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Barnett v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 6, 2017


          BOGGS, Justice.

         Appellant Steven Barnett was convicted of malice murder in the stabbing death of George "Bubba" Bennett.[1] The trial court denied Barnett's amended motion for new trial, and he now appeals, contending that he received ineffective assistance of counsel and that the trial judge should have recused herself. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence at trial established as follows: On the night of the incident, the victim, Bennett, had been on a date with Barnett's former girlfriend. Later that night, while the victim and the former girlfriend were sleeping, Barnett arrived at the victim's home and pounded on the door and the side of the house. The victim got up and the former girlfriend heard him unlock and open the door, and then heard Barnett's voice. She heard Barnett accuse the victim of "f***ing his old lady" and threaten to kill him. The victim responded, "She's not your old lady" and told Barnett to "Stop. Steve. Stop." The former girlfriend then heard the two men fighting. She remained in the bedroom and called police.

         Moments later, Barnett drove away and crossed the center line at a high rate of speed as officers responding to the scene approached. Officers gave chase and Barnett parked his car in a driveway and turned out his headlights. When officers arrested Barnett, he was covered in blood but had no visible injuries. The medical examiner determined that Barnett's shirt was stained with the victim's blood.

         Officers and emergency personnel arrived at the victim's home to find him lying on the floor in a large amount of blood with a large stab wound to his chest, and Barnett's former girlfriend hiding in the bedroom. A knife from the victim's kitchen was found in the front yard of the home with blood on the blade. The victim died from a stab wound to the chest that entered his aorta and resulted in a massive hemorrhage. The autopsy revealed other abrasions and contusions consistent with a fist fight.

         There were no eyewitnesses to the fight between Barnett and the victim, but a neighbor identified Barnett on the scene and at trial as the man he saw "flying down the road" to the victim's home, walk up to the door, and pound on the door about 30 times. The neighbor then heard the victim yell, "I don't know you. Get out of my house, " and observed Barnett leave after hearing "a commotion."

         The former girlfriend testified that a year before this incident, Barnett hit and kicked her as he accused her of having a romantic relationship with another man. The officer who arrested Barnett in this incident testified that the former girlfriend suffered from injuries to her head and face. The former girlfriend explained that Barnett had told her on another occasion that if "he ever caught me with anybody that he would kill them, him and me." The State introduced evidence that a few days before the victim was killed, Barnett had asked his former girlfriend's sister if she was dating the victim, and had threatened another man he accused of having a romantic relationship with the former girlfriend.

         1. Barnett does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence. Nevertheless, we have independently reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence, as outlined above, was legally sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Barnett was guilty of malice murder under the standard of Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Barnett asserts that the trial judge should have recused herself prior to trial after disclosing that she had represented the victim in an unrelated matter. At the start of trial, the following colloquy took place:

[Trial] Court: . . . And I did also want to put on the record - -remember what I told y'all back in the back, that I thought - - I got to thinking about it - - way back in the dark ages when I was practicing law, that I represented [the victim] against the D.N.R. when they took his shrimp and his boat one time, and I need to put that on the record.
[Defense Counsel]: Judge, if I could explain that to my client.
[Trial] Court: Sure.
[Defense Counsel]: Judge Williams was in private practice before she took the bench and in her practice she represented [the victim]. Judge Williams is making certain evidentiary rulings in this case and certain decisions that affect the outcome. But she is revealing this conflict to you - - not a conflict, this situation to you where you can decide whether or not you believe that to be a conflict. It doesn't mean that it is, but ...

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