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State of South Dakota v. Nathaniel J. Thomas

April 13, 2011



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Zinter, Justice


ON FEBRUARY 16, 2011

[¶1.] Nathaniel Thomas was convicted of Reckless Burning, a Class 4 felony. He appeals, claiming that the circuit court plainly erred in failing to give appropriate instructions on accomplice testimony. He also contends that instructional and other errors deprived him of effective assistance of counsel.*fn1

Finding that Thomas received ineffective assistance of counsel, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

Facts and Procedural History

[¶2.] The Pressbox bar and restaurant in Vermillion caught fire and burned in the early morning hours of September 29, 2008. When firefighters arrived, the north side of the building was in flames. Investigators found a Coors Light bottle with a cloth sticking out of it on the northeast side of the building. A police officer described it as a "Molotov cocktail." The police treated the case as arson, but no immediate headway was made in the investigation. [¶3.] Nine months after the incident, Detective Crystal Brady received a tip that Ryan Kightlinger, Thomas's cousin, had information about the fire. Kightlinger's information led Detective Brady to Thomas and to Jimmy and Jeremy Broomfield. Following interviews with Kightlinger and the Broomfields, Detective Brady concluded that Thomas and the Broomfields set a fire behind the Pressbox that spread to the building. [¶4.] Detective Brady subsequently interviewed Thomas. Thomas admitted reporting the fire to 911 at 3:34 a.m. Thomas also admitted that the Broomfields were at his house (across the street from the Pressbox) drinking on the night of the fire. Thomas, however, claimed that the Broomfields left his house two or three hours before he reported the fire. Thomas further claimed that he went to bed immediately after the Broomfields left and that he slept until he woke up to go to the bathroom. Thomas indicated that while in the bathroom, he saw the fire and immediately called 911. Although Thomas denied talking with anyone from the time he went to bed until he reported the fire, his cell phone records reflected that he had eight incoming and outgoing phone calls between 2:50 a.m. and the 911 call at 3:34 a.m. The calls were to and from Jimmy Broomfield, Kightlinger, and Thomas's mother.

[¶5.] Thomas was charged with Reckless Burning in violation of SDCL 22-33-9.3. Counsel was appointed but withdrew due to a conflict. Substitute counsel was appointed. Counsel prevailed on a motion to continue the jury trial but filed no other pretrial motions.

[¶6.] At trial, the Broomfields were the only witnesses directly implicating Thomas in starting the fire. Jimmy testified that he, Jeremy, and Thomas had been drinking together the night of September 28 into the morning hours of September 29. He indicated that the three of them took two empty Coors Light bottles and filled them with gasoline from Jimmy's car. They also took paper towels from Thomas's home to help light the fire. They poured some of the gasoline onto a gravel patch approximately ten or fifteen feet behind the building and ignited the gasoline. Both Broomfields testified that they saw Thomas light the fire. According to the Broomfields, the fire burned and then died down. They further claimed that they put out the remaining fire to the point it was just smoking and went home to bed. Jimmy testified that approximately ten minutes after walking to his home across the alley, he looked out the window and saw that the fire had started up again. Jimmy testified that he called Thomas, told him about the fire, and tried to get him to call 911.

[¶7.] Although Thomas admitted being with the Broomfields earlier that evening, he vehemently denied any involvement with the fire. He contended that animosity and the Broomfields' plea agreements motivated them to lie. He also contended that the Broomfields had a motive to lie because Thomas had assaulted Jimmy.

[¶8.] Although the Broomfields' trial testimony directly implicated Thomas, Jimmy conceded that he gave two prior statements of the events to Detective Brady. Both statements excluded Thomas's involvement. Both Jimmy and Jeremy also conceded that they entered into plea agreements with the State as a result of the fire. The plea agreements required the Broomfields to testify at Thomas's trial.

[¶9.] Other than the Broomfields, Ryan Kightlinger was the only other witness who linked Thomas to the fire. Kightlinger testified that Thomas called Kightlinger around three a.m. on September 29. Kightlinger testified that during the phone call Thomas indicated that he and the Broomfields had been drinking heavily and that "they" started the fire. However, when asked by the state's attorney what "they" meant, Kightlinger conceded that Thomas never indicated he was personally involved in starting the fire.*fn2

[ΒΆ10.] Chad Grunewaldt, the owner of the Pressbox, was the only other witness who observed people around the building the morning of the fire. He testified that around two a.m., he saw three male college-aged students grilling, hanging out, and drinking in the vicinity of Thomas's front yard. But Thomas's front ...

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