A Conway woman’s voluntary manslaughter conviction has been overturned because there was no evidence that she shot her husband in a heat of passion, and thus no justification for the trial judge to instruct the jury on the charge of voluntary manslaughter, the South Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled.

Heather Sims was indicted for murder in 2013 after Horry County prosecutors said she killed her husband in an effort to collect a life insurance policy. Sims argued that she shot her husband in self-defense after he attacked her with a knife in their home.

At the close of trial, Horry County Circuit Court Judge J. Cordell Maddox Jr. instructed the jury to consider charges of murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. Sims objected to the latter two charges, arguing that the court should charge “murder or nothing.” The jury found Sims guilty of voluntary manslaughter and acquitted her of the other two charges.

On appeal, Sims argued that her conviction should be tossed out because there was no evidence to support a charge of voluntary manslaughter, which is defined as the “unlawful killing of a human being in sudden heat of passion upon sufficient legal provocation.” Heat of passion and self-defense are two entirely different concepts, Sims argued.

Judge John Geathers, writing for a unanimous panel in a February 27 opinion, agreed, saying that prosecutors had theorized that Sims was engaged in a “heated argument” and was under a sudden heat of passion when she shot her husband, but had presented no evidence to support such a jury charge, only speculation.

“A voluntary manslaughter charge is not justified where the State asks us to theorize on whether

Sims was under a sudden heat of passion, especially where the totality of the evidence suggests she was not,” Geathers wrote, noting that circuit courts have often struggled to delineate between heat of passion and self-defense.

Geathers cited testimony that Sims was trying to back out of the room when her husband lunged at her, and that she shot him only after he had already cut her arms and stabbed her in the torso. Geathers also noted that Sims called 911 and administered CPR after the shooting occurred.

The state argued that if the voluntary manslaughter conviction were reversed, the case should be remanded for a new trial on the charge of involuntary manslaughter, but the court denied the request for retrial, saying it would violate the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment.

“The State ignores the fact that the jury checked ‘not guilty’ on the verdict form for both the murder charge and the involuntary manslaughter charge, thus acquitting Sims of involuntary manslaughter at trial,” he said. “As such, because an acquittal ‘absolutely shields the defendant from retrial,’ we find the case cannot be remanded for retrial on involuntary manslaughter.”

Blake Hewitt of Bluestein Thompson Sullivan in Columbia represented Sims on appeal, along with Alex Hyman and L. Morgan Martin, both of Conway.

Hewitt, who was elected to serve on the Court of Appeals on Feb. 6, said that the attorneys were pleased that the court upheld what he viewed as a straightforward application of the law.

“The state didn’t try it as a manslaughter case, they tried it as a murder case,” Hewitt said. “And then at the 11th hour, they asked for voluntary manslaughter, even though there was no evidence of that.”

A press official from the South Carolina Attorney General’s office said that they are disappointed by the court’s ruling and that they are in the process of filing a petition for a rehearing.

The 25-page decision is State v. Sims (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-028-19). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Matt Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney

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