Oates convicted of voluntary manslaughter, sentenced to 26 years

rlurye@islandpacket.comJune 19, 2014 

The dead man's family gasped after the first verdict was read.

Preston Oates was not guilty of murdering Carlos Olivera in a Christmas Eve 2010 shooting that erupted over a booted minivan.

Those gasps still hung in the air when the judge read the second verdict.

Guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

Then came the third verdict.

Guilty of possession of a weapon in the commission of a violent crime.

The Olivera family, sitting together in a Beaufort County courtroom, seemed relieved but subdued.

Oates showed no visible reaction to the verdicts or to the 26-year prison sentence that came less than a half an hour later. His family, who sat in a group behind him, also showed no reaction.

Oates will receive credit for the roughly eight months he served in the Beaufort County Detention Center.

He must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence before being eligible for release.

The three-day trial in the Beaufort County Courthouse in Beaufort ended when the jury returned its verdict after three hours of deliberation Thursday afternoon.

Oates, a former Bluffton tow truck driver, was led from the courtroom in handcuffs and taken to the detention center.

'MEASURE OF CLOSURE'

The verdicts brought tears to the eyes of Dhayam Olivera, the victim's widow.

She thanked the state and jury for their work.

"I feel happy and sad at the same time, because we got justice but not what we actually expected," she said outside the court. "It's not easy to tell four kids that you got justice but only for 26 years. That's not enough for them to grow up without a dad, without somebody to be there for them."

Nelson Olivera, the victim's brother, echoed his sister-in-law's statements to the court earlier when he told Judge Brooks Goldsmith he believed Oates intended to carry out an act of violence on the night of the shooting.

"If his intention was to remove the van, he would have done it right away," Nelson Olivera said. "He never showed any emotions to this courtroom. He never showed any remorse, not in this courtroom, not anywhere."

Defense attorney Jared Newman said his client was "shaken up," but wished to express his sorrow for the Olivera family's loss.

After the trial, 14th Circuit Deputy Solicitor Sean Thornton said the deadly incident was a result of the "senseless hyper-vigilance" of a dangerous man.

"Although it took a long time to get here, I am glad we were able to deliver justice and some measure of closure to the family," he said.

'HE'S A MURDERER'

Goldsmith ruled Thursday morning the jury could consider the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter if it could not find Oates guilty of murder.

Before the jury left the courtroom to deliberate at about 12:20 p.m., Thornton and Newman presented closing arguments.

Thornton argued that all of Oates' accounts of the shooting -- to Beaufort County Sheriff's Office deputies and a dispatcher -- were challenged by other witnesses and evidence, including a surveillance video that showed only three muzzle flashes from the .40-caliber Glock 27 Oates used to kill Carlos Olivera.

The remaining three shots -- Olivera was struck by six bullets, four of them in the back -- were likely blocked by the tow-truck bed as Oates fired into the victim's back as he lay on the ground, Thornton said.

"Even Mr. Oates said (Olivera) was no longer a threat, but you know he fired at least one more shot into his back," Thornton said.

The incident escalated after Oates booted Carlos Olivera's minivan on Christmas Eve, just a few minutes after the 34-year-old Bluffton man arrived at his brother's home in the Edgefield community.

Nelson Olivera testified that he and Carlos pleaded with Oates to remove the boot.

At one point, Carlos pulled a gun, but Nelson said he told him to put it away.

He said his little brother listened.

"Carlos Olivera should not have racked a round and held (the gun) against his side," Thornton told jurors. "But he did not deserve to die for it. He didn't deserve to be shot in the back on Christmas Eve."

As Thornton spoke, Oates' mother, Rita, sat slumped in her bench, her long, blonde hair partially hiding the tears on her face. She cried Thursday morning as well as she hugged her son before the jury was called into court.

Thornton also argued Oates made inappropriate or false statements throughout interviews with investigators -- from saying he ran five miles in seven minutes after escaping an armed robbery in Istanbul to asking a detective about wearing a wedding ring.

On another occasion, Oates spoke at length about his recent lunch with a millionaire investor and Oates' plans to launch an agricultural business in Russia, Thornton said.

"Preston Oates is not a black ops, Istanbul, $4-million lunch person," Thornton said.

"He's a liar, and he's a coward, and he's a murderer."

'AN ACT OF WAR'

In his closing arguments, defense attorney Newman was blunt.

The state does not want you to like Preston Oates, he said.

But what the jury thinks of his character does not matter, Newman said.

What matters is whether the state has proven Oates continued to shoot Carlos Olivera after he was no longer a threat.

The state, Newman said, did not make its case.

"If someone is bent on putting you in a fatal situation, you are entitled to react to it," he said, waving Carlos Olivera's Glock 22 at the jury.

"When Mr. Olivera racked this gun, it was an act of war, and Mr. Oates had to figure out what the rules of engagement were to save his life."

Several witnesses for the state testified Tuesday and Wednesday that the argument over the booted minivan was over when Oates began firing, Newman noted.

They said Carlos Olivera was directing traffic with his sister-in-law, Claudia.

"He wasn't directing traffic. This ain't (U.S. 278) with a wreck out there," Newman said. "Why didn't (Oates) leave? Because there was an armed man standing on his truck step, guarding him."

Other pieces of evidence were inconclusive, Newman argued.

Ellen Riemer, a forensic pathologist, testified Wednesday that one of Carlos Olivera's gunshot wounds was shored, meaning the victim's body was pressed against a hard surface. That surface could have been the ground, she said.

But the same wound can be the result of tight clothing, and the state did not enter any clothing into evidence, Newman said.

He said it was unlikely Oates stood over the victim and fired a shot into his back because no gunpowder residue was found on Olivera's body and the shell casings from Oates' gun were found in the same area.

The incident was a textbook case of self-defense, Newman said.

"We don't deny this is a tragedy," he said. "But who is the architect who started drawing this tragedy?"

WHAT'S NEXT

After the verdicts were announced, Newman said the defense is considering a number of options.

He and fellow defense attorney Don Colongeli may file a motion in the S.C. Court of Appeals to reinstate their appeal based on the state's castle doctrine. The doctrine protects defendants from prosecution if they kill someone while protecting themselves or others in their home, vehicle or place of business.

Newman said the defense also has 10 days to file a notice of appeal of the verdicts and sentence.

He said he also is considering a motion for mistrial, based on statements Thornton made about Oates' character during his closing arguments, and one for Goldsmith to reconsider his sentence.

"You always try to take all avenues that you have."

Newman said he has not decided what course he will take. He declined to comment on the result of the trial.

"The jury's spoken," he said.

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

Related content:

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service