SC Supreme Court: No Mid-Trial Appeal for the State

State v. David Ledford (No. 2016-000791)

During the charge conference in Mr. Ledford’s trial for inflicting great bodily injury upon a child, there was a dispute between the parties regarding the proper jury instructions. Ledford’s proposed jury instruction included a requirement that he acted “willfully” in order for the jury to convict. Ledford explained his requested jury charge included the term “willfully” because the indictment alleged he “willfully” inflicted great bodily injury upon a child. He asserted that because the State included this level of intent in the indictment, the State was required to prove to the jury he committed the crime “willfully.” The State objected to the proposed jury charge, arguing the jury charge added an element to the offense that was not in the statute. The trial court determined Ledford’s requested jury charge was appropriate. Before the trial court could charge the jury, the State filed a notice of appeal with the court of appeals. The court of appeals promptly dismissed the State’s appeal, ruling the trial court’s decision to give the disputed jury charge was not immediately appealable. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the court of appeals’ order of dismissal.

The Supreme Court affirms the court of appeals’ dismissal of the appeal. The court acknowledges that it permits an immediate appeal by the State when there is “[a] pre-trial order granting the suppression of evidence which significantly impairs the prosecution of a criminal case.” The court declines to extend this to the present case.

An immediate appeal from a mid-trial ruling on a proposed jury charge is a different animal from an immediate appeal from a pre-trial evidentiary ruling which materially hampers the State’s prosecution of a case. Section 14-3-330(2) requires the State to show that the trial court’s decision to charge “willfulness” to the jury “in effect determines the action.” The State simply has not made that showing. The trial court’s decision to give the disputed charge might make it more difficult for the State to prove its case; however, it does not foreclose the possibility that the jury could find Ledford acted willfully in inflicting great bodily injury upon Child. Therefore, the trial court’s decision to give the disputed charge did not in effect determine the action.

The court further acknowledges that “There are countless situations in which a trial court’s mid-trial ruling could make the State’s prosecution of its case more difficult, and the State would still be prohibited from appealing the trial court’s decision if the jury returned a verdict of acquittal.” Nevertheless, the court notes that allowing appeals in circumstances like these “would result in the trial process becoming an unmanageable ‘stop-and-start’ enterprise.”

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