COLUMBIA, SC – The state Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of a man who served 13 years in a South Carolina prison because the prosecutor made comments suggesting that all defense lawyers and their clients lie.
Oscar Fortune, 51, was convicted of murder in 2006 by a jury and sentenced to 37 years with no chance of early release.
In issuingits decisionWednesday, the court cited comments by the prosecutor, who remarked during the trial that his job was to show the truth while the defense's job was to manipulate and confuse jurors.
The court said such comments were “blatantly improper.” The prosecutor was not named in court records.
The South Carolina Attorney General's Office did not respond to an email asking if prosecutors would appeal the ruling. If they don't, Fortune will be returned to Chesterfield County for a new trial.
“He's a really decent guy and had no criminal record," said attorney Elizabeth Franklin-Best, who argued the appeal. “He's excited to have a chance to clear his name again."
Jurors were being asked to decide if Fortune was telling the truth on the stand when he said he fired his gun in self-defense after being fired on first in a crowded parking lot of a Huddle House restaurant in Cheraw on Dec. 23, 2001.
Fortune testified that he arrived in the parking lot after his cousin called and told him a man named Anthony Shields had hit her over the head with a beer bottle, according to court documents. He said he and the cousin were planning to go to the police and ask that Shields be arrested.
Shields and the cousin were arguing when he got there, Fortune said. He said as he approached them, Shields started firing at him and he fired back.
“I was in fear for my life. I mean, he shot," Fortune told jurors.
Prosecutors said Shields was shot several times while sitting in his car and that Fortune fired first.
In closing arguments, the prosecutor told jurors he could have simply dropped the charges and not tried the case if there was any reason he thought Fortune wasn't guilty of murder.
“My job is to show the truth. On the other hand, the defense attorneys' jobs are to manipulate the truth. Their job is to shroud the truth. Their job is (to) confuse jurors. Their job is to do whatever they have to do — without regard to the truth — to get a not guilty verdict," the prosecutor said.
The Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled the remarks were so far out of line and the judge's response to the defense's objections were so tepid that Fortune could no longer get a fair trial.
A lower court “found the remarks were ‘improper.' We find they were absolutely inexcusable,” associate justice John Few wrote in the ruling.
“The issue at trial was credibility," said Fortune's lawyer, Franklin-Best. “He testified. Either you believed him or you didn't. But then those comments from the prosecutor gave the jurors license to not believe him.”
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