November 3, 2014
Murder. DeKalb Superior Court. Before Judge Flake.
Dell Jackson, for appellant.
Robert D. James, Jr., District Attorney, Leonora Grant, Assistant District Attorney, Samuel S. Olens, Attorney General, Patricia B. Attaway Burton, Deputy Attorney General, Paula K. Smith, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Andrew G. Sims, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.
BENHAM, Justice. All the Justices concur.
Appellant Charles Slaton, along with five others, were indicted for malice murder and felony murder (aggravated assault) of Marcus Holloway, aggravated assault of Holloway, aggravated assault of LaQuinton Forte, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Slaton's case was severed and he was tried separately from the remaining four co-indictees who were tried. Slaton was found guilty of all counts except for malice murder and the possession count. All the co-indictees were part of a group that called themselves the " Ho Haters."
The evidence presented at trial shows that on the evening of January 28, 2011, Slaton visited a woman at the apartment complex where the crimes occurred. While he was there, Dwain O'Neal also showed up. O'Neal and Slaton were at that time engaged in a conflict over stolen guns. Slaton hid under a bed while O'Neal angrily demanded to know where Slaton was. When O'Neal left the apartment, he asked some men who were hanging around the parking lot which car was Slaton's, and he then slashed the tires on Slaton's car. In his recorded statement made to police, Slaton stated he saw this conduct from inside the apartment and called co-indictee Antoine Willis to come pick him up. Slaton stated he told Willis that O'Neal had a pistol and was looking for Slaton. He instructed Willis to pull up in a car and be prepared that someone " might shoot at us." Slaton knew Willis and the other co-indictees had guns. In his statement to police, Slaton stated that if he had been armed, he would not have had to call anyone but would have handled the situation himself. In response
to Slaton's call, Willis drove to the complex in a car with co-indictees Jaqwanta Grimes and Brandon Reed as passengers. [296 Ga. 123] Co-indictee Kyree Brantley drove a second car there with co-indictee Lancelot Hicks as a passenger. Grimes, Brandon, Willis, and Brantley, got out of the cars and started shooting handguns. At that point, O'Neal ran out the back of the apartment building. Reed and Willis ran toward the building to get Slaton, and Slaton ran out the door of the apartment to join them. Unidentified individuals in the group of men who came to rescue Slaton opened fire to cover Slaton and they all got into the two vehicles and drove away. Several who were present in the apartment parking area, including victim Forte, were able to run away from the gunfire, but victim Holloway was killed.
After the shootout, the six men in the two cars drove to Slaton's residence and stayed the night with him, bragging about the shooting. Slaton remained with them and did nothing to disassociate himself from the actions of the others. Pursuant to an investigation, Willis was identified as a suspect and a handgun was recovered from Willis at the time of his arrest. Another handgun was found in the apartment of Willis's girlfriend, and ballistics tests on shell casings found at the scene connected both guns to the shootings. Slaton's fingerprints were not found on the guns.
1. Slaton contends the evidence presented by the State was not sufficient to authorize his conviction because there was no evidence he directly committed the crimes and no evidence from which the jury could conclude he was a party to the crimes. Pursuant to OCGA § 16-2-20 (a), " [e]very person concerned in the commission of a crime is a party thereto and may be ... convicted of commission of the crime." Pursuant to OCGA § 16-2-20 (b) (4), one of the ways in which a person is " concerned in the commission of a crime" is if he " [i]ntentionally advises, encourages, hires, counsels, or procures another to commit the crime." Slaton argues that the State presented only circumstantial evidence of Slaton's guilt that did not exclude every other reasonable hypotheses except that of his guilt as a party to the crimes, as required by former OCGA § 24-4-6. His theory, however, that he simply called a friend to help him get out of the apartment where he was trapped and had no idea that guns would be involved in his rescue was put before the jury through his recorded statement to police and was argued as a defense during closing argument. The jury rejected this theory and found appellant guilty.
[296 Ga. 124] " [Q]uestions as to the reasonableness of hypotheses other than the guilt of the defendant are generally for the jury to decide, and this Court will not disturb a finding of guilt unless the evidence is insupportable as a matter of law." Lowe v. State, 295 Ga. 623, 625 (1) (759 S.E.2d 841) (2014). Further, this Court will not resolve evidentiary conflicts and inconsistencies. See Flowers v. State, 275 Ga. 592 (1) (571 S.E.2d 381) (2002). Mere presence at the scene of the crime and mere approval of a criminal act are insufficient to establish that a defendant was a party to the crime. " Proof that the defendant shares a common criminal intent with the actual perpetrators is necessary." Eckman v. State, 274 Ga. 63, 65 (1) (548 S.E.2d 310) (2001). But such shared criminal intent " may be inferred from the defendant's conduct before, during, and after the crime." Id. See also Brown v. State, 291 Ga. 887 (1) (734 S.E.2d 41) (2012) (where defendant asked to be picked up by a friend to go looking for those he believed had shot at him, and the driver of the car that came to pick him up fired a shot toward the victim and others the defendant identified as the ones who shot at him, killing the victim, the evidence was sufficient to support defendant's conviction for murder and other charges as a party to the crimes). Similarly to the facts in Brown, here, a jury could reasonably infer from the evidence concerning Slaton's conduct before, during, and after the shooting that he advised,
encouraged, and counseled Willis to come rescue him " with guns blazing," as the State contended.
The jury was properly instructed on the law of party to a crime. Accordingly, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, " we find that the evidence is sufficient to have authorized the jury to find that the state excluded all reasonable hypotheses except that of the defendant's guilt ... ." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Reeves v. State, 294 Ga. 673, 675 (1) (755 S.E.2d 695) (2014). We find the evidence was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Slaton was a party to the crimes of which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).
2. Slaton also asserts the verdict was against the weight of the evidence and contrary to the principles of justice and equity, as the State failed to meet its burden of showing his actions in any way contributed to the victim's death. Consequently, he claims the case requires the grant of a new trial. Although Slaton raised the general grounds in his initial written motion for new trial, at the hearing on [296 Ga. 125] the motion Slaton presented no argument regarding the weight of the evidence and did not request the trial court to exercise its discretion to set aside the verdict on these grounds. Instead he stated that he was asking the court to grant a new trial based on the arguments made at the hearing. Notably, Slaton does not assert the trial court erred in failing to address the general grounds for setting aside the verdict or to exercise its discretion to find the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Instead, Slaton effectively seeks such a finding by this Court. But this Court is without authority to make such a finding. Smith v. State, 292 Ga. 316, 317 (1) (b) (737 S.E.2d 677) (2013).
A motion for new trial based on OCGA § 5-5-20, i.e., that the verdict is contrary to the evidence, addresses itself only to the discretion of the trial judge. [Cit.] Whether to grant a new trial based on OCGA § 5-5-21, i.e., that the verdict is strongly against the evidence, is one that is solely in the discretion of the trial court, and the appellate courts do not have the same discretion to order new trials. [Cit.]
Id. This is not a case in which this Court is required to remand these issues to the trial court for determination, given Slaton's failure to argue the general grounds at the hearing on the motion for new trial and his statement that he was seeking a new trial based upon the arguments made at the hearing. But see Walker v. State, 292 Ga. 262 (2) (737 S.E.2d 311) (2013) (where the judgment was vacated and remanded for further action because the trial court failed to rule on the general grounds raised in appellant's motion for new trial and applied only the sufficiency of the evidence standard in denying the motion); compare Strapp v. State, 326 Ga.App. 264 (3) (756 S.E.2d 333) (2014) (appellant induced error, if any, with respect to the trial court's failure to rule upon his motion for new trial on the general grounds by indicating at the hearing that he was arguing only the sufficiency of the evidence and not the general grounds). The trial court expressly stated in its order denying the motion for new trial that no basis for granting a new trial was shown.
All the Justices concur.