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South Carolina Supreme Court: Failure to Give Logan Instruction Not Harmless Error Where Evidence Almost Entirely Circumstantial

Robin Herndon was a law enforcement officer whose live-in boyfriend, Christopher Rowley, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and placed on medication because of his mood swings, aggression, and uncontrolled anger. Witnesses testified that they saw Herndon and Rowley arguing in front of their home. The two then retreated into the residence.

According to Herndon, Rowley then punched her. She drew her service weapon and warned him to leave. Rowley charged at her, swatting the gun. She shot and killed him.

The pathologist testified that the bullet trajectory was consistent with two scenarios: (1) Herndon shot Rowley as he walked up the steps to the house or (2) Rowley was charging Herndon when he was shot. The State elected to try Herndon on a murder charge based on the first scenario.

At trial, Herndon specifically requested the charge set forth in Logan. The trial court refused, opting instead to “go with the charge that’s in the desk book.” Herndon was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 19 years in prison. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that the trial court’s failure to give the Logan charge was harmless error. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Herndon’s petition for writ of certiorari.

The Court recited the charge from Logan which, in pertinent part, states: “Direct evidence directly proves the existence of a fact and does not require deduction. Circumstantial evidence is proof of a chain of facts and circumstances indicating the existence of a fact.... [T]o the extent the State relies on circumstantial evidence ... the circumstances must be consistent with each other, and when taken together, point conclusively to the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. If these circumstances merely portray the defendant’s behavior as suspicious, the proof has failed.”

When a trial court refuses to give a requested instruction, the judgment will be reversed only where the refusal was both erroneous and prejudicial. State v. Brandt, 713 S.E.2d 591 (S.C. 2011). There’s no error if the charge given covers the substance of the request. State v. Mattison, 697 S.E.2d 578 (S.C. 2010). The evaluation of circumstantial evidence requires jurors to find that the proponent of the evidence has connected collateral facts in order to prove the proposition propounded – a process not required when evaluating direct evidence. Logan. Consequently, when the State relies in whole or in part on circumstantial evidence, trial courts should give the Logan charge when requested.

The Court concluded that the trial court’s failure to give the Logan charge in this case was not harmless error because the State relied on (1) eyewitness testimony prior to the shooting to suggest Herndon was angry and (2) testimony from the pathologist explaining the pathway of the bullet could have been the result of Herndon shooting Rowley as he walked up the stairs – but the pathologist also testified that the shooting could have happened as Herndon said. The competing inferences from the circumstantial evidence required the Logan charge.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded. See: State v. Herndon, 2020 S.C. LEXIS 107 (2020). 

Related legal case

State v. Herndon

 

 

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