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Leslie v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

June 14, 2017


          DOYLE, C. J., MILLER, P. J., and REESE, J.

          REESE, JUDGE.

         A Bartow County jury found Christopher Leslie guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of three counts of cruelty to a child in the second degree, OCGA § 16-5-70 (c), and two counts of false imprisonment, OCGA § 16-5-41 (a). He appeals pro se from the denial of his motion for new trial, contending that the trial court erred in ruling that certain affirmative defenses were not applicable; in failing to instruct the jury, sua sponte, on those affirmative defenses; and in excluding certain evidence. He also claims that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons that follow, infra, we affirm.

         1. The Appellant contends that the State failed to present sufficient evidence for the jury to convict him of the offenses as charged, particularly given his defense that the acts at issue were necessary to discipline the child and were justified under the circumstances.

         "On appeal from a criminal conviction, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict[, ] and an appellant no longer enjoys the presumption of innocence."[1]

Because a jury found [the Appellant] guilty, this Court looks only to see if there is a factual basis from which a rational trier of fact could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that a guilty verdict was warranted. We do not judge the credibility of the witnesses. We do not revisit conflicts in the evidence. And we will not simply substitute our opinion for that of the jury. So long as there is some competent evidence to support each element of the offenses as charged, the jury's verdict will be upheld.[2]

         Viewed in this light, the evidence shows the following facts. In March 2010, the Appellant lived in Bartow County with his wife, his two sons (who were seven and ten years old), and his two step-children. On Friday, March 26, 2010, the Appellant built a wooden box that was approximately two feet by four feet by two feet, made from plywood and two-by-four beams. The box's lid was attached with hinges and had a hasp that could be locked from the outside. The box had no holes for light or air to enter. According to the Appellant, he built the box for the specific purpose of placing his younger son (hereinafter, "the victim") inside it to calm him down; to discipline him; and to teach him to behave, listen, and follow orders when other forms of punishment did not work.

         The next day, the Appellant put a sleeping bag and pillow inside the box, then grabbed the victim's arm and leg and forced him into the box. He then secured the latch with a screwdriver and set the microwave timer for 30 minutes. While in the box, the victim screamed, kicked, and yelled out that he was hot and could not breathe. According to the victim, when he screamed, his father put a blanket over the box. After about 30 minutes, the Appellant released the victim, who "never calmed down, " but who behaved properly the rest of the day.

         The next evening, the Appellant put the victim in the box for another 30-minute period. The Appellant's wife was present, however, and, when the victim screamed that he was very hot and could not breathe, she opened the box and wiped his face with a cool cloth. The Appellant then closed the lid, locked it with a screwdriver, and kept the victim inside the box for the remainder of the 30 minutes.

         When the victim returned to school on Monday, his teacher and the school counselor observed bruises on his arms and legs, and the counselor contacted the county office of the Department of Family and Children Services ("DFCS"). DFCS officials contacted the police department, and officers went to the Appellant's home the next day to investigate. When they arrived, the Appellant met them at the door and talked with them briefly before showing them the box, which he admitted building, and consenting to a search of the house. The officers seized the box and asked the Appellant to come to the station for an interview. The Appellant drove to the station, spoke with an officer in a videotaped interview, [3] and then went home. Later that day, officers arrested the Appellant at his home on charges of cruelty to children and false imprisonment.[4]

         The evidence also showed that, prior to building the box, the Appellant punished the victim by locking him in a storage container that was under the bed in the sleeper compartment of his tractor-trailer. On other occasions, the Appellant put the victim in a sleeping bag and tied ropes around it to keep him inside. In addition, when the victim screamed or yelled while being punished or restrained, the Appellant put crushed red pepper in his mouth. In fact, the Appellant admitted to putting the following substances in the victim's mouth in an effort to quiet him: crushed red pepper, cayenne pepper, ground cinnamon, vinegar, lemon pepper, ground cloves, pepper sauce, and hot sauce.

         The State presented the testimony of a child psychologist who was treating the victim at the time of the March 2011 trial, after diagnosing him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD") in June 2010. The psychologist testified that she based her diagnosis on the victim's statements to her that he had been "placed in a box by his father for periods of time on repeated occasions, " adding that the victim talked about "the terror he felt, feeling like he couldn't breathe, crying and pounding on the box and being scared to death not knowing how long he was going to be in there." According to the psychologist, the victim described feeling "very scared, very angry, [and] very sad" when he was in the box. The victim also reported having nightmares about the box and told her that he did not like to be in any kind of "closed-in space." In fact, during play-therapy sessions, the victim would often put toys in a toy chest, then create "rescue scenarios" where someone would come in and rescue the toys from the box.

         The psychologist also testified that binding a child in a sleeping bag was not a discipline technique that was approved and accepted by reputable organizations. Further, she testified that, in her opinion, placing a child in an enclosed box where he or she felt that they could not breathe, as in this case, "crosse[d] the line of abuse" and was not an appropriate discipline technique. According to the psychologist, she based her diagnosis of PTSD on symptoms that the victim was experiencing, and those symptoms were directly related to his having been locked in the box.

         After considering the evidence and the applicable law, the jury found the Appellant not guilty on three counts of child cruelty in the first degree, but it found him guilty on two counts of child cruelty in the second degree and two counts of false imprisonment based upon his locking the victim in the box, and one count of child cruelty in the second degree based upon his binding the victim in the sleeping bag.[5] Implicit in this verdict is the jury's rejection of the Appellant's defense that his actions were justified as reasonable parental discipline. It was up to the jury to determine whether the circumstances justified the Appellant's conduct, and this Court will not interfere with that determination as long as it was supported by evidence at trial.[6]

         Having reviewed the trial transcript, we conclude that the evidence presented was sufficient for the jury to find the Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes charged.

         2. The Appellant contends that the trial court abused its discretion when it prohibited him from introducing evidence of prior acts of violence committed by the victim against a former teacher and classmates.[7] We disagree.

         The record shows that the State filed a motion in limine asking the court to exclude evidence of alleged prior bad acts by the victim toward third parties who were not his family members, specifically acts committed when he was five years old against his former kindergarten teacher and his classmates. Following a hearing, the court ruled that the evidence was inadmissible character evidence and irrelevant because the teacher and classmates were not parties to the instant case, and because the alleged bad acts were too remote in time, having occurred approximately two years and eight months before the incidents at issue.[8] The Appellant's counsel subsequently proffered the evidence that he would have presented at trial to demonstrate the victim's prior bad acts. Specifically, he stated that the victim's kindergarten teacher would testify that, in August and September 2007, the victim repeatedly slapped, punched, shoved, or kicked the teacher and the victim's classmates. The court reaffirmed its earlier ruling and excluded the evidence.

         The Appellant argues that the court erred in excluding evidence of the victim's prior bad acts toward third parties, complaining that this evidence would have supported his claim that he was acting in self-defense when he committed the acts at issue.

Under Georgia's former Evidence Code, a defendant claiming self-defense justification could introduce evidence of specific violent acts by the victim against third parties.[9] The defendant, however, carried the burden of proving that the specific violent acts should be admitted and had to, at a minimum, (1) follow the procedural requirements for introducing the evidence, (2) establish the existence of prior violent acts by competent evidence, and (3) make a prima facie showing of justification. To make a prima facie case of justification, the defendant was required to show that the victim was the aggressor, the victim assaulted the defendant, and the defendant was honestly trying to defend himself.[10]

         In this case, there was no evidence to support a finding that the seven-year-old victim presented an imminent violent threat to the Appellant and that the Appellant was forced to defend himself by locking the victim in the box or tying him up in a sleeping bag. Instead, the Appellant admitted that he used books and the Internet to research different methods of discipline and that he planned and built the box with the intention of using it to punish the victim; to calm him down; and to teach him to behave, be nice, listen to his parents and teachers, and follow orders so he would realize "we are the boss, he's not the boss." According to the Appellant, he needed to find a way to discipline the victim, explaining that the child was "getting stronger and it's hard to hold him down." The Appellant also testified that he wanted to use it to keep the victim from going into "fits of rage" that he (the Appellant) did not know how to deal with and that he was concerned that the other forms of punishment he often used, such as spanking him with a wire flyswatter, would bruise or leave marks on the victim. These admissions were corroborated by other witnesses, who testified that the Appellant had said he put the victim in the box to control him or to punish him for his bad behavior.

         Moreover, during his interview with an investigator, which was within three days of the first time he locked the victim in the box, the Appellant admitted that he could not remember what the victim had done that caused him (the Appellant) to use that punishment. As for why he locked the victim in the box the next day, the Appellant told officers that the victim had failed to do his homework, and that, when the Appellant tried to punish him by sending him to his room, the child would not stay in the room and screamed and called him names. The Appellant then spanked the child before locking him in the box for 30 minutes. Notably, the Appellant never told the investigator that he put the victim in the box in an effort to defend himself, his wife, or the child's siblings from imminent harm because the child was hitting, kicking, or otherwise hurting them at that moment.

         Likewise, the Appellant never told the investigator that the victim climbed into the box voluntarily. At trial, however, the Appellant claimed that, on both occasions, he talked to the victim while the victim "still had a reasoning capability" and gave the victim a choice of punishments: he could sit in the box for 30 minutes or stay in his room for the rest of the day. According to the Appellant, the victim voluntarily chose the former option. Thus, the Appellant's own trial testimony demonstrated that the victim was not threatening him with imminent harm at either time the Appellant locked him in the box.

         As for what caused him to tie up the victim in the sleeping bag, the Appellant testified that he did not remember, stating only that it might have been because he had tried to spank the victim for some earlier misbehavior and the victim had tried to run or fight back to avoid being punished.[11] According to the Appellant, he told the victim to get inside the sleeping bag, but, when the victim refused, the Appellant put the victim inside and tied him up. The Appellant told the victim that, if he got out, he would get another spanking and that he was "going to do what I ask[ed him] to do." The Appellant also admitted that he put pepper in the child's mouth after he had tied the victim in the sleeping bag, because the child had been very angry and was cursing.

         Although the Appellant testified at trial that the victim had hit, kicked, bitten, and otherwise acted violently toward him and other family members, that testimony, when read in context, described the victim's behavior that purportedly caused the Appellant to regularly spank, restrain, or otherwise punish him, or it showed the victim's negative reactions to being punished. None of the evidence supported a finding that the victim was the initial aggressor who threatened the Appellant with an ...

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