A Conway man who spent nearly four years in prison before his conviction for homicide by child abuse was overturned filed a lawsuit this week against Horry County and the investigator who handled his case.
Robert Palmer, 38, maintains the ordeal cost him his job, kept him away from his family and left him with nightmares about what he endured in prison, according to the lawsuit, which was filed on March 7. Palmer is suing the county, the state and police investigator David Weaver for malicious prosecution, false arrest and negligence.
“There was no evidence above conjecture,” said Palmer’s attorney, Gene Connell of Surfside Beach. “You would think that guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and the burden of proof would have been a problem.”
You would think that a state would want to provide redress to people who are wrongfully convicted. But we’re one of those places that doesn’t have that yet. I think the constitution probably requires it. … We’re going to have to break some new ground.
Gene Connell, Robert Palmer’s attorney
County spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier declined to discuss the case, saying the county typically doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Palmer and his then-girlfriend Julia Shawnette Gorman were charged with homicide by child abuse in the death of Gorman’s 17-month-old grandson, Aydian Grimes.
Gorman’s daughter and the baby’s mother, Cesalee Carnaghie, left Aydian in Gorman’s care on July 2, 2008, and had flown to Arizona to pack up her and her husband’s belongings to prepare to move to Beaufort, where her husband would be stationed with the U.S. Marine Corps.
The baby died on July 16, 2008, after his parents made the decision to remove him from life support at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, where he was being treated after suffering skull fractures and bleeding in his brain.
Gorman and Palmer were convicted during a joint trial in November 2011. They were each sentenced to 35 years in prison for the homicide by child abuse charge; 20 years for aiding and abetting; and 10 years each for the unlawful conduct toward a child charge. Their sentences were to run concurrently.
“This child received crushing blows to both sides of his head leaving his skull like a fractured egg shell and I’m sure he experienced a painful death,” Judge Larry Hyman said during sentencing. “This was a terrible injury and it was not one that happened by accident. Whoever did it knew very well what you were doing and you just did not care, and it callously cost the life of this child.”
At that hearing, Palmer maintained his innocence and pleaded with the judge.
“I had nothing to do with this,” he said. “I did nothing wrong with that child … You are going to take away my life for something I had nothing to do with.”
I had nothing to do with this. … You are going to take away my life for something I had nothing to do with.
The couple appealed their cases, stating that the judge erred when he denied their directed verdict motions because the prosecution failed to prove whether Gorman or Palmer caused the child’s injuries. A directed verdict is when a judge presiding over the case finds that there is not sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to reach a different conclusion.
In July, the S.C. Supreme Court reversed Palmer’s conviction, though the panel upheld Gorman’s. Justices wrote that there was no evidence that Palmer was aware of the victim’s injuries or caused them.
The justices also determined that Palmer was entitled to a directed verdict on both charges before his case went to a jury.
“The State would have the Court speculate, despite the absence of any evidence, that both Petitioners actually entered the victim’s bedroom around 4:30 p.m. where one abused him in the presence of the other, thus aided and abetted the perpetrator by failing to seek medical help for an hour and a half,” the justices wrote. “There is no evidence … other than rank speculation that such an incident occurred.”
Palmer was released from prison in September.
His lawsuit notes that during the trial the prosecutor in the case said Gorman and Palmer were the only people with access to the child and either of them could have harmed him.
The lawsuit states that Weaver, the investigator, had no evidence to even charge Palmer but did so anyway. The charges, the court papers argue, violated Palmer’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights granted by the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit also accuses the county and Weaver of not using proper investigative methods, withholding evidence of Palmer’s innocence and not following police procedures.
Palmer is seeking unspecified damages.
Since returning to the area, Palmer has started working again and has reunited with his family, Connell said. A U.S. Navy veteran, Palmer had no criminal history prior to the charges that sent him to prison.
What makes Palmer’s case unusual, Connell said, is that he’s seeking payment from a state that doesn’t offer any financial relief for those who have been exonerated.
Twenty states don’t have a policy for compensating the wrongfully convicted, according to the Innocence Project, a national organization that seeks to reform the criminal justice system. For the states that do have those statutes, the amount of relief varies. In North Carolina, for example, compensation for the exonerated amounts to $50,000 per year incarcerated up to $750,000.
South Carolina leaders have discussed similar restitution, Connell said, but those conversations never resulted in policy.
“You would think that a state would want to provide redress to people who are wrongfully convicted,” he said. “But we’re one of those places that doesn’t have that yet. I think the constitution probably requires it. … We’re going to have to break some new ground.”