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Generally, appellate courts will not set aside convictions due to insubstantial errors not affecting the result. Where guilt has been conclusively proven by competent evidence such that no other rational conclusion can be reached, an insubstantial error that does not affect the result of the trial is considered harmless. A harmless error analysis is contextual and specific to the circumstances of the case. Where a review of the entire record establishes the error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the conviction should not be reversed.
A Zaxby's restaurant in Goose Creek, South Carolina, was robbed by two males wearing ski masks and gloves while carrying a gun and knife, around midnight on Christmas Eve. During the robbery, a Zaxby's employee was shot by one of the robbers. As a result of law enforcement's investigation—including a traced scent trail, DNA evidence found on a ski mask and gun, an executed search warrant, and a tip that Petitioner confessed to committing the crime with Christopher Wilson—Petitioner and Wilson were arrested and charged with robbery, as well as other crimes stemming from the incident. In addition, during the course of their investigation, law enforcement discovered that Wilson was wearing a GPS ankle monitor at the time of the robbery. Wilson's GPS records reflected that he was at Zaxby's during the robbery. Wilson pled guilty prior to Petitioner's trial. At Petitioner's trial, the State connected Wilson to Petitioner, through Wilson's GPS records and otherwise. Petitioner was convicted for criminal conspiracy, burglary second degree, armed robbery, and kidnapping. On appeal, Petitioner contended that the State failed to authenticate Wilson's GPS records.
The Court held that the State failed to properly authenticate the GPS records, and it was error to admit this evidence. According to the Court, the requirement for authentication was not satisfied by testimony that GPS data was accurate because it was used in court all of the time. Moreover, an agent's testimony failed to authenticate under S.C. R. Evid. 901(b)(9) because it shed no light on the accuracy of the GPS records. The State's argument that authentication was fulfilled through other means failed to appreciate the nature of GPS records and that those records were generated and result from, at least in part, the process or system used by a machine. Nevertheless, due to the overwhelming evidence of guilt, the Court affirmed the court of appeals in result because the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.