Crime & Courts

Fatal Boating Under The Influence Trial: Split Decision

Controversial admissibility decision leads to limited accountability following fatal crash …

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A divided Richland County jury came together late Wednesday evening to issue what amounted to a split decision in one of the highest-profile boating under the influence cases South Carolina has ever seen. But as a collective exhale emanated from the courtroom following the conclusion of this eight-day trial, victims rights advocates were still seething at the controversial exclusion of key evidence that could have produced a more expansive guilty verdict.

And a much sterner likely sentence …

Just hours away from the fourth anniversary of the tragic crash that claimed the life of 68-year-old Stanley Kiser – and cost his wife, Shawn Kiser, one of her legs – Kiser family members listened in disappointed disbelief as 57-year-old Tracy Gordon of Elgin, S.C. was acquitted on charges of boating under the influence resulting in death and boating under the influence resulting in great bodily injury.

Moments later, though, the clerk announced the jury’s verdict on the third charge – reckless homicide by operation of a boat.

That verdict? Guilty …

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Gordon was led away in handcuffs by deputies of the Richland County sheriff’s department after being found guilty on that third charge. He was transported to the Alvin S. Glenn detention center and will return to court on Thursday (September 21, 2023) at 10:45 a.m. EDT for a sentencing hearing.

According to S.C. Code of Laws § 50-21-115, Gordon faces up to ten years in a South Carolina correctional facility on the reckless homicide charge. He could also be fined up to $5,000 – and will be prohibited from operating a boat for five years upon his release. Had he been convicted on the two boating under the influence charges, however, Gordon would have faced up to forty additional years behind bars, according to S.C. Code of Laws § 50-21-113. Judges typically allow for such sentences to run concurrently as opposed to consecutively, though – and they obviously do not always impose the maximum sentence on the most serious charge.

Gordon will be sentenced by S.C. circuit court judge Heath Taylor, a former criminal defense attorney who presided over the trial.

How did we get here?

To recap: Shortly before 9:00 p.m. EDT on September 21, 2019, the Kisers and their daughter – Morgan Kiser – were headed home in Stanley’s new pontoon boat near Susie Ebert Island on Lake Murray just northwest of Columbia, S.C. when a Baja boat piloted by Gordon slammed into them.

“It was very dark – It was pitch black,” Gordon said during the trial. “I just saw the side of the boat. All I saw was the side of the boat. It happened so fast.”

(Click to View)

Morgan Kiser, daughter of the late Stanley Kiser, prepares for jurors to return their verdicts in Richland County on September 20, 2023. (FITSNews)

According to Shawn, her husband pushed her out of the way of Gordon’s onrushing watercraft – which saved her life but resulted in him being literally ripped to shreds by the propellers of Gordon’s boat. In turn, Morgan saved her mother’s life by ripping off the dress that covered her bathing suit and fashioning a makeshift tourniquet around her badly mangled leg.

In an exclusive interview with FITSNews last spring, Morgan Kiser and Shawn Kiser recalled that fateful night four years ago. 

“We were just going to go out for a quick boat ride to see the stars and come back,” Shawn Kiser said. “On the way home – I could see the house – I couldn’t wait to get on the couch and get on my pajamas and settle down. (Then) out of nowhere – out of nowhere – this boat just runs right over us.”

“We were all in a row, Morgan, myself and Stan – and it just – it just ran right over the top of us – killing my husband,” Shawn continued. “He pushed me out of the way so my legs got in the propeller – I lost one leg, almost lost two.”

Morgan Kiser was saved when a seat on the pontoon boat “crushed her down on the floor,” her mother said.

“Not that I can see any blessings out of this, but a blessing as a mother is that my daughter didn’t get hurt,” Shawn Kiser said.

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“We were almost home – you could basically see our house – so close,” Morgan Kiser recalled. “All of a sudden … it just sounded like metal, like you were in like a car being crushed, a metal car being crushed – and you didn’t know if you were going to survive or not.”

“It felt like an eternity underneath that metal – that loud metal,” Morgan continued.

While Kiser struggled to save her mother, Gordon and his wife did not return to the scene to help them.

Why not? Gordon said his wife wouldn’t let him.

“She was scared that – with the screams – if we went over there we would make matters worse,” Gordon testified. “My wife and I were scared. We didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to cause any more chaos.”

Gordon later offered a particularly tone-deaf comment regarding why he did not try to help the Kisers.

“We’re traumatized too,” he said. “I mean, I was part of an accident, too.”

According to an incident report filed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), Gordon failed a field sobriety test at the scene of the crash. After being transferred to the detention center, he refused to submit to a breathalyzer examination. A search warrant was later obtained for a blood sample from Gordon – after which he was formally charged with three counts of boating under the influence.

That blood draw proved to be one of the most hotly disputed issues at trial … and one of the issues that currently has Taylor in hot water with victim’s advocates.

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S.C. circuit court judge Heath Taylor addresses attorneys during the boating under the influence trial of Tracy Gordon on September 20, 2023. (FITSNews)

Gordon admitted consuming at least nine beers in the hours prior to the crash. Seven hours after the crash, his blood alcohol content was recorded at 0.04 percent – although jurors never heard this incriminating information.

Why not? Because Taylor controversially ruled it inadmissible.

“I don’t have any choice but to suppress,” Taylor ruled last week, contending the failure of a S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) agent to sign an affidavit tied to the warrant for the blood draw made it invalid.

In speaking with alternate jurors following the trial, several of them indicated this evidence would have swayed them to find Gordon guilty on the boating under the influence charges.

“That would have put me over the top,” one of the alternate jurors told me.

A second alternate nodded in agreement, indicating the lack of evidence related to intoxication would have forced them to decide between degrees of recklessness and negligence – which is ultimately what happened.

In his rebuttal to the defense’s closing arguments, lead prosecutor Dan Goldberg of the S.C. fifth circuit solicitor’s office urged jurors to focus on the incriminating material that was admitted into evidence – including the multiple beer cans he lined up in front of them during his own closing statement.

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South Carolina fifth circuit deputy solicitor Dan Goldberg speaks with victims just prior to the jury returning its verdicts on September 20, 2023. (FITSNews)

“You’ve seen what you need to see, you’ve heard what you need to hear, now it’s time to do what you need to do,” Goldberg said. “This was not an accident. When he drank those nine plus beers – that was on purpose. Then he intentionally operated that boat after drinking those beers.”

Jurors deliberated for nearly eight hours, passing multiple notes to Taylor during that process. One note seemed to point to a hung jury.

“If we can’t come to an agreement, what happens?” jurors asked Taylor at approximately 7:00 p.m. EDT.

A little more than three hours later, though, they had settled on their split decision.

Since that fateful evening on Lake Murray four years ago, Morgan Kiser has made the passage of new boater safety legislation her raison d’être. In pursuit of that goal, she has become a fixture at the S.C. State House and at political events across the Palmetto State. She has also made numerous media appearances – including two interviews with us. Through her organization, ‘Safe The Lake,’ Kiser has been educating elected officials on the importance of boater safety and pushing legislation that would require watercraft operators born after July 1, 2007 to complete a training course administered by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).

That bill passed the S.C. General Assembly in June and was subsequently signed into law by governor Henry McMaster.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Will Folks (Dylan Nolan)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.

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