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Puckett v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

August 9, 2017

PUCKETT
v.
THE STATE.

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

          Reese, Judge.

         A Gwinnett County jury found Mary Puckett guilty of kidnapping, felony theft by taking a motor vehicle, and two counts each of armed robbery and false imprisonment.[1] She appeals from the denial of her motion for new trial, contending that the evidence was insufficient to support her convictions, that the evidence was insufficient to support a felony sentence on the theft by taking charge, and that she received ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons set forth, infra, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [2] the record reveals the following facts. On April 2 and 3, 2015, two incidents involving armed robbery, false imprisonment, kidnapping, and theft by taking occurred at the Red Roof Inn on Lawrenceville Suwanee Road in Gwinnett County. The parties to the crimes included Kayla Folds, Andy Ulysse, Teddy Williams, Cornelius Cupsa, and the Appellant, Mary Puckett. The Appellant was Ulysse's girlfriend, and the couple lived with Folds and Williams.

         Before the first incident occurred on April 2, Ulysse told the Appellant to get some bullets and bring them to him in Room 232 of the Red Roof Inn, and the Appellant complied. The Appellant then left the room and waited in Williams' car in the motel's parking lot.

         The first incident involved a man named Joshua Smith, who called Folds, a prostitute, and made an appointment for her services. Folds instructed Smith to come to Room 232 of the Red Roof Inn. When he arrived at the motel, Smith noticed a car with its headlights on in the parking lot, parked so it was facing the street and could exit quickly. Smith knocked on the door to Room 232 and, when Folds answered the door, she mouthed the words "I'm sorry." As Smith took a step into the room, he was struck in the head by Ulysse, who had been standing behind the door. Williams and Cupsa then came out of the bathroom carrying guns and forced Smith to the floor, threatened to kill him, and demanded his wallet, credit cards, phone, and car keys.

         Smith informed Ulysse that he had already withdrawn the maximum amount of cash allowed from the ATM because he was going on vacation, but told him there was more money at his apartment. Ulysse forced Smith down the motel's stairs at gunpoint and made him get into the driver's seat of Smith's car. The Appellant, who was sitting in Williams' car and saw the men walk to Smith's car, called Ulysse to ask for the address of where they were going. Smith drove Ulysse to Smith's apartment. The Appellant followed them in Williams' car, accompanied by Folds, who was in the front passenger seat, and Williams, who was in the seat directly behind the Appellant. During the trip, however, the Appellant got lost and called Ulysse for directions.

         While the Appellant, Folds, and Williams were lost, Ulysse and Smith arrived at Smith's apartment. Ulysse took $1, 200 in cash and other items from the apartment. Ulysse then called the Appellant and told her to come pick him up from Smith's apartment. The Appellant eventually found her way to Smith's apartment complex, picked up Ulysse, and drove back to the Red Roof Inn.

         Smith did not call the police after the armed robbery, explaining to the jury at the Appellant's trial that he was happy to be alive and had only lost material things that could be replaced. Police officers subsequently interviewed him, however, as a result of their investigation of the second incident at issue in this case. During the interview, Smith told the officers that the people who attacked and robbed him knew where he lived and he was terrified of them.

         The second incident occurred later the same night when another man, Duane Gardner, called Folds and arranged to meet her at the same Red Roof Inn. Upon entering Room 232, Gardner saw Folds and the Appellant. The two claimed they were sisters, and the Appellant left the room shortly after Gardner arrived. However, before the Appellant left, Folds gave her the room key to give to Ulysse and Williams.

         The Appellant went downstairs to Williams' car, where Ulysse and Williams were waiting, and sat in the back seat of the car. Williams drove to the other side of the motel and parked so the car was facing Room 232. Ulysse and Williams then left the car while the Appellant remained in the back seat.

         Shortly after the Appellant had left Room 232, Gardner and Folds were on the bed when there was a knock on the door. Folds told Gardner that it was her sister, and she opened the door. Instead of the Appellant, however, it was Ulysse and Williams; both men were carrying guns. Ulysse and Williams entered and immediately demanded Gardner's money, car keys, cell phone, and debit card pin number. Ulysse forced Gardner to lie down in a corner of the room and threw a sheet over his head. Ulysse warned Gardner that, if the pin number did not work, "my friend is going to shoot you, " and then left.

         Ulysse went downstairs and told the Appellant, who was still waiting in Williams' car, to get out and follow him. The Appellant and Ulysse got into Gardner's 2002 Honda Accord, and the Appellant started to drive. They heard a gunshot coming from the direction of Room 232, however, so the Appellant parked the car in front of the Red Roof Inn. The Appellant and Ulysse got out of Gardner's car and walked to the parking lot of the Super 8 motel next door. Ulysse told the Appellant to go back to the Red Roof Inn to see if the police were there, and the Appellant complied. When the Appellant returned to Ulysse, they hid in some nearby bushes for about five minutes. Ulysse and the Appellant then separated briefly before meeting up again at a nearby Chevron gas station.

         Meanwhile, shortly after Ulysse had left the hotel room, Williams' shotgun went off. Gardner jumped up, scuffled with Williams, and escaped the motel room. Gardner ran outside and into the street, where he encountered an officer who was conducting a traffic stop. Gardner told the officer that he had just been robbed by two men with guns. The officer had Gardner sit in the patrol car and called for backup assistance. While waiting, Gardner suddenly saw the Appellant and Ulysse outside the Chevron station, and he alerted the officer.

         Two other officers went to the Chevron station, where they saw the Appellant and Ulysse standing outside a car, talking to the car's driver. One of the officers asked the Appellant and Ulysse to step over to the patrol car so he could talk with them, while the other officer spoke with the driver. The driver said that the Appellant and Ulysse had approached her car and asked if they could use her phone. During a subsequent search of a nearby area of trees and overgrown brush, an investigator found a sweatshirt that matched Gardner's description of one worn by one of his assailants, along with a hat, a loaded handgun, and car keys. The car keys belonged to Gardner. Further, at the time the Appellant and Ulysse were detained by officers outside the Chevron station, Ulysse was not wearing a shirt.

         Police officers transported the Appellant and Ulysse to a police station, where an investigator interviewed them separately. The Appellant admitted to him that she had been in Room 232 of the Red Roof Inn earlier that night to smoke marijuana, but she repeatedly denied any knowledge about the armed robbery. Officers released both the Appellant and Ulysse after their interviews, but, following further investigation of both incidents, including a second interview of the Appellant, police officers arrested the Appellant on the instant crimes.[3] The State ultimately charged the Appellant with the armed robberies of Smith and Gardner, the false imprisonment of Smith and Gardner, the kidnapping of Smith, and the felony theft by taking of Gardner's car.

         At the Appellant's jury trial, in addition to presenting the above evidence, the State played a patrol car "dashcam" recording of Gardner's encounter with the police officer in the street immediately after the armed robbery and the resulting detention of the Appellant and Ulysse at the Chevron station. The recording at the Chevron station showed the Appellant laughing and joking with Ulysse and two police officers while they waited outside the patrol car for information about the investigation that other officers were conducting at the Red Roof Inn. After the officers put Ulysse in the backseat of the patrol car, the recording shows that the Appellant continued to laugh and chat with the officers outside the car. Despite being physically separated from Ulysse and in the presence of two police officers, however, the Appellant never told the officers that she was afraid of Ulysse, that she was being coerced by him, or that she needed their protection from him. Instead, she consistently expressed complete ignorance about any crimes that had been committed at the Red Roof Inn. The State also played an audio-recording of a phone call from the Appellant to Ulysse that she made while incarcerated on the instant charges, as well as surveillance tapes from the Red Roof Inn and the Super 8 motel next door that showed, among other things, the Appellant driving away in Gardner's car and the Appellant's attempt to flee the area with Ulysse after they heard the gunshot that preceded Gardner's escape.

         The Appellant's defense at trial was that she did not know that Ulysse and the others were planning to commit the crimes before they occurred, she did not know that crimes were being committed at the time they happened, and she did not participate in the armed robberies and false imprisonments of Smith and Gardner. Regarding the other crimes (the kidnapping of Smith and the theft of Gardner's car), she claimed that her participation was the result of being coerced by Ulysse and, to a lesser extent, Williams.[4] She testified that Ulysse often threatened and was violent toward her and that she believed he would hurt her if she refused to do what he told her to do during the commission of the crimes. Based upon this evidence, the trial court instructed the jury on the affirmative defense of coercion during its jury charge at the end of the trial.

         The jury found the Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on all of the charges, and the court sentenced her to 30 years of imprisonment, to serve 12, with the balance on probation. The Appellant filed a motion for new trial, which the court denied after conducting a hearing. 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, [5] 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.[6]

         With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to the Appellant's specific claims of error.

         1. The Appellant contends that there was insufficient evidence to prove that she was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing the armed robberies of Smith and Gardner. Specifically, the Appellant argues that there was no evidence that she was actually present in the motel room at the time the armed robberies took place or that she was aware of or participated in the planning of the armed robberies. She claims, instead, that she was merely present at the Red Roof Inn during the commission of those crimes and that such presence is insufficient as a matter of law to convict her as a party to the crimes.

A participant to a crime may be convicted although he is not the person who directly commits the crime. A person who intentionally aids or abets in the commission of a crime or intentionally advises, encourages, hires, counsels or procures another to commit the crime may be convicted of the crime as a party to the crime. Mere presence at the scene is not sufficient to convict one of being a party to a crime, but criminal intent may be inferred from conduct before, during, and after the commission of a crime.[7]

         (a) As an initial matter, the Appellant has not offered any argument or authority in support of an insufficient evidence claim as to her convictions for the kidnapping of Smith or the theft of Gardner's car. Regardless, [8] we find that the evidence presented at trial was legally sufficient for the jury to find her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of those crimes.[9]

         (b) As to the armed robberies[10] and related false imprisonments[11] of Smith and Gardner that were committed in Room 232 of the motel, the State presented evidence showing that the Appellant obtained bullets for Ulysse shortly before the crimes occurred; waited in a car outside the room and acted as a lookout during the armed robbery of Smith; drove Williams' car to Smith's apartment after Ulysse forced Smith to drive there so he (Ulysse) could steal more money and other items; picked up Ulysse after that robbery; and drove Ulysse, Folds, and Williams back to the Red Roof Inn. Further, Folds specifically testified that, while she, the Appellant, Ulysse, and Williams were still in the car after arriving back at the motel, they discussed robbing Gardner, who was on his way to the motel to have sex with Folds. After this discussion, the Appellant and Folds walked up to Room 232 and, when Gardner arrived, Folds gave the Appellant a room key to give to Ulysse and Williams, who were waiting outside in Williams' car. The Appellant went down to Williams' car, talked with Ulysse and Williams, and again waited in the car as a lookout while the men committed the armed robbery. Then, while Williams held Gardner at gunpoint in the motel room, the Appellant followed Ulysse to Gardner's car and, using the keys Ulysse stole from Gardner, drove the car away, stopping only after she heard Williams' shotgun go off. Finally, after abandoning Gardner's car in a nearby parking lot, the Appellant started to escape into a wooded area with Ulysse; ran back to the motel to see if the police had arrived to investigate the gunshot; waited while Ulysse disposed of his sweatshirt, hat, and handgun and Gardner's car keys in the brush; and then went with Ulysse to the nearby Chevron station, where they were detained by police officers.

         The issue of whether the Appellant aided or abetted in the commission of the armed robberies or even knew about the robberies was a question for the jury to decide.[12] Furthermore, "[a] jury is authorized to believe or disbelieve all or any part of the testimony of witnesses, and it serves as the arbiter of conflicts in the evidence before it."[13] Given the overwhelming evidence of the Appellant's conduct before, during, and after the crimes at issue were committed, the jury was authorized to reject her testimony regarding ...


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