A judge on Wednesday decided against a third mistrial for murder defendant Rick Morrocco Williams after faulting a prosecutor for not giving information to the defense.
The problem arose a day earlier, when a North Charleston Police Department detective testified about a statement that Williams reportedly made about the 2010 shooting deaths of two roommates.
Williams, 28, has said he shot Nathaniel Lonnie because the 58-year-old came after him with a sword, and Angie Ferguson because she lunged at him with a box cutter.
Detective Greg Boone testified Tuesday that Williams said he wasn't scared of Lonnie because he was an "old man." The information could have helped the state in disproving Williams' self-defense story.
It wasn't entered into an official report and never came up in Williams' past two trials. His public defender, Beattie Butler, said he didn't know about it until Boone's testimony, so he asked 9th Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson to declare another mistrial.
"He said something I had never heard before," Butler said about the detective. "I should have been told about it."
Nicholson found that Assistant Solicitor Greg Voigt had violated a rule requiring the disclosure of information that prosecutors intend to offer as evidence during a trial. It's the same issue that drove a group of defense attorneys to recently request a state investigation into whether it's a deliberate practice in the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office.
Instead of scuttling another trial, Nicholson told jurors to disregard that portion of Boone's testimony when they deliberate Williams' fate Thursday.
The error was borne from a miscommunication, Voigt said during the proceeding. He was told that Michael Nelson, the former assistant solicitor who handled the first two trials, had known about the supposed statement but had chosen not to use it, Voigt said.
The judge agreed with Voigt that the details of the statement were revealed to the jury because of Boone's tangential response to the prosecutor's yes-or-no question.
"I just assumed I was late to the party in hearing this," Voigt said. "It was new to me, but I didn't figure it was new to anyone else."
Williams faces two counts of murder in the Dec. 31, 2010, deaths of Lonnie and Ferguson, 44.
Alleged violations of the disclosure requirement first came to light during Solicitor Scarlett Wilson's early days in office. But all four cases cited by the association cropped up more than four years ago. They prompted Public Defender Ashley Pennington to address the issue with Wilson, but Pennington recently said the issue had been handled.
The S.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers late last month called on the Attorney General's Office to open an investigation into what it called unfair practices in Wilson's office. It was seen as a response to her request to have state a Supreme Court justice barred from hearing prosecutors' appeals because he had made similar accusations against them.
The attorney general passed on the probe.
Soon after the judge warned jurors Wednesday of the detective's "improper" testimony, Williams testified in his own defense.
Williams had lived rent-free in a home on Durant Avenue in North Charleston with Lonnie, Ferguson and his girlfriend.
Before the killings, Lonnie kicked Williams out over an argument about a neighbor's dog and chased him away with a sword, Williams testified.
Before he left, Williams said he smashed the windows in Lonnie's minivan because Lonnie refused to repay the $200 that Williams gave him to pay for its insurance.
Williams later returned to get things he had left behind, like the marijuana he hid in the bathroom, he said. Lonnie wasn't there, he said, and Ferguson let him in.
Lonnie came back, though, as Williams was packing, he said. Lonnie pinned him against a wall before fetching the sword again, Williams testified. Williams fired his pistol, and a bullet hit Lonnie's head.
"I'm kind of scared," Williams told the jurors. "I'm just trying to not get stabbed."
Williams then blocked Ferguson's first few swipes with a box cutter, he said, but she kept swinging. He shot her in the head too.
He sniffled and used a paper towel to wipe his eyes as he testified.
"I feel terrible," he said. "I have to wake every morning and think about these incidents."
Voigt pointed out that Lonnie's feet were shoeless when his body was found. That didn't jibe with Williams' story, the prosecutor said, that Lonnie wasn't home when the defendant arrived.
Williams also acknowledged moving the box cutter and other things that had blood on them.
He then left without calling 911, Williams said, because he was scared of going to jail.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.