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Burden v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia

July 7, 2015

BURDEN
v.
THE STATE

Aggravated assault. Cobb Superior Court. Before Judge Bodiford.

The Wotorson Firm, Ronnie B. Wotorson, for appellant.

D. Victor Reynolds, District Attorney, John R. Edwards, Assistant District Attorney, for appellee.

McFADDEN, Judge. Ellington, P. J., and Dillard, J., concur.

OPINION

Page 184

McFadden, Judge.

A jury found Ishmael Burden guilty of aggravated assault. The trial court entered judgment of conviction, imposed a 15-year sentence and denied a motion for new trial. Burden appeals, claiming that the trial court erred in overruling an objection to a leading question by the state, failing to give a jury charge on simple assault as a lesser included offense, refusing to allow evidence of prior acts of violence by the victim and admitting Burden's confession into evidence. However, the challenged question was not leading, any error in the jury charge was harmless, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding evidence of prior acts by the victim and the trial court did not clearly err in admitting the confession. We therefore affirm.

Construed in favor of the verdict, Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979), the evidence shows that on March 7, 2011, Burden called a taxicab company for a ride, giving a false phone number and home address. At approximately 1:30 a.m., the taxi driver dispatched to the location found Burden and an accomplice waiting near the address. Once inside the cab, Burden and his accomplice attacked the driver. Burden hit the driver

Page 185

on the head as his accomplice sprayed the driver with pepper spray. During the attack, Burden and the accomplice demanded money from the driver and tried to reach into his pockets. When the driver began to drive erratically, Burden and his accomplice jumped out of the [332 Ga.App. 812] moving vehicle and fled. The police were contacted and subsequently apprehended Burden and the accomplice. Burden gave a statement to the police, confessing that he and his accomplice had planned to rob the taxi driver, that they had hit and pepper-sprayed him and that they had tried to take his money.

1. Leading question.

Burden claims that the trial court erred in overruling his objection to an improper leading question when the prosecutor asked the victim, " Was any money demanded of you?" But contrary to Burden's claim, this was not a leading question because it did not suggest a desired answer, and instead simply called for a " yes" or " no" response from the witness.

" A question is leading when it is so framed as to suggest to the witness the answer which is desired; on the other hand, a question not suggesting the desired answer is not leading where it inquires only into a single fact." Milner v. State, 258 Ga.App. 425, 429 (1) (574 S.E.2d 457) (2002) (citations and punctuation omitted). Thus, " a question is not open to the objection that it is leading when it does not suggest the answer desired. [Cits.]" Ealey v. State, 139 Ga.App. 110, 111 (227 S.E.2d 902) (1976). Because the question here inquired only into a single fact and did not suggest an answer, the trial court properly overruled Burden's objection. See Riley v. State, 268 Ga. 640, 642 (2) (d) (491 S.E.2d 802) (1997) (question not leading where it asked for a " yes or no" response); Milner, supra (no improper leading where " state propounded a yes-or-no question" ).

2. Jury charge.

Burden contends that the trial court erred in failing to give a jury charge on simple assault as a lesser included offense of aggravated assault. However, even if we assume error, " we hold that in light of the overwhelming evidence against [Burden, including his confession], it is highly probable that the failure to give this charge did not contribute to the verdict." Edwards v. State, 264 Ga. 131, 133 (442 S.E.2d 444) (1994). Accordingly, any error in the trial court's failure to charge simple assault as a lesser included offense was harmless. See Holeman v. State, 226 Ga.App. 879, 880 (1) (487 S.E.2d 700) (1997) (harmless error in failing to give lesser included offense charge where there was overwhelming evidence that defendant committed aggravated assault).

3. Prior acts of victim.

Burden argues that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of prior acts of violence by the victim against third parties. The argument is without merit.

[332 Ga.App. 813] " An exception to the general rule that a victim's violent character is rarely relevant in a criminal proceeding exists when a defendant claims his actions were justified and offers evidence that the victim was the aggressor. [Cit.]" Smith v. State, 292 Ga. 316, 317-318 (2) (737 S.E.2d 677) (2013). Under that exception, evidence of a victim's specific acts of violence against third parties is admissible when a defendant makes a prima facie showing of justification, follows certain procedural requirements, " and establishes the existence of the prior violent acts by competent evidence." Arnold v. State, 286 Ga. 418, 419 (2) (687 S.E.2d 836) (2010) (citations omitted). " We review the trial court's decision to exclude evidence of a victim's acts of violence against third parties only for abuse of discretion. [Cit.]" Slaughter v. State, 292 Ga. 573, 576 (2) (740 S.E.2d 119) (2013).

Here, during the hearing on the motion to admit such evidence, Burden relied on the victim's prior criminal record, but " offer[ed] no witnesses or other evidence to establish the facts underlying the [prior] crime[s]." Arnold, supra at 420 (2). Likewise, on appeal, he simply refers to the prior criminal record and a protective order obtained by the victim's spouse. Thus, Burden has not met his burden of introducing competent evidence that " meet[s] the requirements

Page 186

for admission of [specific] violent acts by the victim against third parties[.]" Id. Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the evidence. See Brown v. State, 295 Ga. 804, 811-813 (5) (c) (764 S.E.2d 376) (2014) (no abuse of discretion in excluding evidence where defendant proffered only inadmissible hearsay police reports to prove alleged prior acts of violence by victim).

Moreover, " [e]ven assuming the trial court abused its discretion in excluding the evidence, ... any error was harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence against [Burden]." Bennett v. State, 289 Ga.App. 110, 114 (2) (657 S.E.2d 6) (2008). See also Allen v. State, 288 Ga. 263, 268 (6) (702 S.E.2d 869) (2010) (given overwhelming evidence of appellant's guilt, highly probable that the erroneous exclusion of evidence did not affect the verdict); Westbrook v. State, 291 Ga. 60, 65 (4) (d) (727 S.E.2d 473) (2012) (in context of ineffective assistance claim, finding no reasonable probability that failure to present evidence of victim's acts of violence against third parties would have resulted in different verdict where there was overwhelming evidence of guilt).

4. Denial of motion to suppress confession.

The trial court did not err in denying Burden's motion to suppress evidence of his confession. At the time of trial, OCGA § 24-3-50 provided that " [t]o make a confession admissible, it must have been made voluntarily, without being induced by another by the slightest [332 Ga.App. 814] hope of benefit or remotest fear of injury." [1] The hope of benefit " that will render a confession involuntary under OCGA § 24-3-50 must relate to the charge or sentence facing the suspect." White v. State, 266 Ga. 134, 135 (3) (465 S.E.2d 277) (1996). Here, while the detective interviewing Burden told him that he might garner sympathy by being honest and forthcoming, the officer did not promise a lighter sentence or reduced charges. Such " [e]xhortations to tell the truth are not a hope of benefit that renders a confession inadmissible under OCGA § 24-3-50." Cantrell v. State, 299 Ga.App. 746, 748 (1) (683 S.E.2d 676) (2009).

Likewise, a detective's statement that he was getting " pissed off" did not amount to a threat of injury that renders the confession inadmissible. At the hearing on the motion to suppress, the detective testified that Burden giggled when the detective used that phrase and thus he did not think Burden was intimidated. " Physical or mental torture is the type of fear of injury that prevents a confession from being admissible pursuant to former OCGA § 24-3-50." Browner v. State, 296 Ga. 138, 142 (2) (765 S.E.2d 348) (2014) (citations omitted). Here, while we do not condone the detective's choice of words, there simply is no evidence that they amounted to a threat that would give rise to any such fear of injury, and the trial court's determination that the confession was not the result of any intimidation or threats is not clearly erroneous. See Raulerson v. State, 268 Ga. 623, 627 (2) (b) (491 S.E.2d 791) (1997) (trial court's admission of confession upheld where defendant claimed confession was product of intimidation because interrogating officer became angry during interview and brushed back jacket revealing gun). " Considering the totality of the circumstances, the trial court did not clearly err in admitting [Burden's] statement." Ashmore v. State, 323 Ga.App. 329, 332 (1) (746 S.E.2d 927) (2013).

Judgment affirmed.

Ellington, P. J., and Dillard, J., concur.


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