South Carolina Supreme Court revisits “good character alone” jury instruction

On August 7, 2019, in Pantovich v. State, the South Carolina Supreme Court revisited our state’s “good character alone” instruction which required trial judges to instruct jurors:

Good character evidence alone may create a reasonable doubt as to the commission of the crime charged. Thus, under some circumstances, a person might be entitled to a verdict of not guilty when his good reputation is taken into consideration even though a verdict of guilty might be authorized without the evidence of good character.

The Court noted its modern decisions “cast doubt upon the validity of charges instructing juries on how to interpret and use evidence.” The Court, however, affirmed the grant of post-conviction relief (“PCR”)in this case because of the “retrospective nature of PCR review,” meaning that Mr. Pantovich was entitled to the jury instruction at the time of his trial and his appellate counsel was ineffective for not briefing on appeal his request for this instruction.

Even though the Court held the “good character alone” instruction to be improper, an accused is still entitled to a jury instruction on good character evidence. The opinion in Pantovich recognized an accused can request”a non-offending good character charge,” such as:

An accused, when charged with a crime, has the right of proving his general good character. He may introduce evidence of his good character which is inconsistent with the crime charged against him.

Evidence of the general good character of the accused is for the purpose of showing the improbability that the defendant would have committed the crime charged. The good character of the accused is like all other evidence in the case and is entitled to such effect and weight as you, the jury, may determine.

In cases where witnesses testify about the good character of an accused, trial counsel should request this instruction.

Click this link to read the opinion in Pantovich v. State.