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Jones v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

February 1, 2017


          DILLARD, P. J., REESE and BETHEL, JJ.


         Following a trial by jury, Travis Jones, Willie Johnson, William Lemons, and Robert Turner were convicted of burglary.[1] Jones, Johnson, and Lemons now challenge their convictions. In Case Numbers A16A2058, A16A2066, and A17A0110, Jones, Johnson, and Lemons argue that the trial court erred in denying their motions for a mistrial after a main witness on behalf of the State used the prosecutor's own notes to refresh his recollection. Additionally, in Case Numbers A16A2066 and A17A0110, Johnson and Lemons challenge the sufficiency of the evidence as to their convictions for burglary. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm in each case.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, [2] the record reflects that Jones, Johnson, Lemons, and Turner were inmates at the Jefferson County Correctional Institution, who were assigned to a work detail located near the victim's residence. The inmates were directed to clear brush from the roadside and were divided into two groups: five inmates to the north and six inmates to the south, while one guard monitored their work. The victim's residence was beside the boundary of the north end of the work area.

         During a midday break, the inmates assigned to the south end sat with the guard in the center of the work area while the north-end inmates took their break on a hill near the victim's residence. But after some time had passed, the guard realized that he was not able to see all of the inmates on the hill. The guard then walked up the hill and, as he approached, an inmate yelled to warn others that he was coming. What then ensued resembled a deleted scene from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"[3]

         Just prior to the guard's arrival, an inmate who was uninvolved in the incident saw Jones and Lemons walk toward the back of the house and then heard sounds of objects breaking. Then, as the guard approached, he heard the sounds of feet moving across a hard surface. When the guard reached the top of the hill, he found Jones and Turner standing beside a tree near the house, and observed Lemons walk from the rear of the house back to his work post. The guard also watched Johnson, who was assigned to the opposite end of the work area, walk across the field, which the guard thought was suspicious. Upon the guard's arrival at the top of the hill, it was immediately apparent that Jones was intoxicated, and that Turner and Lemons were attempting to calm him.

         The guard moved all of the inmates to the bottom of the hill to further assess the situation and, once at the bottom, noticed that Lemons was wearing a gold wristwatch, which he should not have had on while participating in a work detail. The guard then called for backup to remove Jones from the detail when he continued to exhibit signs of intoxication and erratic behavior. Prior to being transported away from the work detail, Jones was searched and found to be in possession of several ink pens and an XM radio.

         Thereafter, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office began to investigate a potential burglary of the victim's residence. After learning that his home might have been burglarized, the victim-who was in the process of moving-went to the house and discovered that he could not open the front door because a lounge chair, lamp, and computer had been thrown against it. Law enforcement determined that the perpetrators had entered the now ransacked house through the back door, and the victim ultimately identified the watch found in Lemons's possession and the pens and radio in Jones's possession as his property (all having last been located inside the residence).

         During the ensuing investigation, law enforcement collected five liquor bottles from inside the house. One bottle resulted in the recovery of a single usable fingerprint, and though the print was excluded as belonging to the other inmates, it could not be excluded as belonging to Johnson. The victim testified that this bottle, which was found on a freezer by the backdoor, had last been located in a room toward the front of the house. On a second bottle, law enforcement recovered DNA matching Johnson and Turner. The victim testified that this bottle, which was found in a room near the front door, had last been located in a room across the hall. When questioned by law enforcement, Johnson initially denied any involvement in the burglary, but when later confronted with the fingerprint evidence, he admitted to touching the bottle outside of the residence before handing it back to another inmate. Johnson also initially denied drinking from a bottle of alcohol before admitting that he had done so, but he then once again denied consuming alcohol-even after being confronted with the DNA evidence.

         All four inmates were subsequently indicted for first-degree burglary and, following a trial by jury, convicted of that offense. These appeals by Jones, Johnson, and Lemons follow the denial of their motions for new trial.

         1. In Case Numbers A16A2058, A16A2066, and A17A0110, Jones, Johnson, and Lemons argue that the trial court erred in denying their motions for mistrial after the work-detail guard used notes prepared by the prosecutor to refresh his recollection. While all appellants argue that the document was not the type permitted for refreshing a witness's recollection, Jones further contends that the State's prosecutor committed misconduct. We disagree that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motions for a mistrial.[4]

         The record reflects that during the State's direct examination of the work-detail guard (who had suffered three mini-strokes since the date of the incident in question), the witness attempted to reference documents he brought with him to the stand after he was asked to which side of the work detail Lemons had been assigned. Seeing this, the State asked the guard what documents he was holding, and the guard replied, "That was given [to] me by you[, ] I think." The State's prosecutor then asked to see the documents and responded that she "didn't realize I had left this with you." The guard responded, "Yeah, you left that with me." The State's prosecutor then replied, "All right. You can have it back then, " before moving on to a new line of questioning.

         Direct examination continued without objection for quite some time until the State asked the guard to indicate on a diagram the location of the tree where he saw Jones and Turner standing. At that point, Johnson's counsel observed that the guard appeared to be "using something to refresh his memory" because he "[kept] looking down at the papers." Thus, defense counsel requested to see the writing and to question the guard under OCGA § 24-6-612 (a).[5] When the court asked the guard to what he was referring, the guard responded that it was "a photo that the DA gave me when she came out to my residence." The State's prosecutor then volunteered that it appeared she had "inadvertently left [her] notes with [the guard]" and that it "was not intentionally done." The court allowed the State to retrieve the document from the guard and ordered that the notes be shown to the defendants for purposes of cross examination. The document was subsequently made a court exhibit for inclusion in the record.[6]

         The defendants moved for a mistrial due to "prosecutorial misconduct by allowing [the] witness to continue to hold onto these notes, even though [the State's prosecutor] knew that they were inappropriate for him to have." But the trial court denied those motions after concluding that there was no prosecutorial misconduct. Then, the court permitted the State to continue questioning the guard after allowing him to refresh his recollection with an incident report that he had prepared the day after the work-detail incident. And when the defendants later cross-examined the guard and asked about the prosecutor's notes, the guard testified that he "wasn't actually using [the notes]" and that he was "going to look down at it to see [if he] could . . . refresh [his] memory of the inmates that were working at the house."[7]

         In considering the defendants' argument, we necessarily begin our analysis with the text of OCGA § 24-6-612, which permits a witness to "use a writing to refresh his or her memory while testifying, " but also provides that "an adverse party [is] entitled to have the writing produced at the hearing or trial, to inspect it, to cross-examine the witness on such writing, and to introduce in evidence those portions of such writing which relate to the testimony of the witness."[8] Here, the appellants contend that, notwithstanding their ability to cross-examine the work-detail guard as to the notes that were in his possession during some portion of his direct examination, the guard was improperly permitted to use the notes to refresh his recollection because the document was prepared by the State's prosecutor outside of the guard's presence. And, at least in cases decided under our prior Evidence Code, [9] when a document was "prepared by a third person not in the presence of [the] witness, the [witness's] memory [was] not refreshed by such memorandum and such testimony [was] inadmissible."[10] This was so even though "a witness [was allowed to] refresh his memory from a writing prepared by another."[11]

         But here, at the motion-for-new-trial hearing, the trial judge-who had the benefit of observing the witness's demeanor and judging his credibility before ruling upon the motions for mistrial[12]-noted his prior determination that the guard did not actually use the relevant document to refresh his recollection. And indeed, the record supports this conclusion when, on direct examination, the guard testified that he "wasn't actually using [the notes]" and that he was "going to look down at it to see [if he] could . . . refresh [his] memory of the inmates that were working at the house."[13] Furthermore, the record reflects that the witness's recollection was only refreshed after he was permitted to review the incident report that he created in the immediate wake of the day in question, after review of which he provided more detailed and substantial answers to the State's questions. As other courts have rightly determined, "[e]ven [when] a witness reviewed a writing before or while testifying, if the witness did not rely on the writing to refresh memory, Rule 612 confers no rights on the adverse party."[14] Thus, because the witness did not actually use the objected-to document to refresh his recollection, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the appellants' motions for mistrial.

         As for Jones's additional argument that the State engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by allowing the guard to maintain possession of the prosecution's notes, even after learning that they were inadvertently left with the witness at a prior time, we note that "[a] charge of prosecutorial misconduct is a serious charge and is not to be lightly made[.]"[15] And having raised it, Jones has the duty to "prove it by the record and by legal authority."[16]

         Here, the trial court denied the motion for mistrial on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct after deciding, based on its "observations and conclusions, " that there was no such misconduct. More specifically, the court determined that the State's prosecutor "made a mistake and left her notes [with the witness] by accident, " and that when she saw that she had done so, she "most likely did what many of us would do, ['W]ell what do I do[?'], and just didn't make the right decision, which would have been to say, ['W]ell let me take those back.[']" Once again, given the trial court's benefit of observing demeanor and assessing credibility when making this determination, and given the additional conclusion that the witness did not actually refresh his recollection from ...

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