Murder. Taylor Superior Court. Before Judge Peters.
James C. Bonner, Jr. , Tyler R. Conklin, for appellant.
Julia Fessenden Slater, District Attorney, Robert B. Bickerstaff II, Assistant District Attorney, Samuel S. Olens, Attorney General, Patricia B. Attaway Burton, Deputy Attorney General, Paula K. Smith, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Christian A. Fuller, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.
THOMPSON, Chief Justice. All the Justices concur, except Nahmias and Blackwell, JJ., who concur in the judgment only.
Thompson, Chief Justice.
Appellant Courtney Sales was found guilty of felony murder, armed robbery, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime in connection with the shooting death of Jamal Cooper. His [296 Ga. 539] motion for new trial
in which he asserted, inter alia, that the trial court erred by commenting on the evidence in violation of OCGA § 17-8-57 was denied, and he appeals. Based on our review of the record, we agree that by stating to the venire in reference to the crimes committed that " [t]his happened in Taylor County" the trial court expressed or intimated its opinion as to a disputed issue of fact at trial and violated OCGA § 17-8-57. See Rouse v. State, 296 Ga. 213 (765 S.E.2d 879) (2014). Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.
1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence presented at trial revealed that appellant drove from New Jersey to Americus, Georgia, with Jamal Cooper in December 2005 to purchase cheap firearms for resale. Appellant made arrangements for the sale through an acquaintance, Kenneth Dupree. Appellant, Cooper, Dupree and three of Dupree's cousins agreed to meet an individual named " Sham" on a dirt road to complete the transaction. Sham never arrived. Later that night, police responded to a call from a gas station where they found appellant lying on the ground, shot multiple times. Appellant told the officers that he was involved in a transaction that went wrong and his friend, Cooper, had been shot. From appellant's description, it was unclear whether Cooper's body was located in Taylor County. Eventually, police found Cooper's body lying on a dirt road in south Taylor County.
Although originally confirming appellant's account, Dupree and other witnesses eventually revealed to police that appellant made the trip from New Jersey to rob Cooper because appellant believed Cooper had not given him his fair share of profits from an earlier deal. Pursuant to plea deals, members of the group testified that appellant shot Cooper in the back of the head then asked one of the group to take the gun and shoot appellant to make it look like he was the victim.
We conclude the evidence was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes [296 Ga. 540] for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).
2. Appellant enumerates as error three separate comments made by the trial court during the proceedings which appellant contends violated OCGA § 17-8-57. This statute provides:
It is error for any judge in any criminal case, during its progress or in his charge to the jury, to express or intimate his opinion as to what has or has not been proved or as to the guilt of the accused. Should any judge violate this Code section, the violation shall be held by the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals to be error and the decision in the case reversed, and a new trial granted ...