South Carolina’s highest court has reversed the conviction and death penalty of a man convicted in the torture and death of a teenage boy.
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruling means 34-year-old Steven Barnes could face a new trial in the nearly 12-year-old case. In a 3-2 decision, the court ruled a trial judge used improper criteria by refusing to allow Barnes to act as his own attorney.
Barnes has been on death row since he was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010. Prosecutors said that Barnes kidnapped 16 year old Samuel Sturrup in Augusta, Georgia in 2001, put him into a car trunk, and drove him across the state line to Edgefield County. Once there, investigators say Barnes ordered four accomplices to each shoot the boy once before Barnes killed him with a shot in the head. The accomplices testified that Barnes told them they were as guilty as he and all kept quiet until Sturrup’s skeleton was discovered several months later.
Barnes wanted to represent himself in court, saying he did not trust his public defenders. But the trial judge ruled Barnes was not competent enough to act as his own attorney, writing “I further find that the defendant does not knowingly, intelligently understand the dangers inherent in self-representation. I feel like I would not be fulfilling my responsibilities under the law to an individual that deserves a fair trial if I allow on this record.”
A jury eventually found Barnes guilty of murder. The judge sentenced him to death, based on the jury’s recommendation.
But in its ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court noted that Barnes had an 11th-grade education and seemed to be aware of legal proceedings. The justices ruled that Barnes could not be held to a higher standard than is required for mental competency on other court proceedings, such as a guilty plea.
“The only relevant question is whether the defendant’s (decision to self-represent) is knowing and intelligent, not whether it is wise,” Justice Costa Pleicones wrote for the majority.
However, Chief Justice Jean Toal disagreed with the ruling, noting in her dissenting opinion that a doctor had previously testified about Barnes’ psychiatric problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder. “(I)n my view, the defendant’s right to self-representation is not absolute, and… courts may place reasonable restrictions on that right.”