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Oubre v. Woldemichael

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 30, 2017


          PETERSON, Justice.

         Yididya Woldemichael pleaded guilty to armed robbery and other charges for his role in the robbery and beating of a pizza delivery woman. He filed a petition for habeas corpus, which the habeas court granted on the basis that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to advise Woldemichael that inculpatory custodial statements by him could have been suppressed. Woldemichael was 14 years old at the time of the police interview. The Warden appeals the grant of habeas relief, arguing that the statements were voluntary and would have been admissible at trial and, thus, counsel's performance was not deficient. We agree with the habeas court that Woldemichael's statements to police were subject to suppression. But because the habeas court assumed without separate analysis that recorded statements that Woldemichael made to a co-defendant during a break in police questioning also were subject to suppression, we remand for the habeas court to analyze the admissibility of those statements in the first instance.

         1. Factual background

         In November 2010, Woldemichael was indicted with three others in connection with an August 2010 robbery. He was charged with three counts of armed robbery, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment, and one count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Woldemichael entered a non-negotiated guilty plea in September 2011 to all of the charges except for two of the armed robbery counts.[1]

         At the plea hearing, the prosecutor told the court that she expected the evidence would show that the 60-year-old victim was badly beaten and robbed by three men, with a fourth man acting as a lookout, when she delivered pizza to an apartment. According to the prosecutor, Woldemichael answered the door before he and two others dragged the victim inside and proceeded to beat her. According to the prosecutor, the victim had reported that one of the men beat her with what she thought was a pipe - later determined to be a rifle or shotgun - and another waved a handgun. The prosecutor said one of the co-defendants, Gilbert Burton, told police that during the incident Woldemichael struck the victim repeatedly about the head and face with the shotgun as she lay on the floor.

         At the plea hearing, the prosecutor repeatedly referenced law enforcement's interview of Woldemichael, as well as statements he made while he was left alone in the interview room with another co-defendant, Justin Tolbert, and laughter by Woldemichael about the victim while the two discussed the robbery. The trial court sentenced Woldemichael to 45 years, 20 years to be served in custody.

         In 2014, Woldemichael filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The sole claim in the petition is that Woldemichael would not have pleaded guilty but for the ineffective assistance of trial counsel. In particular, Woldemichael contends that trial counsel did not inform him of the likelihood that his custodial statements would have been excluded had counsel sought their suppression.

         At issue is the videotaped interview in which Woldemichael spent more than four hours in a police interrogation room.[2] Woldemichael complains that police repeatedly suggested to him that a confession would be to his benefit. Toward the end of the interview, after talking to his co-defendant, he acknowledged participating in the robbery.

         In the first 30 minutes of the session, before Woldemichael had been apprised of his rights, two detectives questioned him. One of the detectives made the following remarks:

I'm asking you to go ahead and just be completely honest with me. Because in the long run, it really helps us both if you're just honest with me and just tell me from the beginning and I can say, listen, it was just a 15 year old kid [sic] who did some stupid stuff and he made some stupid mistakes, OK? That's why you're here right now.

         The detective continued later:

We brought you in here for your own good, essentially. We want you to go and tell us exactly what happened so we can go and we can say, "listen, these kids aren't just vicious animals that did this for no reason." . . . You think it's gonna be all your other buddies that were with you yesterday are just gonna keep the same story that you are, or you think they are gonna start diming you out and they start saying, "Yeah, he did this and he did that and he was this part of it"? And then we gotta go to court and we gotta say, "yeah, the other guys were honest, but this guy, he wasn't." We gotta say that to the judge. How do you think that's going to make you look?

         Pretty bad.

         Woldemichael then was left alone for about 30 minutes, before another set of detectives entered the room. Realizing that Woldemichael had not yet been read his Miranda rights, one of the detectives apparently left to get the appropriate Miranda paperwork. While he was gone, Woldemichael said to the other detective, "I don't feel like talking right now. I might just say I need a lawyer for real and let the lawyer talk for me. For real."[3] ...

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