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South Carolina Supreme Court Reverses Parole Denial

South Carolina Supreme Court Reverses Parole Denial

by Michael Brodheim

The Supreme Court of South Carolina, exercising the sort of common sense not found in the courts of more “liberal” states like California, held on July 3, 2013 that retroactive application of a law that increases the requirements for parole constitutes an ex post facto violation. In so holding, the Court reversed a denial of parole by the Board of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services (Board).

In 1982, after pleading guilty to one count of murder, Thelma Barton was sentenced to life in prison. Beginning in 1997, her application for parole was denied 13 times.

In January 2012, four of the six Board members participating in Barton’s parole hearing voted in favor of granting her parole. Ultimately, however, parole was denied because, in the Board’s view, section 24-21-645 of the South Carolina Code requires a two-thirds majority vote of the Board’s seven members (i.e., five votes rather than four) before parole may be granted in cases involving violent crimes. The Board cited the “nature, seriousness, and indication of violence of her offense” in denying Barton parole.

Barton appealed the decision, arguing the Board had violated her constitutional rights by not applying the version of section 24-21-645 in effect at the time she committed her offense. That version required only a simple majority (rather than a two-thirds majority) of the Board members to vote in favor of granting parole. In the alternative, Barton argued she had satisfied the current statutory requirements for parole because two-thirds of the Board members who participated in her hearing had voted to grant parole.

The Administrative Law Court affirmed the Board’s decision.

The state Supreme Court reversed on appeal, agreeing with both of Barton’s arguments in a lengthy and detailed ruling.

“Simply put, prior to the [statutory] amendment, Appellant merely needed to obtain favorable votes from a majority of the Parole Board,” the Court wrote. “Following the amendment, Appellant must obtain favorable votes from two-thirds of the Parole Board. This amendment is not procedural, but poses a sufficient risk of increasing the measure of punishment attached to Appellant’s crime and other similarly situated individuals.”

The Supreme Court concluded “that retroactive application of section 24-21-645 constitutes an ex post facto violation, and inmates convicted of a violent crime must only convince two-thirds of the Parole Board members participating in their hearing. Appellant received the requisite number of votes from the Parole Board, and thus, should be granted parole.” See: Barton v. South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services,404 S.C. 395, 745 S.E.2d 110 (S.C. 2013).


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Related legal case

Barton v. South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services