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Smith v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 6, 2017


          HUNSTEIN, Justice.

         Appellant Christopher Rayshun Smith was tried and convicted of murder and related offenses in connection with the shooting death of Kevin Daniel and aggravated assault of Kamenika Whatley.[1] Smith appeals, claiming three instances of trial court error. Though we find no merit in any of Smith's trial phase enumerations, we do find error with regard to his sentences and therefore we must vacate and remand for re-sentencing.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence adduced at trial established as follows. Smith, a drug dealer, devised a plan with co-indictees Antonio Jones and Jamarrcus Sullivan to rob Kevin Daniel, a competing dealer, of his drugs and money. On June 1, 2013, Smith dropped Jones and Sullivan off near Daniel's home in Rome, Georgia. As the men approached the house, with Smith's shotgun in tow, Jones recognized an SUV parked in the driveway as belonging to Kamenika Whatley. Scared that she would be able to identify him, the men decided that Jones would open the front door and Sullivan would "handle everything else."

         Jones opened the door. Sullivan went inside, aimed the shotgun at Daniel and Whatley and demanded drugs and money. Whatley complied but Daniel ignored the command and charged toward the intruders. Jones fled the house and hid behind Whatley's car in the driveway as Daniel and Sullivan fought over the shotgun. Shortly thereafter, witnesses heard gun shots and the sound of glass breaking. Daniel stumbled outside holding the shotgun. He then fell off of his front porch and landed in the yard. Sullivan exited the house, stood over Daniel and shot him with a handgun. Sullivan then grabbed the shotgun, as well as Whatley's and Daniel's cell phones, and fled the scene with Jones. Smith picked up Sullivan and Jones in his red Chevy Malibu, at which time Sullivan explained that he had to shoot Daniel because Jones "messed everything up."

         When law enforcement arrived at Daniel's home, they found him face down in the front yard and somewhat responsive. He was taken to the hospital and later died from multiple gunshot wounds. Law enforcement found a .40 caliber shell casing and $3500 inside the home; they located drugs in the front yard. Cell phone records introduced at trial showed numerous phone calls made between Sullivan and Smith on the night of the murder. Daniel's blood was found inside Smith's red Chevy Malibu.

         While they were incarcerated, Smith wrote letters to Jones regarding the case, including requests that Jones deny Smith's involvement in the crimes. The State also introduced jail phone calls made by Smith in which he discussed the crimes, witnesses, and evidence.

         1. Though not enumerated by Smith, we find that the evidence was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Smith was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Smith claims that the trial court erred in admitting into evidence two recorded jail calls and handwritten letters. "We review the admission of evidence for an abuse of discretion." Moore v. State, 295 Ga. 709, 712 (2) (763 S.E.2d 670) (2014).

         (a) Jail Phone Calls

         Smith first contends that the trial court erred by admitting incriminating two recorded jail calls - one between Smith and his brother and the other between Smith and his wife - alleging that the State failed to lay the proper foundation for the phone calls to be admitted. Specifically, Smith argues that the State failed to properly identify the speakers, the proper operation of the recording devices, and whether any changes or deletions were made to the recordings as required by Davis v. State, 279 Ga. 786 (621 S.E.2d 446) (2005) and its progeny. We disagree.

         Contrary to Smith's assertions, because he was tried after January 1, 2013, OCGA § 24-9-923 (c) of the new evidence code, not Davis, controls. See Jones v. State, 299 Ga. 40 (4) (785 S.E.2d 886) (2016). OCGA § 24-9-923 (c) allows the admission of computer controlled audio recordings, such as jail phone calls, "when the court determines, based on competent evidence presented to the court, that such items tend to show reliably the fact or facts for which the items are offered . . . ."

         Here, the State called an investigator from the District Attorney's Office to authenticate the two jail recordings. The investigator testified that she was able to access the jail's recorded phone calls through a computer program. The investigator listened to Smith's recorded calls and explained that she was able to identify the parties on both phone calls because they identified themselves in the recordings on numerous occasions. Moreover, both recordings contained automated information from the Floyd County Jail, including the number called, the inmate number, the date and time the call was placed, and a male voice identifying the caller as "Lil' Chris, " Smith's nickname. Finally, during the calls, the parties discussed information regarding the case, such as potential witnesses, the ongoing investigation by law enforcement, and the role of Smith's co-indictees in the crimes. All of this evidence tends to show that the automated recordings were, in fact, recordings of the phone calls Smith made from jail to both his brother and wife. See Jones, 299 Ga. at 45. Consequently, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting these two phone calls at trial.

         (b) Handwritten Letters

         Smith also claims that the trial court erred by admitting the letters adduced by the State at trial as authored by him because the State, he claims, failed to lay the proper foundation for their admission. OCGA § 24-9-901 requires "authentication or identification as a condition precedent to admissibility" which "shall be satisfied by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims." Id. Authentication may be achieved through many means, including, but not limited to: "[t]estimony of a witness with knowledge that a matter is what it is claimed to be, " id. at (b) (1); "[n]onexpert opinion as to the genuineness of handwriting, based upon familiarity not acquired for purposes of the litigation, " Id. at (b) (2); and, "[a]ppearance, contents, substance, internal patterns, or other distinctive characteristics, taken in conjunction with circumstances, " Id. at (b) (4). The party proffering the evidence must present sufficient evidence "'to make out a prima facie case that the proffered evidence is what it purports to be.' Once that prima facie case is established, the evidence ...

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