Yesterday, the State Supreme Court decided State v. Sterling. In this case, the State appealed from a Trial Court Order granting Sterling's Motion to Exclude the Testimony of Four Witnesses. This case, of course, stems from the financial collapse of Carolina Investors and Home Gold Financial. The issue of exclusion arose because Attorney Bill Bannister accompanied Sterling and four other suspects to an interview with SLED. Six months later, Sterling sent Bannister a letter terminating his services.
As his trial approached, Sterling persuaded the Trial Court to exclude the four witnesses who accompanied him and Bannister to the SLED interview. Sterling argued that Bannister's past representation of him and the witnesses violated Sterling’s Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel and that it created an actual conflict of interest.
As an initial matter, the Supreme Court found that the Trial Court's Order was immediately appealable. The Court restated that immediate appeal is proper of any pre-trial order that significantly impairs the prosecution of a criminal case. Because the excluded witnesses personally interacted with Sterling during the relevant time period when the companies were collapsing, their testimonies were critical.
Regarding the exclusion, the State Supreme Court reversed the Order of the Trial Court. The Court emphasized that the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel had not attached at any point during Bannister’s representation because Sterling had not yet been indicted. The Court also rejected the contention that a actual conflict existed. The Court stated that Bannister represented Sterling and the witnesses and the preliminary stages of the investigation before any proceedings began. Thus, at that time, the witnesses’ interests were not necessarily adverse to Sterling's interest.