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Smith v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 1, 2017

SMITH
v.
THE STATE.

          MELTON, Presiding Justice.

         Following a jury trial, Robert Smith was found guilty of malice murder, felony murder, and other offenses in connection with the shooting death of his friend, Raymond Brewer, Jr.[1] On appeal, Smith contends that the trial court committed plain error in its jury instruction on witness credibility and that the trial court erred in its jury instruction on self-defense. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand for resentencing.

         1.Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the record shows that, in the early morning of April 4, 2010, Smith was arguing with Brewer in an apartment that the two men shared with Smith's girlfriend and several other people. According to witnesses, the men were arguing about, among other things, an altercation that had occurred roughly a week before where Brewer had pushed Smith to the ground, causing Smith to get a scratch on his head. While the men were arguing, Smith retrieved a gun from a closet in the apartment, and he threatened to kill Brewer. Smith then walked into the hallway of the apartment where Brewer was standing and shot him several times, killing him.

         The evidence was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find Smith guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Although the evidence was sufficient to sustain Smith's convictions, we have discovered an error with respect to the trial court's sentencing of Smith. Specifically, although the trial court announced at sentencing that it would merge the aggravated assault count against Smith into the malice murder count against him for sentencing purposes and that it would sentence Smith to five consecutive years for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, in the final disposition sheet the trial court instead merged the possession of a firearm count into the malice murder count for sentencing purposes and sentenced Smith to five consecutive years for aggravated assault. This was error, as "possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony does not merge into [a] conviction for [malice] murder." Jackson v. State, 267 Ga. 130, 130-131 (2) (475 S.E.2d 637) (1996). "[A]s no merger occurred, [Smith] should have been sentenced on th[e possession of a firearm] count." Hulett v. State, 296 Ga. 49, 55 (2) (b) (766 S.E.2d 1) (2014).[2] Further, because the indictment charged Smith with killing Brewer with malice aforethought by shooting him with a rifle, and with assaulting him with a deadly weapon, a rifle, "the aggravated assault conviction merges into the malice murder conviction, and the sentence imposed for aggravated assault must be vacated." (Citation omitted.) Culpepper v. State, 289 Ga. 736, 738 (2) (a) (715 S.E.2d 155) (2011). In light of the fact that the aggravated assault count should have merged into the malice murder count and the possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony count should not have been so merged, we remand this case to the trial court for it to resentence Smith on possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

         3. Smith contends that the trial court committed plain error in its jury charge on witness credibility.[3] In order to satisfy the test for plain error,

[f]irst, there must be an error or defect - some sort of deviation from a legal rule - that has not been intentionally relinquished or abandoned, i.e., affirmatively waived, by the appellant. Second, the legal error must be clear or obvious, rather than subject to reasonable dispute. Third, the error must have affected the appellant's substantial rights, which in the ordinary case means he must demonstrate that it affected the outcome of the trial court proceedings. Fourth and finally, if the above three prongs are satisfied, the appellate court has the discretion to remedy the error - discretion which ought to be exercised only if the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

(Citations, punctuation and emphasis omitted.) State v. Kelly, 290 Ga. 29, 33 (2) (a) (718 S.E.2d 232) (2011). "In the case of a review for 'plain error, ' it is not sufficient to find actual legal error, 'as the jury instruction in question must have an obvious defect rather than a merely arguable defect.'" Hoffler v. State, 292 Ga. 537, 542 (4) (739 S.E.2d 362) (2013), citing Terry v. State, 291 Ga. 508, 509 (2) (731 S.E.2d 669) (2012).

The jury charge in question stated:
In deciding credibility, you may consider all of the facts and circumstances of the case, the manner in which the witnesses testify, their intelligence, their interest or lack of interest in the case, their means and opportunity for knowing the facts about which they testify, the nature of the facts about which they testify, the probability or improbability of their testimony, and the occurrences about which they testify. You may also consider their personal credibility insofar as it may have been shown in your presence and by the evidence.

         Smith contends that the charge was erroneous because it included the "intelligence" of the witnesses as a factor that jurors were allowed to consider when evaluating credibility. However, this Court has previously reviewed jury charges where intelligence is given as a factor that may be considered with respect to witness credibility and found no reversible error where, as here, "[t]he court's charge shows that the intelligence factor was not highlighted or singled out; [as intelligence] was [just] one of several factors which could be considered." Ward v. State, 239 Ga. 205, 206 (3) (236 S.E.2d 365) (1977). Indeed, "even assuming that the better practice is to omit intelligence as one of the factors in the credibility charge, its inclusion is not reversible error" under the circumstances presented here. Howard v. State, 288 Ga. 741, 747 (6) (707 S.E.2d 80) (2011). "[W]e find no reversible error, much less any 'plain error, '" in the jury instruction given by the trial court. Id. at 746 (6).

         4. While Smith did not object to the trial court's jury instruction on witness credibility, he did in fact object to the court's jury instruction on the doctrine of reasonable beliefs and revenge for a prior wrong as those concepts relate to self-defense.[4] He claims that, while such a charge was an accurate statement of law, the charge was nevertheless inappropriate, as there was no evidence that Smith may have shot Brewer out of a sense of revenge for a prior wrong. However, Smith's assertion is belied by the record, as the evidence presented at trial showed that, just before Smith retrieved a gun to shoot and kill Brewer, the two men were specifically arguing about an incident from the prior week where Brewer had pushed Smith to the ground. Because some evidence supports the theory that Smith may have shot Brewer out of revenge for the prior incident between the two men, we find no error from the giving of this charge. See Hicks v. State, 287 Ga. 260, 262 (2) (695 S.E.2d 195) (2010) ("To authorize a requested jury instruction, there need only be slight evidence supporting the theory of the charge") (citation omitted); Rector v. State, 285 Ga. 714 (5) (681 S.E.2d 157) (2009) (charge stating that a person was not justified in seeking out and assaulting alleged wrongdoer for purposes of revenge was properly given, as it was an accurate statement of law that was adjusted to the facts of the case).

         Judgment affirmed in part and vacated in part, and case remanded for ...


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