross examination, the State elicited testimony from the same witness about the general circumstances of imprisonment, including the fact that in prison there are recreational facilities available, a library with books, movies and television for the inmates to watch, and other recreational activities.
After his direct appeal was unsuccessful, Bowman filed a PCR action arguing that his trial attorney was ineffective for failing to object to the above-stated testimony about the general characteristics of imprisonment. South Carolina has drawn a distinction between evidence of prison adaptability and evidence of general prison conditions. The former is admissible at a capital sentencing, the latter is not. Put another way, the sentencing phase of a capital trial is limited to consideration of the character of the defendant or the circumstances of the crime. Thus, general evidence of prison conditions is irrelevant at a capital sentencing. The PCR court that considered this issue found that trial counsel’s decision not to object to this testimony was acceptable under Strickland. Specifically, counsel testified that he was aware that he was opening the door to this inadmissible testimony by eliciting testimony that prison was a terrible place, and that a life sentence was an extreme and harsh punishment. Further, counsel stated that he chose to elicit this testimony knowingly, because he calculated that even if it opened the door to inappropriate testimony, counsel nevertheless felt that the evidence would benefit his client overall.
After running through the Eighth Amendment precedents that gave rise to the capital sentencing framework, the Court ultimately affirms the PCR court’s finding that trial counsel’s failure to object to the testimony at issue did not run afoul of Strickland, noting: “There is evidence that counsel articulated a valid reason for employing this strategy, and because the State’s response was proportional and confined to topics to which counsel had opened the door, we affirm the finding that counsel was not deficient for failing to object to the State’s line of questioning.”