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Woods v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

June 16, 2017

WOODS
v.
THE STATE.

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

          REESE, JUDGE.

         A Glynn County jury found Ralph Woods, Sr., guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of voluntary manslaughter, OCGA § 16-5-2 (a), and simple assault, OCGA § 16-5-20 (a). He appeals from the denial of his motion for a new trial, contending that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions, that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, and that he was denied his constitutional rights to due process and a speedy trial. For the reasons set forth, infra, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [1] the record reveals the following facts. On December 1, 2007, John Mitchell (hereinafter, "the victim") was in "The Cut, " an area of Brunswick where drugs are often bought and consumed, when he encountered Bernard Robinson.[2] During the encounter, the victim hit Robinson in the head with a brick, robbed him, and ran away. Robinson, the Appellant, and other men chased the victim. Upon catching the victim, the men jointly beat him severely with their hands and feet, the Appellant stabbed him, and Robinson shot him. The victim died from his injuries.

         The State filed an indictment jointly charging the Appellant, Robinson, and two accomplices, Curtis Grant and Keith Williams, with murder, felony murder, and voluntary manslaughter, as well as counts of aggravated assault against each of them individually. The voluntary manslaughter count alleged that the men caused the death of the victim

under circumstances which would otherwise be murder as the sole result of a sudden, violent, and irresistible passion resulting from serious provocation sufficient to excite such passion in a reasonable person, while acting in concert with another to apprehend, detain and assault [the victim], by shooting him with a handgun, by hitting him with a handgun, by stabbing him with a knife, and by repeatedly hitting him with their hands and feet[.][3]

         The Appellant and Robinson were tried together and, in addition to other witnesses, both Williams and Grant testified against them.[4] The jury found the Appellant guilty of committing voluntary manslaughter and simple assault, as a lesser included offense of aggravated assault.[5] The trial court denied the Appellant's motion for new trial, and this appeal followed.

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. This Court determines whether the evidence is sufficient under the standard of Jackson v. Virginia, [6] and does not weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility. Any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence are for the jury to resolve. As long as there is some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State's case, we must uphold the jury's verdict.[7]

         The standard of Jackson v. Virginia is met if the evidence is sufficient for any rational trier of fact to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crime charged.[8] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to the Appellant's specific claims of error.

         1. The Appellant contends that the State presented insufficient evidence to support his convictions, specifically, that the only evidence that he stabbed the victim and otherwise participated in the murder was the testimony of two of his accomplices, Williams and Grant. He relies on former OCGA § 24-4-8, [9] which provided that the testimony of a single witness was generally sufficient to establish a fact, except in felony cases where the only witness was an accomplice.[10] Under the statute, however, evidence of "corroborating circumstances may dispense with the necessity for the testimony of a second witness[.]"[11] In order for evidence to corroborate an accomplice's testimony, it had to be "independent of the accomplice's testimony, " had to "directly connect the defendant with the crimes or lead to the inference of the defendant's guilt, " and had to "do more than merely cast a grave suspicion of guilt on the defendant."[12] Still, "[s]light evidence from an extraneous source identifying the accused as a participant in the criminal act [was] sufficient corroboration of the accomplice to support a verdict."[13] Further, circumstantial evidence could be used to provide the necessary corroboration.[14] And, significantly, the testimony of one accomplice could corroborate the testimony of another accomplice.[15]

         In this case, Williams testified that the Appellant was in "The Cut" when the victim struck Robinson's head, the Appellant and other men chased the victim, and the Appellant participated in the beating of the victim. Williams also testified that, after the assault, the Appellant told him that he (the Appellant) had "stabbed [the victim] a couple times."

         Similarly, Grant testified that, on the day of the murder, he saw the Appellant in "The Cut" when the victim attacked Robinson. Immediately after the attack, Grant heard Robinson say to the Appellant, "Ralph, catch him for me[, ]" referring to the victim. The Appellant, Grant, and others chased the victim through the neighborhood. A few minutes later, Grant saw the victim lying on the ground with the Appellant and others beating and kicking him. Grant saw Robinson shoot the victim, and then he saw the Appellant stabbing the victim in the back with a long, "Army dagger[-]like knife." According to Grant, the Appellant must have gotten the knife from a nearby abandoned car, where Grant knew that a similar knife had been hidden. Grant testified that he was only three feet away when the Appellant stabbed the victim.

         The accomplices' testimony was further corroborated by that of an eyewitness who had known the Appellant for years. He testified that, on the night at issue, he saw the Appellant and others chase the victim, watched as the Appellant beat up the victim with Robinson and Grant, and saw Robinson shoot the victim. According to the eyewitness, the Appellant used a "stabbing" motion as he repeatedly struck the victim, although the witness did not actually see a knife in the Appellant's hand at that time. And, after the beating was over, the witness saw blood on the Appellant's clothing.

         Given this evidence, we find that the testimony of the Appellant's accomplices about his participation in the crimes was adequately corroborated, and that the totality of the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, was sufficient for the jury to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes charged.[16]

         2. The Appellant contends that he received ineffective assistance when his trial counsel failed to request a jury instruction on involuntary manslaughter as a lesser included offense to the voluntary manslaughter charge.[17]

In order to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a criminal defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance so prejudiced the client that there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the trial would have been different.[18] The criminal defendant must overcome the strong presumption that trial counsel's conduct falls within the broad range of reasonable professional conduct. [The appellate court accepts] the trial court's factual findings and credibility determinations unless clearly erroneous, but it independently appl[ies] the legal principles to the facts.[19]

         "Since an appellant claiming ineffective assistance of counsel must show both deficient performance and actual prejudice stemming from that deficiency, an insufficient showing on either of these prongs relieves the reviewing court of the need to address the other prong."[20]

         In this case, the Appellant's trial counsel testified that he asserted an alibi defense at trial because the Appellant had consistently insisted that he had not been present during the attack on the victim, but, instead, was at a cookout. In support of that alibi defense, trial counsel vigorously cross-examined Williams and Grant - the two accomplices who testified against the Appellant, as well as the other witnesses. He also argued to the jury that the accomplices were not credible witnesses; that they were lying in order to implicate the Appellant and get a lighter sentence for themselves; and that it was Grant, not the Appellant, who had actually stabbed the victim.

         Under such circumstances, a request for a jury instruction on involuntary manslaughter, as a lesser included offense to voluntary manslaughter, would have been completely inconsistent with the Appellant's alibi defense.[21] We conclude that it was reasonable for trial counsel "to rely on [the Appellant's] claim of complete innocence, and to defend [him] by attacking the credibility of the [accomplices] whose testimony implicated him in the crimes."[22]

         This Court "evaluates counsel's performance from counsel's perspective at the time of trial. As a general rule, matters of reasonable tactics and strategy, whether wise or unwise, do not amount to ineffective assistance of counsel."[23] Under the circumstances presented, we conclude that trial counsel's failure to request a jury instruction that was inconsistent with the complete defense asserted by his client did not constitute ineffective assistance.[24]

         3. The Appellant contends that the trial court violated his right to a speedy trial and that, as a result, his defense was "fatally handicapped." The Supreme Court of Georgia, however, has already decided this issue adversely to the Appellant in an appeal filed by him and his co-defendant, Robinson, from the denial of their motions to dismiss the indictment. In Robinson v. State, [25] the Court concluded that the defendants could not prevail on their constitutional speedy trial claims because they had failed to show any harm, explaining that "no witnesses have died or disappeared; there is no evidence that witnesses have lost their memories; and the defense strategy remained unchanged."[26] The Appellant has failed to present evidence of any additional prejudice to his defense that did not exist before the Supreme Court issued its ruling.[27] Consequently, this enumeration lacks merit.

         4. The Appellant claims that he was improperly denied his Sixth Amendment right to "conflict-free" counsel.[28] He argues that his trial counsel was not appointed to represent him until nine months after his arrest and, as a result of that delay, an "essential" alibi witness ...


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