S.C. Supreme Court Reinstates Conviction Of Bentley Collins

The South Carolina Supreme Court has reinstated the conviction of Bentley Collins, who “was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of owning a dangerous animal causing injury to a person after a ten-year-old boy was killed and partially eaten by his dogs, most of whom were pitbull mixes.”

The South Carolina Court of Appeals had overturned the conviction, and Collins was to be granted a new trial; however, the S.C. Supreme Court reversed this decision which the opinion says was “based solely on the trial court’s admission of seven pre-autopsy photos of the victim” and the decision of the Court of Appeals has been reversed.
Below are excerpts from the S.C. Supreme Court’s opinion which are being printed verbatim:
On November 3, 2006, the mother of the victim returned to her home in Dillon County around 7:00 p.m. and discovered that her ten-year-old son had not come home for dinner at 5:30 p.m. as expected. She checked with her aunt, who resided with her, and then began looking around the neighborhood.
She called the police when she could not find her son. The police arrived and the mother rode with them as they scoured the neighborhood.
Shortly after 10:00 p.m., they discovered the boy’s body on the ground in Collins’s yard, with a group of dogs nearby. The mother poignantly recalled that her son “was tore to pieces.
The mother and the police tried to get to the boy, but the dogs ran at them each time they approached his body. Agents from SLED arrived, and they could not process the crime scene until animal control employees arrived to capture and remove the dogs from the scene.
Neither Collins nor any of his family members were at home. Collins had six dogs on the premises, all of which were unrestrained. Collins had no fence or dog pens, and neighbors reported that he never kept his dogs on leashes or chains. Most of the dogs appeared to be pitbull mixes. The three largest dogs weighed 47 pounds, 44 pounds, and 36 pounds, respectively, and they ranged in age from about one to two years old. Several of the dogs had bite wounds on their shoulders, which was indicative of dog fighting. One of the female dogs captured was determined to be in heat.
An autopsy of the victim revealed the boy died of extensive traumatic injury secondary to being severely mauled by dogs. According to the forensic pathologist, Edward Proctor, the boy suffered a “tremendous number” of bite marks on his legs and had “extensive” loss of skin and soft tissue on his upper body and his face, including his ears and nose, which were “completely eaten away” by the dogs. Areas of the boy’s chest and his arm had also been eaten, exposing the bone. The boy’s jugular vein on the left side was torn in half, causing significant blood loss leading to his death. The pathologist determined the boy “would have been alive until the injuries to the neck that transected the blood vessel in the neck allowing him to bleed enough until he either became unconscious or expired.”
Two boys who lived in the neighborhood, “J” and “B,” gave statements to the police the day after the incident. They were in J’s yard at around sunset on November 3, 2006 when they heard growling and barking nearby. J had been looking for his puppy, so they went to investigate and saw three of Collins’s dogs eating something on the ground that appeared to be “a bloody piece of meat.” As J walked to within about ten feet of the “meat,” another dog that they had not seen ran out and jumped on J, knocking him to the ground. J shoved that dog away, but another one then came after him. One of the larger dogs bit J “behind [his] neck,” so the boys left immediately.
Collins was indicted for involuntary manslaughter and three counts of owning a dangerous animal [The State charged Collins with three counts of owning a dangerous animal (although six dogs were at the scene) based on the fact that the neighborhood boys specifically saw three of Collins’s dogs eating the victim’s body.] and allowing it to be unconfined, resulting in the mauling death of the victim. A jury convicted Collins of all charges. Collins appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed and remanded for a new trial based solely on the admission of seven photographs that were taken by the pathologist to document the victim’s injuries prior to performing the autopsy. This Court granted the State’s petition for a writ of certiorari.
…On appeal, the State contends the challenged photos, taken before the autopsy was commenced, accurately documented the injuries sustained by the victim in this case and, while graphic, were properly admitted in accordance with the trial court’s broad discretion over evidentiary matters. The State argues the Court of Appeals (1) failed to give due deference to the trial court’s decision, (2) erred in finding the photos were more prejudicial than probative, (3) erred in finding the photos were not material to the elements of the offenses charged and corroborative of other evidence, and (4) erred in making a purely emotional decision to reverse and remand for a new trial. We agree.
…In this case, the ten-year-old victim’s body was discovered in the defendant’s yard, having suffered numerous bite marks and being partially eaten by the dogs. There were no eyewitnesses to the attack. At trial, the State attempted to piece together a theory of what transpired with the best evidence available, the victim’s body, and its expert witnesses, which included a forensic pathologist and a dog behaviorist. They theorized that it was an unprovoked attack in which the victim was taken down by his legs first based on the wounds observed on the body, and then the boy suffered additional harm to his jugular vein and other areas, leading to his death. According to the State’s dog behavior expert, the dogs, who were not restrained in any way, acted as a pack and could have been malnourished or mistreated based on the dogs’ gaunt appearance, the absence of any food at the scene, and the appearance of the victim’s body, which appeared to have been eaten by more than one dog due to the significant tissue loss. The dog expert noted that in over ten years of working for the Sheriff’s Office analyzing dog bites, dog attacks, and deaths caused by dogs, this was the worst case he had ever seen.
The State also presented evidence of the dogs’ prior acts of aggression towards people in the neighborhood, several occurring while Collins stood by and watched without taking any action to restrain his dogs. For example, B, one of the boys who came upon the victim’s body after the attack, testified he had numerous encounters with the dogs, as they were “never” restrained. B recounted that on at least two occasions, Collins stood by and watched as the dogs ran out into the road after him and his friend J as they drove four-wheelers. Collins did not attempt to intervene. In addition, when B and his mother tried to walk in the neighborhood for exercise, the dogs would “frequently” come out and try to bite their legs, so they wound up having to change their route just to avoid Collins’s aggressive dogs.
In order to support its assertions about the dangerous propensities of the dogs, the manner and extent of the attack, and Collins’s criminal negligence, the State also offered a group of photos taken of the victim by Proctor, the forensic pathologist, before he began the autopsy. The trial court engaged in an extended colloquy in camera with the State and defense counsel in which the trial court allowed both sides to make arguments, and then the attorneys and the court examined the pathologist about each of the proposed photos in turn. The trial court pulled some photos and ultimately allowed into evidence seven of the pre-autopsy photos, State’s Exhibits 27 and 30 to 35, over defense counsel’s Rule 403, SCRE objection.
In his trial testimony, Proctor explained that he did not normally take autopsy photos, but in his years of experience he had “never seen an attack by animals of this type, [so he] actually left the autopsy and went to [his] home and brought [his] camera back and took pictures for [] documentation purposes.” (Emphasis added.) Proctor found there was “tremendous traumatic injury to this young man” that was as “significant [a] traumatic injury as [he had] seen.”
During cross-examination, defense counsel questioned Proctor’s findings extensively by asking him whether he had surveyed the dogs’ teeth marks to determine which dogs inflicted specific injuries, whether the boy’s jugular artery was “actually severed,” and which came first, the “shredding” of the boy’s jugular artery or the veins in his arms, etc. Thus, the nature and extent of the boy’s physical injuries as described by the pathologist were in contention by the defense.
Moreover, while Collins did not testify, his witnesses, including his children and friends, did so, and they maintained the dogs were not at all dangerous, that  they had never run at people in an aggressive manner, and that they had always been given an abundance of food. The defense opined that the presence of the female dog in heat had perhaps made the dogs more agitated and territorial than normal, but they were not dangerous animals. However, after considering all of the available evidence, the jury made a determination of guilt as to the charges.
The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial solely on the basis of the trial court’s decision to admit the pre-autopsy photos, reasoning the probative value of the challenged photos was substantially outweighed by their potential for being unfairly prejudicial under Rule 403, SCRE, and that the error was not harmless. State v. Collins, 398 S.C. 197, 727 S.E.2d 751 (Ct. App. 2012). The court “agreed[d] that the photos have some probative value in helping the jury,” and “recognize[d] that the photos add a visual element not present in the testimony of the witnesses,” but ultimately found these considerations were outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.
…Under our highly deferential standard of review, we conclude, contrary to the Court of Appeals, that the trial court did not abuse its wide scope of discretion in admitting the pre-autopsy photos. The Court of Appeals’s obvious revulsion for the evidence, while certainly understandable, permeated its legal analysis. The evidence was highly probative, corroborative, and material in establishing the elements of the offenses charged; its probative value outweighed its potential prejudice; and the appellate court should not have invaded the trial court’s discretion in admitting this crucial evidence based on its emotional reaction to the subject matter presented.4
Courts must often grapple with disturbing and unpleasant cases, but that does not justify preventing essential evidence from being considered by the jury, which is charged with the solemn duty of acting as the fact-finder. As one court has astutely observed, it is the duty of courts and juries to examine the evidence in even the most unpleasant of circumstances.
…Numerous jurisdictions have found that photos are not inadmissible merely because they are gruesome, especially where, as here, the photos simply mirror the unfortunate reality of the case. …As one court has stated, “The law is well settled that the mere fact that a photograph is gruesome is not a reason for its non admission.”
…Moreover, the standard is not simply whether the evidence is prejudicial; rather, the standard under Rule 403, SCRE is whether there is a danger of unfair prejudice that substantially outweighs the probative value of the evidence. Where the State had the burden of proving the elements of the offenses charged and there were no eyewitnesses to the incident resulting in the victim’s death, the photos here provided concrete evidence as to what transpired on that fateful day. We particularly note the photos were taken before the autopsy was conducted as a means to document the extent and nature of the victim’s injuries. Thus, they show the unaltered condition of the victim, not any additional wounds that could have been made to the body by the pathologist in performing his examination.
These are not ordinary dog bites with which most jurors would ever be familiar. Even the pathologist stated he felt compelled to document the injuries prior to the start of the autopsy because he had never come across a situation this extreme. Since there was no one else present at the time of the event, the photos aided the jury in evaluating the testimony offered by both the State and the defendant, especially as to determining the dangerous propensities of the dogs and whether or not Collins’s conduct was criminally reckless.
…Although we find no abuse of the trial court’s broad scope of discretion here, we further find any alleged error would be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
…We hold there was overwhelming evidence presented of Collins’s guilt as to the charges of (1) having an unrestrained, dangerous animal that attacked and injured a human being, and (2) involuntary manslaughter. The undisputed evidence was that Collins’s dogs were unattended and they were not confined, as there were no fences, leashes, dog pens, or chains used to restrain them. In addition, other evidence showed Collins’s dogs attacked, killed, and partially ate the ten-year-old victim in this case, and they also attacked one of the neighborhood boys who happened upon the scene soon thereafter and bit him on the neck. Lastly, there was evidence that Collins was aware of his animals’ dangerous propensities, as the dogs, the largest of whom weighed 47 and 44 pounds, had previously exhibited overt acts of aggression towards people in the neighborhood while Collins was present. In light of the foregoing, a jury could not rationally conclude anything other than that Collins had violated the law governing unrestrained dangerous animals and was criminally negligent in the death of the victim.
…CONCLUSION: We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the pre-autopsy photos. Consequently, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals