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Scott v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

June 26, 2017


          NAHMIAS, Justice.

         Appellant Windy Scott ("Appellant") challenges her convictions for malice murder and a gun crime in connection with the shooting death of William Scott ("Scott"). Appellant claims that she was denied the effective assistance of counsel for her trial. We conclude that Appellant's trial counsel performed deficiently in not seeking expert assistance in evaluating her mental condition at the time of shooting and at the time of trial; however, Appellant has not shown that but for this deficiency, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial proceeding would have been more favorable to her. Accordingly, we affirm.[1]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence at trial showed the following. Appellant and Scott, who were first cousins, had a tumultuous romantic relationship that began in the late 1980s and produced two children. Scott's infidelities were a recurring source of tension, and in 1996 Appellant stabbed Scott during an argument about his cheating. Appellant then received inpatient psychiatric treatment.

         Many years later, on February 17, 2010, Appellant confronted Scott as he was leaving his mother's house with another woman, and Scott told Appellant that he wanted to end their relationship. For the next few days, Appellant had trouble getting in touch with him. On Sunday morning, February 21, she took a loaded gun to the parking lot of Scott's employer to make him talk to her at the end of his shift. She showed Scott the gun, and he persuaded her to put it in her car while they talked. A co-worker of Scott who is a minister walked by, and Scott asked him to speak with Appellant, telling him that she had come with a gun to kill herself. The minister then counseled and prayed with Appellant for 15 to 20 minutes.

         Appellant and Scott left in separate cars traveling in the same direction. As they drove, Appellant called Scott by cell phone and asked him if they were okay; he cursed at her and said there was no way that he was going to get back together with her. Appellant then followed Scott to a gas station, where he parked next to a pump and got out of his car. Appellant parked, got out of her car, and began arguing with Scott in front of several witness who were watching from inside the gas station convenience store. Appellant then pulled out her gun and began chasing Scott around the gas pumps. He picked up a plastic trash can to shield himself, and the chase continued until Scott fell to his knees, facing Appellant. She stepped forward and fired one shot through the trash can into Scott's forehead, killing him. Appellant then put the gun down on the hood of Scott's car and lay on the ground next to him.

         A witness had already called 911, and sheriff's officers were on the scene within minutes. When the first officer arrived, Appellant was crying and screaming that she was going to kill herself. She said, "I had to do it. I had to do it. He was the love of my life." And she begged the officer, "Please, shoot me! I don't want to live. Shoot me. Shoot me." Appellant was arrested and taken to the sheriff's office, where she gave a statement, which was played for the jury at trial, in which she admitted that she shot Scott because he was calling her names.

         At trial, Appellant testified that the gun had accidentally discharged. The defense theory was that the gun fired accidentally as Appellant chased Scott and the bullet ricocheted off an overhang and back down through the trash can and into Scott's head, killing him. The trial court declined Appellant's request to charge the jury on accident, but instructed the jury on the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter based on reckless conduct. The jury found Appellant guilty as charged.

         Appellant does not contest the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting her convictions. Nevertheless, in accordance with this Court's practice in murder cases, we have reviewed the record and conclude that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial and summarized above was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of crimes for which she was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). See also Vega v. State, 285 Ga. 32, 33 (673 S.E.2d 223) (2009) ("'It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence.'" (citation omitted)).

         2. Appellant contends that her trial counsel provided ineffective assistance. A convicted defendant's claim that her attorney's assistance was so defective as to require reversal of her conviction must prove both that the attorney's performance was professionally deficient and that this deficiency resulted in prejudice to her case. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984). To establish deficient performance, the defendant must show that her counsel's acts or omissions were objectively unreasonable, considering all the circumstances at the time and in the light of prevailing professional norms. See id. at 687-690. To establish prejudice, the defendant must show "a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. at 694. "This burden, though not impossible to carry, is a heavy one." Arnold v. State, 292 Ga. 268, 269 (737 S.E.2d 98) (2013). See Kimmelman v. Morrison, 477 U.S. 365, 381-382 (106 S.Ct. 2574, 91 L.Ed.2d 305) (1986).

          Appellant approaches her ineffective assistance claim from several angles. However, the gist of her claim is that her trial counsel was professionally deficient in failing to consult with a mental health expert about the case, and that but for this error, there is a reasonable probability that Appellant would have been found incompetent to stand trial or would have been found not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill. See former OCGA §§ 17-7-130, 17-7-131.[2] We agree with Appellant as to deficient performance, but not as to prejudice.

         (a) Deficient performance.

         Soon after Appellant was indicted, her trial counsel requested a mental examination in light of her repeated requests to the responding officers to shoot her. By the time the trial started seven months later, however, counsel had decided to forgo a mental evaluation and had so informed the prosecutor. The prosecutor raised the issue on the first day of trial to ensure that the waiver of a mental evaluation was on the record. Appellant's counsel explained to the court that he initially requested a mental evaluation out of an abundance of caution but had since spoken with Appellant on several occasions and was no longer concerned about her competence to stand trial. He added, "the other issue of course would be . . . whether or not we were going to raise an issue of insanity at the time of the act. We are not raising that issue, . . . [a]nd therefore yes we . . . do waive the mental evaluation."

         At the motion for new trial hearing several years later, trial counsel testified that at times during his representation of Appellant, her family suggested to him that she had mental illness and gave him mental health records for Appellant. Those records showed that Appellant was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in July 1996 after stabbing Scott and that she reported hearing a voice that told her to "kill . . . kill . . ."; the medical staff at the psychiatric hospital diagnosed Appellant with "Major depressive disorder, single episode, severe, with psychotic features, " put her on antidepressants and a powerful antipsychotic medication that seemed to alleviate her symptoms, and discharged her into police custody after eight days.[3]

         Trial counsel testified that in response to this information, he spoke to Appellant and observed how she interacted with him "as far as knowing what she was charged with, whether she could assist me in the defense of her case." He said that he "balanced the possibility of raising a defense of insanity against the defense that [Appellant] and I ultimately decided to raise, " which was "that she did not intentionally shoot directly at" Scott, "that the gun had actually gone off accidentally, " and that the bullet struck an overhang and "ricocheted [down] through the trash can" and "unfortunately struck" Scott, killing him. Counsel acknowledged that he had no medical training in the diagnosis of mental illnesses, that he did not contact any of Appellant's healthcare providers to ...

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