Self-Defense: Directed Verdict Standard vs. Prosecution’s Burden of Proof

On March 12, 2014, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided State v. Butler, which presented the issue of “whether the trial court erred in refusing to apply a standard requiring the state to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt at the directed verdict stage.”  Our Court denied relief, affirmed the conviction, and explained the difference between the directed verdict standard and the prosecution’s burden of proof.

The Court explained that at the directed verdict stage, “the trial judge is conceded with the existence of evidence not the weight of the evidence.”  If the prosecution presents “any direct evidence or substantial circumstantial evidence reasonably tending to prove the guilt of the accused,” then the trial judge should submit the case to the jurors.  When submitting a self-defense case to the jurors, if requested, the judge should also instruct the jurors that the prosecution has the burden of disproving self-defense beyond  reasonable doubt.

The result in Butler is not surprising based on longstanding precedent.  In a concurring opinion Justice Beatty blamed the Court for confusion resulting from its 2011 decision in State v. Dickey.  In Dickey, a majority of the Court held that the trial court should have directed a verdict of acquittal because the prosecution failed to disprove the elements of self defense beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The law of self-defense has been and will continue to be the subject matter of opinions by our appellate courts.  This area of the law highlights the importance of criminal defense attorneys monitoring legal developments.

Please click here to read State v. Butler and State v. Dickey.

Please click one of these links to read previous blog posts have reviewed the History of South Carolina’s Self-Defense Jury Instruction” and explained why “South Carolina’s Self-Defense Jury Instruction is Obsolete and Inadequate.” 

Please check back on Monday, March 17, 2014 for a post “Recommending New Self-Defense Jury Instructions in South Carolina.”