COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina’s high court on Wednesday reversed the death sentence of a man convicted in a teen’s 2001 torture and death, ruling that the defendant should have been allowed to represent himself at trial.
Steven Barnes, 34, has been on death row since his 2010 conviction. Prosecutors said he beat 16-year-old Samuel Sturrup with a pipe after kidnapping him from Augusta, Ga., in September 2001, then stuffed him in a trunk and drove him to South Carolina.
Authorities have said that Barnes forced Sturrup into the woods, where he ordered four other people to shoot the teen once before Barnes killed him with a shot to the head.
The killing, which Edgefield County Sheriff Adell Dobey called one of the most cold-blooded in the county’s recent history, was discovered three months later when a dog found a skull with a bullet hole.
Barnes – owner of an escort service – was subsequently arrested in his Georgia home, where police say he had imprisoned four teenage girls and forced them to have sex for money.
In its ruling, the state’s high court said Wednesday that the defendant had asked relevant questions during pre-trial court hearings and demonstrated that he understood the legal process.
Barnes also told the trial judge that his request was driven by “trust issues” and that he had already thought of several other attorneys he could consult as advisers during the trial.
“A South Carolina criminal defendant has the constitutional right to represent himself under both the federal and state constitutions,” Justice Costa Pleicones wrote. “A capital defendant, like any other criminal defendant, may waive his right to counsel.”
Quoting from a trial transcript, in which the judge noted that he felt Barnes’ decision to represent himself would be “unwise,” the high court noted that the judge instead should have relied on legal precedent and his own assessment of Barnes’ ability to make such a decision.
“The only relevant question is whether the defendant’s waiver is knowing and intelligent, not whether it is wise,” the court wrote.
Barnes’ appellate attorney did not immediately comment on the ruling, and a spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson said the court’s action speaks for itself.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote that every consideration must be made to ensure that capital cases are handled fairly.
“Defendants very clearly have a constitutional right to self-representation, however, this right must bow to the competing concern that ‘death is different,’ and trial courts must do everything legitimately within their power to ensure that these trials are fair and that the proceedings and verdict are especially reliable,” she wrote.