Crime & Public Safety

Defense, prosecutor in Oates' trial disagree over jury's choice of charges

From left, Preston Oates sits with his attorneys, Jared Newman and Don Colongeli, after the jury announced its verdict in his trial in June, 2014.
From left, Preston Oates sits with his attorneys, Jared Newman and Don Colongeli, after the jury announced its verdict in his trial in June, 2014. Staff photo

A day after Preston Oates was found guilty of killing a Bluffton man, his attorney said the case was a simple one that the state muddled with charges of manslaughter and murder to gain a tactical edge.

Prosecutor Sean Thornton disagreed, arguing the circumstances of the case made it necessary to give a jury the option to convict Oates of either charge. The jury chose manslaughter instead of murder, sentencing Oates to 26 years.

Oates' lawyer, Jared Newman, said he has seen defense attorneys use the strategy of suggesting a lesser charge. However, he said he has only seen the state take similar action a few times in his two decades as a lawyer in Beaufort County, which include four years as a member of the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office.

"They hoped the jury would bite on a lesser offense," Newman said. "(The prosecution) should indict for what they believe they have."

When Oates was arrested in December 2010, three days after the former tow-truck driver shot and killed Carlos Olivera during a towing dispute in Bluffton on Christmas Eve, he was charged with voluntary manslaughter and possession of a weapon in the commission of a violent crime.

Four months ago, Oates also was secretly indicted on a murder charge.

On Monday, the day of jury selection in Oates' trial, the prosecution announced the murder indictment, and both sides agreed to drop the manslaughter charge.

Then, on Wednesday, the prosecution asked that the manslaughter charge be reinstated and be presented along with the murder charge to the jury. The defense objected.

On Thursday morning, the final day of the trial, Judge Brooks Goldsmith agreed to reinstate the manslaughter charge. He said the jury could convict Oates on the lesser offense only if it could not find him guilty of murder.

That's what the 12-member jury did.

Thornton said the state had planned to have the manslaughter charge dismissed since February, as a case cannot begin with both charges standing. The state and defense did not dismiss the manslaughter charge earlier and introduce the murder charge because it would have brought publicity to the case, Thornton said.

Once the state and defense rested their cases, the prosecution asked Judge Brooks Goldsmith to consider adding the option of a lesser charge, based on the evidence he heard.

Newman objected to the motion, arguing Thornton was simply worried he couldn't secure a murder conviction.

On Friday, Thornton said the defense attorney was wrong.

"He also said his client acted in self-defense, and I don't agree with that either," Thornton said.

He maintains the case was complex because jurors did not need to decide whether Oates killed Olivera or how. They needed to decide what was running through Oates' mind when he shot Olivera.

It was important to give jurors an option, Thornton said.

"They could have, I felt, reached a (guilty) verdict in either charge," Thornton said. "I didn't want the jury's decision-making process limited."

Thornton also said it's "not unheard of" for the state to add a charge option after reviewing the evidence against a defendant. That was the case when Oates was indicted on a murder charge Feb. 20, he said.

Judge Carmen Mullen sealed the indictment at the request Newman, according to the order, released Friday. Thornston did not object to the sealing of the order.

The action was taken to prevent undue pretrial publicity, according to the order. Solicitor Duffie Stone has said he was concerned additional press coveraage would compromise the court's ability to seat a jury in Beaufort County.

It was not clear Friday on what grounds an indictment can be sealed.

Newman said he and his client have not decided how they will proceed with fighting Oates' verdict and 26-year sentence. They have 10 days to file a notice of appeal and other pre-trial motions.

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