On August 7, 2019, the South Carolina Supreme Court vacated a murder conviction, granted post-conviction relief (“PCR”), and ordered a new trial in State v. Felder. Felder’s trial counsel did not object when the prosecution introduced a summary of Felder’s statement that mentioned “he was currently on bond for a lynching charge.”
“After weighing trial counsel’s error against the strength of the State’s case,” our Supreme Court in Felder concluded “the error creates a reasonable probability that the outcome of Felder’s trial would have been different had trial counsel acted to exclude the reference to the lynching charge.”
Felder illustrates how our Supreme Court will apply it decision in Smalls v. State, 422 S.C. 174, 810 S.E.2d 836 (2018), which held, “In determining whether the applicant has proven prejudice, the PCR court should consider the specific impact counsel’s error had on the outcome of the trial.” Here, the statement about the pending lynching change was not admissible and would have been excluded if trial counsel had objected. The Court observed, “The evidence in this case was primarily circumstantial,” and “There is no evidence in the record that conclusively links Felder to the murder.” Because the the evidence of guilt was not overwhelming, Felder established prejudice resulting from his trial counsel’s error.
Felder represents our Supreme Court’s recent trend towards providing a clear analytic framework for evaluating the prejudice prong in PCR cases.