The South Carolina Supreme Court yesterday ordered a new trial for an inmate on death row for more than nine years whose appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected in March.
In a unanimous ruling, the state court said the murder conviction of Horace Butler, 31, should be overturned because of errors by the judge at his original trial in 1981.
In a 2 1/2-page opinion, the five-member court said the judge violated Butler's constitutional rights against self-incrimination. The judge repeatedly warned Butler about the consequences of failing to take the stand in his defense, saying the jury might hold that against Butler despite the judge's instructions to the contrary.
Butler did not testify but made a brief statement asking for mercy at the penalty phase of the trial, when the jury, after convicting him of the murder of an 18-year-old woman, decided whether to impose the death penalty.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 1985 in another case in which the same judge made similar comments and the defendant chose to take the stand that the judge's error warranted a new trial. The court also granted new trials the next year to two men sentenced to death before the same judge. Both men had chosen not to testify despite the judge's advice.
The U.S. Supreme Court in March rejected Butler's request to throw out his confession, saying a 1988 ruling that would have resulted in the confession being suppressed should not apply retroactively to Butler's case.
Butler's lawyers then asked the South Carolina court to give Butler a new trial on the ground that the judge's comments had violated his rights. In agreeing to that request yesterday, the court noted that recent testing indicated that he had an IQ of 61.