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South Carolina Supreme Court Grants New Trial Based on IAC Because of Botched Alibi Defense

by Dale Chappell

A unanimous Supreme Court of South Carolina held that trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to present specific details of an alibi defense that the Court said undermined the confidence in the outcome of the trial and remanded for a new trial.

The case started when Anthony Martin was charged with the robbery of a bank in North Augusta, South Carolina, on April 23, 2009 at 12:20 p.m. That time stamp is critical because Martin’s defense was that it would have been impossible for him to be there because he was in Atlanta with his mother, 150 miles away, not even an hour before the robbery. And his mother gave a statement to defense counsel corroborating Martin’s story, stating that she dropped him off at a bus stop at “around 11:15, 11:30.” However, counsel never told the jury the exact time he was dropped off, which would have shown Martin was not in the area during the robbery.

There wasn’t any physical evidence tying Martin to the crime. The only evidence the State had against Martin was three codefendants who said that Martin committed the robbery. The three codefendants who did commit the crime cooperated with law enforcement to get a break in their sentence. Two of them even admitted that they lied to the cops during the investigation in hopes of exonerating themselves. The codefendants all admitted to being friends but hardly knew Martin.

Nevertheless, Martin was convicted of the robbery. He then filed an application for postconviction relief (“PCR”), claiming that trial counsel was ineffective for not giving the jury the full details of his alibi defense. His mother’s statement that counsel admitted he had on file specifically stated that she dropped Martin off at the bus stop in Atlanta “around 11:15, 11:30” on the day of the robbery. Had counsel told the jury this crucial detail, Martin argued, he could not have been convicted of the robbery.

The PCR court denied his application. The court said that Martin didn’t provide his mother’s testimony with his PCR application to support his claim. And the court ruled that the “overwhelming evidence” of his guilt negated any prejudice caused by counsel’s error. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Martin’s petition for a writ of certiorari to review the PCR court’s ruling.

The standard two-part test announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), for showing ineffective assistance of counsel is (1) that counsel’s errors fell below “an objective standard of reasonableness” and (2) that without counsel’s errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Here, Martin’s task was to show the outcome of his trial would have been different absent counsel’s error.

When a PCR applicant claims that counsel failed to pursue an alibi defense (or improperly presented an alibi defense), he “must produce the witness at the PCR hearing or otherwise introduce the witness’s testimony in a manner consistent with the rules of evidence,” the South Carolina Supreme Court instructed in Glover v. State, 458 S.E.2d 538 (S.C. 1995). “Mere speculation what the witness’s testimony would have been cannot, by itself, satisfy the applicant’s burden of showing prejudice.” Id.

As far as the “overwhelming evidence” that the PCR court said negated any prejudice to Martin, the Supreme Court said it’s true that overwhelming evidence could negate prejudice. “However, the evidence must include something conclusive, such as a confession, DNA evidence demonstrating guilt, or a combination” of evidence so strong that Strickland could not be met. Dubious testimony of witnesses who also committed the crime and now are looking for a break is hardly overwhelming evidence, the Court said.

The jury also asked the trial court during deliberations to rehear Martin’s alibi testimony. The Court said that this means it would have been “reasonable to assume the jury is focusing critical attention” on his alibi, and it was a key part of the defense.

“To state the obvious,” the Supreme Court said, “if the mother’s specific alibi testimony had been presented and believed, it would have made it impossible for Petitioner to travel by car from Atlanta to Aiken County [South Carolina] and participate in the robbery at 12:20 p.m.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the denial of Martin’s PCR application and remanded for a new trial. See: Martin v. State, 832 S.E.2d 277 (S.C. 2019).

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