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Jones v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 6, 2017

JONES
v.
THE STATE. JONES
v.
THE STATE.

          Blackwell, Justice.

         Jami Lea Jones and her husband, Louis David Jones, were tried together by a Walton County jury and convicted of the murder of their six-year-old son, Colin, [1] among other crimes. Jami and Louis appeal, both contending that they were denied the effective assistance of counsel. Jami alone also contends that the trial court erred when it failed to instruct the jury sua sponte about certain evidence. Upon our review of the record and briefs, we see no error, and we affirm.[2]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence shows that on December 24, 2009, Jami called 911 to report that Colin was having difficulty breathing. Colin and his younger brother had lived with Jami and Louis (and their older children) for just over a year, and the couple had adopted Colin in April 2009. When first responders arrived at the family's Loganville home, they found Colin and Louis in the bathroom. Colin was lying on the floor, had blood coming out of his mouth and bruises of different colors "from [his] head all the way to the bottom of his feet, " and was unresponsive. Paramedics rushed Colin to the hospital, where he was intubated. In addition to having been beaten, doctors determined that Colin was malnourished and was suffering from a severe bacterial infection. Later that day, Colin was airlifted to a hospital in Atlanta, but he died four days later without ever regaining consciousness.

         The medical examiner determined that Colin died from an infection that affected his entire body and that multiple blunt force traumas "absolutely" contributed to his death because they allowed bacteria to enter his body and impaired his ability to fight the infection. The medical examiner also found neglect to be a cause of death given that Colin's injuries would have been "very obvious" in the days prior to December 24.

         In numerous pretrial statements, Jami and Louis both said that Colin had significant behavioral problems and that they regularly "whooped" him to correct his misbehavior. They also maintained that Colin often fell down and that his lack of nourishment was due to the fact that he refused to eat or drink. Jami and Louis continued to pursue this defense at trial, arguing that they were truthful in their pretrial statements, that they lawfully disciplined Colin, and that they were not the cause of the bacterial infection that killed him. The jury rejected this defense, however, and found them guilty of killing Colin with malice aforethought.

         Neither Jami nor Louis dispute that the evidence is sufficient to sustain their convictions. Nevertheless, we have independently reviewed the record with an eye toward the legal sufficiency of the evidence. We conclude that the evidence adduced at trial was legally sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Jami and Louis were not being truthful when they provided their pretrial statements and that they were guilty of malice murder. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). See also Rini v. State, 235 Ga. 60, 67 (3) (218 S.E.2d 811) (1975) ("[t]he credibility of the defendant's statement to police is to be determined by the jury").

         Case No. S16A1790

         2. Jami appeals in Case No. S16A1790, and she argues that she was denied the effective assistance of counsel. To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance, Jami must prove both that the performance of her lawyer was deficient and that she was prejudiced by this deficient performance. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (III) (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984). To prove that the performance of her lawyer was deficient, Jami must show that the lawyer performed his duties at trial in an objectively unreasonable way, considering all the circumstances, and in the light of prevailing professional norms. Id. at 687-688 (III) (A). See also Kimmelman v. Morrison, 477 U.S. 365, 381 (II) (C) (106 S.Ct. 2574, 91 L.Ed.2d 305) (1986). And to prove that she was prejudiced by the performance of her lawyer, Jami must show "a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694 (III) (B). See also Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 391 (III) (120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389) (2000). This burden is a heavy one, see Kimmelman, 477 U.S. at 382 (II) (C), and we conclude that Jami has failed to carry it.

         (a) First, Jami claims that she was denied the effective assistance of counsel when her lawyer allowed the State to introduce two statements that Louis made to police investigators.[3] But Louis did not blame Jami for Colin's death in those statements. In fact, the statements were consistent with the defense that Jami (and Louis) presented at trial: that Colin was loved and lawfully disciplined by both his parents, that he was suffering from reactive detachment disorder (which caused him to display extreme misbehavior and to refuse to eat or drink), that he was unusually clumsy and would sometimes injure himself by squirming, spinning, or falling down when he was being disciplined, and that he died as a result of a bacterial infection that came on suddenly and not as a result of any action or neglect on the part of Jami or Louis. Given that neither Jami nor Louis would be testifying at trial, Jami's lawyer made the strategic decision that allowing the introduction of Louis's (and Jami's) recorded pretrial statements would be the best way to present their consistent story to the jury. And the content of the statements was of particular importance given that part of Jami's (and Louis's) defense was that they were a religious couple who had never been in trouble and always told the truth. The introduction of the pretrial statements allowed them to argue that they had, from the very beginning, told the truth with transparency and consistency.

         Certainly, the State was able to use some of the information provided in the statements against the defendants. For example, Jami and Louis said in their pretrial statements that they fed Colin bananas, Gatorade, and Pedialyte on the morning of December 24, but the State argued that they did so only because they knew they would "be in trouble" if they took him to a doctor. And although Louis (and Jami) acknowledged in the statements that they both had used corporal punishment on Colin in order to correct his misbehavior, [4] the State argued that the killing had nothing to do with corporal punishment, that Jami and Louis were lying in their pretrial statements, [5] and that they beat and starved Colin and refused him medical treatment even though his suffering was obvious.

         Moreover, Jami's lawyer had to defend against claims that she did these things with an "abandoned and malignant heart" sufficient to constitute malice murder. See OCGA § 16-5-1 (b) ("[m]alice shall be implied where no considerable provocation appears and where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart"). After having reviewed Louis's (and Jami's) recorded statements, we cannot say that no reasonable lawyer would have decided that the statements might be useful to create sympathy for the couple and convince a jury that they did not act with malice. And the fact that the jury was not persuaded by this strategy does not show that the performance of Jami's lawyer was deficient. See Grissom v. State, 296 Ga. 406, 412 (4) (768 S.E.2d 494) (2015) ("[d]ecisions relating to strategy and tactics must not be judged by hindsight or the ultimate result of the trial") (citation and punctuation omitted).[6]

         (b) Jami also contends that she was denied the effective assistance of counsel when her trial lawyer failed to challenge the admissibility of two statements that she made on December 24 while Colin was in the hospital. But the record shows that Jami's lawyer did file a motion to suppress those statements, and he withdrew it for strategic reasons. At the hearing on Jami's motion for new trial, her trial lawyer said that he determined it was unlikely he would be successful in suppressing the statements[7] and, in any event, that it would be in Jami's best interest if both statements were played for the jury in their entirety. The trial lawyer knew that much of what Jami reported in the statements would be cumulative of other evidence presented at trial, especially evidence in other pretrial statements that she made to police investigators and Colin's doctors. And he concluded that playing Jami's recorded statements from the day her son was brought to the hospital would allow her to present her defense to the jury without requiring her to testify:

the Jury needed to know what kind of person she was. She is a very soft spoken sweet person. They were not going to know that. She gave her side of the story. The story that she was going to give if she would have testified as best as she could give it. She tried to tell the truth, that yes, she had done some bad things, but she certainly didn't kill the child. So I wanted that in there.

         Having reviewed Jami's recorded statements, we find that this strategic decision does not amount to ineffective assistance. See Clark v. State, 299 ...


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