A now-suspended attorney’s missteps in dealing with an expert witness for the prosecution has spurred the South Carolina Supreme Court to allow a new trial for a convicted sex offender who was serving life in prison.
The court upheld in State v. Briggs an earlier finding in a post-conviction relief action that Spartanburg County defense attorney Max Singleton failed to object to a forensic interviewer’s direct testimony that improperly bolstered the victim’s credibility.
Justice John Few, who wrote the Oct. 25 opinion, also found that Singleton had actually elicited similar improper bolstering testimony from the interviewer, Michele Arroyo-Staggs, during cross examination. Justices John Kittredge, Kaye Hearn and George James concurred, while Chief Justice Donald Beatty concurred in result only without writing a separate opinion.
Singleton was admitted to the bar in 2004 and suspended in 2015, after the Supreme Court found nine instances of misconduct, including failure to communicate with his clients and a judge; not showing up for a client’s traffic court hearing and failing to refund his fee; failing to pay a court reporting agency; and failing to implement a law office advisor’s suggestions to improve his practice. The court required Singleton to hire the advisor as part of a 2011 disciplinary action.
Attempts to speak with Singleton were unsuccessful. Briggs’ appellate attorney, Jeremy Thompson of Irmo, declined to discuss the case without his client’s permission. He said Briggs was being transferred between prisons and he was unable to reach him before press time. The state Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Supreme Court affirmed the post-conviction relief judge’s ruling that Singleton should have objected to Arroyo-Staggs’ testimony that her “role” was to determine whether the child victim knew the difference between the truth and a lie “clearly conveyed to the jury that she believed the victim.”
Few wrote that what Arroyo-Staggs said on the stand “went far beyond her role as a person who collects facts for the jury to use in the jury’s determination of whether the victim was telling the truth.”
“Arroyo-Staggs invaded the province of the jury and testified that she had already made that determination,” he added.
Few noted that the court would not have found that Singleton was deficient if he’d testified that he opted against objecting to Arroyo-Staggs’ testimony, even though it was inadmissible, as part of his trial strategy. Instead, he testified that he “had no strategy to support his failure to object … and he did not even consider objecting.”
Few also faulted Singleton for asking Arroyo-Staggs on cross, “How can you as an expert determine is she’s [the victim] telling the truth?” He found that the “open-ended quality of the question … was sure to solicit an answer that directly bolstered the victim’s credibility.”
“We can discern no defensible purpose for Singleton’s cross-examination questions,” he added. “Singleton did not provide any.”
During Briggs’ trial in 2010, a detective testified that Briggs had not strongly denied abusing the girl and had told him, “Well, I’m not going to deny it to you because you know better.” He also reportedly said that he was “sick and he needed help.”
The jury found that Briggs had performed sex acts on the underage girl in question and a judge handed down a life sentence. The state Court of Appeals later confirmed his conviction, which now hangs in the balance in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The 15-page decision is Briggs v. State (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-060-17). An opinion digest is available at sclawyersweekly.com.
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