Evidence of a defendant’s attempted suicide is admissible as evidence of guilt, the state Supreme Court has ruled, but only under certain, very limited, circumstances.
In 2011, the South Carolina Court of Appeals held in State v. Orozco that evidence of a suicide attempt is probative of a defendant’s consciousness of guilt, as long as circumstances justify an inference that the suicide attempt was motivated by the defendant’s belief that he was being sought by authorities for the crime for which he was on trial. The court also held that evidence of a suicide attempt is “generally admissible for whatever value the jury decides to give it.”
But in its Sept. 26 decision in State v. Cartwright, III the Supreme Court found such framework inadequate, writing that evidence of a suicide attempt is “fraught with the potential for extreme prejudice.”
Declining to follow Orozco, Chief Justice Donald Beatty laid out four criteria that must be met in order for such evidence to be admissible: (1) A jury could reasonably find that a suicide attempt occurred; (2) the defendant was aware of the occurrence of the alleged crimes at the time of the suicide attempt; (3) an unmistakable nexus exists linking the suicide attempt to a guilty conscience derivative of the offense for which the defendant is on trial; and (4) the evidence survives the prejudice/probativeness test of Rule 403 of the state’s Rules of Evidence.
“Evidence of attempted suicide is not easily analogized to evidence of guilt,” Beatty wrote. “Because this Court has not addressed whether evidence of an attempted suicide by a defendant is admissible, we surveyed other jurisdictions.”
The state Attorney General’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Guilt not a driver
In April 2011, an Aiken County detention officer found Harold Cartwright III hanging from his jail bunk. Cartwright, who was jailed on several sex offenses against minors, had wrapped a bed sheet around his neck in an apparent attempt to take his life, the officer testified.
Cartwright denied molesting his daughter and stepdaughters, and said that he attempted to kill himself because, among other reasons related to his cases, he had been in jail for a month, could not make bond, and his daughter had turned on him.
In addition to the officer’s testimony, the state introduced photos to establish that Cartwright attempted suicide prior to trial. Cartwright was convicted of all charges against him and sentenced to decades in prison.
Cartwright argued that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting evidence of his suicide attempt. The evidence was irrelevant, he contended, because the state failed to establish a nexus between the suicide attempt and the charges against him.
Cartwright acknowledged that he was aware of the charges, but argued that because he turned himself in, the attempt cannot be viewed as evidence of guilt and that a suicide attempt is a complex act that, in his case, was prompted not by guilt, but by other factors.
In unpacking the novel issue—and ultimately holding that evidence of attempted suicide may be admitted if the state established “a clear and unmistakable” nexus linking the attempt to a guilty conscience regarding the offense for which the defendant is on trial—the court leaned on a 1993 New Jersey case, State v. Mann.
The New Jersey Supreme Court found such evidence admissible, but required a trial court to hold a hearing outside the presence of the jury to evaluate whether the evidence supports an inference that the defendant was seeking to avoid prosecution. It recognized that people attempt suicide for many reasons and instructed trial courts to consider a defendant’s explanation, and possible prejudice to a defendant from introduction of the evidence.
“Persuaded by the guidelines set forth in Mann, we decline to adopt a per se rule either admitting or excluding this evidence,” Beatty wrote. “Instead, we find its admission should be made on a case-by-case basis … We recognize that in view of our rigorous framework, suicide-attempt evidence will rarely be admitted.”
This case was one of those rarities where the facts survive the newly minted, strict test for admissibility.
The court found that Cartwright’s attempt took place on the same day he was served with additional warrants and that he had threatened to kill himself if his victims ever told anyone about the abuse. By acting on his threats, the court held, the attempt enhanced the probative value of the evidence.
The court also determined, after canvassing decisions from other jurisdictions, that the trial court shall not charge the jury on the evidence, but that the absence of instruction shall “in no manner foreclose the ability of the State and the defendant to make permissible jury arguments respecting the jury’s consideration of the suicide-attempt evidence.”
‘Too speculative,’ two justices say
Justice Kaye Hearn and Acting Justice J. Cordell Maddux Jr. signed a concurring opinion arguing that evidence of a suicide attempt, standing alone, is not probative of guilt and should not be admitted.
“In my view, a suicide attempt without some tangible inculpatory evidence––such as a note penned in the defendant’s hand which states that his suicide was motivated by guilt stemming from his commission of the crime––should never be admitted,” Hearn wrote.
Cartwright’s attorney, appellate defender Robert Dudek, agreed with Hearn and Maddux regarding the complexity of suicide, calling it “irresponsible” for a solicitor to presume that guilt is the only reason a defendant might try to take his own life.
“The world we’re living in now, the mere accusation destroys [the defendant], destroys [the defendant’s family], destroys [the defendant’s kids],” Dudek said. “That can take a person into ‘Hey, life just isn’t worth living anymore.’”
Dudek said he was pleased, however, with the safeguards this decision has put into place.
“I wish they would’ve decided that suicide attempt evidence is never coming in again in South Carolina, but at least they laid out a stringent test—a rigorous test, as they call it—which will rarely allow the evidence to be put into a criminal trial again. Hopefully, future trial judges, solicitors, and defense attorneys will read it closely.”
The 14-page decision is State v. Cartwright III (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-094-18). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @SCLWHamacher