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Gibson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 6, 2017


          Blackwell, Justice.

         Quinnard Gibson was tried by a Fulton County jury and convicted of murder in connection with the fatal beating of Shannon Stanley. Gibson appeals, contending that the evidence is legally insufficient to sustain his conviction, that the trial court erred when it admitted evidence of a similar transaction, and that it erred when it excluded evidence that Stanley had a reputation for violence. Upon our review of the record and briefs, we see no error, and we affirm.[1]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence shows that Gibson and his father shared a home in unincorporated Fulton County, and in early 2011, Stanley was staying temporarily as a guest in their home.[2] On the evening of January 29, 2011, Gibson went out with friends, leaving his girlfriend sleeping in his bedroom. The girlfriend awoke to find Stanley standing over her, and she called Gibson and told him about Stanley. Gibson became upset, he returned home, and he confronted Stanley. Gibson then took his girlfriend to a MARTA station, dropped her off, and went back out with his friends. Throughout the evening, Gibson continued to express his anger with Stanley.

         Early the next morning, Gibson returned home again, where he and Stanley had an altercation. Soon thereafter, Gibson called a friend and said that he had "messed up" and had beaten Stanley with his fists, his foot, a chair, and a tackle box. The friend came to Gibson's home, where he saw Stanley sitting on the ground in a fetal position, rocking back and forth. The friend also saw blood on furniture, cabinets, the floor, tables, and a tackle box. After the friend helped Gibson clean up the house, Gibson called his father, who returned home and then took Stanley to a hospital. Stanley later died as a result of blunt-force trauma to his head.

         The medical examiner noted that Stanley had defensive injuries to his forearm, and Stanley had no bruises or marks on his hands consistent with him having struck anyone with his hands before his death. Gibson, on the other hand, had swollen hands, and Gibson otherwise was uninjured. Gibson was interviewed by investigating officers, and he admitted that he had fought with Stanley and punched him with his hands. During his interview, Gibson never indicated that Stanley had hit, kicked, or threatened him or that Gibson was at any point in fear for his life. Gibson claimed, however, that Stanley was intoxicated, had started an argument with Gibson, and after fighting with Gibson, had staggered outside and fallen down, hitting his head hard against the rear bumper of a van.

         At trial, Gibson principally argued that Stanley died as the result of an accidental fall to which his intoxication contributed, and his death was not caused by Gibson beating him. On appeal, Gibson claims[3] that the circumstantial evidence does not exclude every reasonable hypothesis other than that of his guilt pursuant to former OCGA § 24-4-6, [4] as no one was present during the beating other than Gibson and Stanley, and the forensic evidence was consistent in many respects with his theory of defense. But not every hypothesis is a reasonable one, and the evidence "need not exclude every conceivable inference or hypothesis - only those that are reasonable." Merritt v. State, 285 Ga. 778, 779 (1) (683 S.E.2d 855) (2009) (emphasis in original).

Whether an alternative hypothesis raised by the defendant is "reasonable" is a question committed principally to the jury, and where the jury is authorized to find that the evidence, though circumstantial, was sufficient to exclude every reasonable hypothesis save that of the guilt of the accused, we will not disturb that finding unless it is insupportable as a matter of law.

Black v. State, 296 Ga. 658, 660 (1) (769 S.E.2d 898) (2015) (citation and punctuation omitted). See also Pyatt v. State, 298 Ga. 742, 745 (1), n. 6 (784 S.E.2d 759) (2016).

         Gibson relies on physical evidence of blood that showed movement by Stanley outdoors, as well as the testimony of the friend (whom Gibson summoned to the home on the morning in question), who said that he heard a loud noise outside the home and that it looked as if Stanley had hit his head on the bumper of the van. Gibson also points to the testimony of the medical examiner, who said that he could not ascertain which blow caused Stanley's death, that acute alcohol intoxication was a contributing factor in the death, and that a fall into the van's bumper hypothetically could cause death. The medical examiner, however, also testified that Stanley's intoxication was not a cause of his death and that under the circumstances, including the location of Stanley's head injuries, it was unlikely that a fall against the bumper caused his death. And there were conflicts between Gibson's own statement to police and his friend's testimony about that alleged fall. A jury could reasonably infer that Stanley did not fall against the van's bumper or that any such fall did not cause his death, but rather that Gibson inflicted all of Stanley's injuries or that Gibson inflicted all but one injury and caused Stanley's death. Based upon this evidence, the jury was not required to find that the hypothesis that Gibson did not cause Stanley's death was a reasonable one. See Allaben v. State, 299 Ga. 253, 255 (1) (787 S.E.2d 711) (2016); Shields v. State, 285 Ga. 372, 374-375 (1) (677 S.E.2d 100) (2009); Mullinax v. State, 273 Ga. 756, 757 (1) (a) (545 S.E.2d 891) (2001). Accordingly, we conclude that the evidence was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Gibson was guilty of the crime of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Gibson contends that the trial court erred when it admitted evidence of a similar transaction involving Gibson and his father. Specifically, the State was allowed to prove that on January 9, 2009, an argument began when Gibson's father complained to Gibson and his girlfriend about leaving the stove turned on with food on it, that Gibson pushed his father on the head, that after some tussling, Gibson hit his father in the head with a piece of wood, and that Gibson was later arrested. Under our old Evidence Code, which applies in this case, [5] it was settled that

a similar transaction may be admitted if the State shows that (1) it seeks to introduce the evidence not to raise an improper inference as to the accused's character, but for some appropriate purpose which has been deemed to be an exception to the general rule of inadmissibility; (2) there is sufficient evidence to establish that the accused committed the independent offense or act; and (3) there is a sufficient connection or similarity between the independent offense or act and the crime charged so that proof of the former tends to prove the latter.

Lamar v. State, 297 Ga. 89, 90-91 (2) (772 S.E.2d 636) (2015) (citation omitted). The trial court admitted the similar transaction to show Gibson's "course of conduct, "[6] motive, and intent, which were, at the time of his trial, appropriate purposes for the introduction of evidence of a defendant's prior bad acts. See Chua v. State, 289 Ga. 220, 232 (2) (710 S.E.2d 540) (2011). Gibson does not dispute that the evidence establishes that he committed the prior violent act against his father. And as for the connection or similarity necessary to admit evidence of a similar transaction to show "course of conduct, " motive, and intent under our old Evidence Code, we have explained that "a lesser degree of similarity is required than when such evidence is introduced to prove identity." Id. (citations and punctuation omitted). Although Gibson argues that the prior incident differs from the murder that he was alleged to have committed in this case, the proper focus under the old Evidence Code was on the similarities, not the differences, between the crime charged and the prior act. See Blackledge v. State, 299 Ga. 385, 390 (3) (788 S.E.2d 353) (2016). In each instance, Gibson argued with a man much older than himself, the argument involved Gibson's girlfriend in some way and took place at his father's house, Gibson became violent, and he beat the victim about the head with a blunt instrument. Based on these similarities, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it concluded that the incidents were similar enough and admitted the evidence of Gibson's prior violent act against his father.[7] See Rivers v. State, 296 Ga. 396, 401 (4) (768 S.E.2d 486) (2015).

         3. Last, Gibson contends that the trial court erred when it excluded evidence that Stanley had a reputation for violence when using alcohol and cocaine. In the trial court, however, Gibson sought to introduce testimony relating only to specific prior conduct by Stanley toward Gibson and third persons. And Gibson argues in his appellate brief that a defendant may present evidence of the victim's prior violent acts against the defendant and third parties if the defendant establishes a prima facie case of justification. It is true under the old Evidence Code[8] that, although the character of a victim generally was neither relevant nor admissible in a murder trial, the defendant could present evidence of the victim's general reputation for violence and his specific acts of violence against the defendant and third persons if the defendant claimed justification and offered evidence that the victim was the first aggressor. See Traylor v. State, 280 Ga. 400, 401-402 (2) (627 S.E.2d 594) (2006); Johnson v. State, 270 Ga. 234, 235-236 (3) (507 S.E.2d 737) (1998); Chambers v. State, 308 Ga.App. 748, 750 (1) (708 S.E.2d 651) (2011). But the burden was on the proponent of the evidence to establish that the victim's prior acts involved violence and were therefore relevant to a claim of justification. See Shaw v. State, 286 Ga. 229, 232 (2) (686 S.E.2d 760) (2009); Bennett v. State, 265 Ga. 38, 41 (3) (453 S.E.2d 458) (1995). Similarly, the proponent of any evidence of the victim's reputation had the burden of showing that the evidence specifically relates to the victim's reputation for violence. See Smiley v. State, 271 Ga. 734, 735 (2) (524 S.E.2d 234) (1999) (the defendant's proffered evidence was inadmissible because it would not have tended to prove the victim's reputation for violence or the reasonableness of the defendant's claim that the use of deadly force was necessary). Cf. Wells v. State, 261 Ga. 282, 283-284 (4) (b) (404 S.E.2d 106) (1991). As the trial court found, however, the testimony that Gibson sought to admit showed only that Stanley was obnoxious and verbally abusive when intoxicated. Such testimony "consists of neither general reputation [for violence] nor specific acts of violence and, thus, does not come within the exception to the general rule against admission of evidence of the victim's character."[9]Quillian v. State, 279 Ga. 698, 699-700 (2) (620 S.E.2d 376) (2005) (evidence that victim was an enforcer for drug dealers). See also Howard v. State, 298 Ga. 396, 400 (2) (782 S.E.2d 255) (2016) (evidence of victim's membership in a gang); Prather v. State, 275 Ga. 268, 270 (2) ...

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