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Booth v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 14, 2017


          Peterson, Justice.

         Delroy T. Booth was convicted of malice murder and other crimes in connection with the death of Shantle Vason.[1] Booth appeals and argues that the trial court erred by: (1) reading the indictment to a competency jury; (2) allowing the State to make improper arguments during closing statements; (3) admitting evidence of other acts to prove intent in this case; and (4) merging instead of vacating the felony murder counts. We vacate the merger of the felony murder counts and otherwise affirm Booth's convictions.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the trial evidence showed the following. Sometime in December 2006, Booth began dating Vason, who had been diagnosed with an intellectual disability. In early February 2007, police were called out to Booth's apartment on multiple occasions. One 911 call was made by Booth's roommate who reported that Booth had assaulted Vason; another call was made by Vason's mother, Evelyn Rosemond, when Booth refused to allow Rosemond to see her daughter.

         At some point, Vason began seeing someone else. On the morning of February 24, 2007, Booth called a friend from Vason's cell phone and admitted to being inside Vason's apartment and having an argument with her about another man. Booth also called Vason's sister, admitting that he had gotten into an argument with Vason and taken her phone so she could not call anyone. Booth told Vason's sister that Vason was cheating on him, apologized because he "couldn't deal with her, " and said he was going to call Vason's mother so he could apologize to her, as well. Sometime later, Booth spoke to Rosemond on Vason's cell phone. Booth told Rosemond that he was leaving Vason because she was cheating on him and she was "slow." Rosemond asked to speak with Vason, but Booth claimed he was not with Vason and was in a different part of town. Cell phone records showed, however, that Vason's cell phone, which Booth was using, was near a cell phone tower close to Vason's apartment.

         Later that day, Booth called 911 and reported that Vason had been assaulted. When police responded to Vason's apartment, they found Booth attempting to do CPR on Vason, who was gasping for air. She was naked and partially covered by a sheet, and the exposed portions of her body revealed significant bruising, including to her neck, face, legs, and arms. Her eyes were swollen shut, her left arm was swollen, and her buttocks were bleeding. After being transported to a local hospital, Vason was airlifted to a trauma unit, where doctors determined that she had lost all brain function due to traumatic brain injuries. Vason remained on life support for several hours but was eventually disconnected and died from her injuries.

         Booth told police officers at the scene that he went to Vason's apartment to check on her after her mother expressed concern that she had not heard from Vason. Booth said he found Vason fully clothed in a state of distress, undressed her to treat her injuries and to put ice packs on the bruising, and called 911 when she became unresponsive. Police did not see any ice packs in the area. Booth had speckles of blood on his shirt that DNA analysis later revealed was Vason's. After arresting Booth and taking him to the police station, police noticed that Booth's right hand was red, swollen, and bruised.

         While searching Vason's apartment, police observed signs of a struggle, including a broken frame, broken glass throughout the apartment, damaged blinds, and blood on an end table, in the kitchen, and on the mattress in the bedroom where Vason was found. Officers also found a box in the garbage that contained a candle covered in feces.

         A medical examiner conducting an autopsy on Vason concluded that Vason had numerous blunt force injuries and abrasions across her body, she had injuries on her hand consistent with defensive wounds, and had extensive hemorrhaging on both sides of her head. The medical examiner concluded that although Vason's extensive injuries were incompatible with life, her head injuries were the likeliest cause of her death. The medical examiner also determined that the feces-covered candle was the likely cause of injuries found inside Vason's rectum, and that the bruising on Vason's buttocks was consistent with a forceful attempt to expose her anus.

         Before Vason died, medical personnel collected DNA samples from Vason's genital and rectal areas. A GBI analyst compared those DNA samples with DNA samples taken from Booth by evaluating 16 locations in the DNA profiles. A semen sample taken from Vason's rectal area was a 16-location match for Booth's DNA. The swab taken from Vason's genital area indicated the presence of two DNA profiles in addition to Vason's DNA profile. One of the other profiles was a partial match for Booth, but the other was not.

         1. Booth does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence. Nevertheless, as is our customary practice in murder cases, we have independently reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence was legally sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Booth was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Booth argues that the trial court plainly erred by reading the indictment in its charge to the special jury determining Booth's competency to stand trial. Although Booth did not object to the charge at the time, he now argues that the criminal charges and the allegations of how the crimes were committed were irrelevant and prejudicial to the jury's determination of the issue. We disagree.

         Where, as here, a party fails to object to a jury charge, we review the issue for plain error pursuant to OCGA § 17-8-58 (b). There are four prongs in the test for plain error.

First, there must be an error or defect - some sort of deviation from a legal rule - that has not been intentionally relinquished or abandoned, i.e., affirmatively waived, by the appellant. Second, the legal error must be clear or obvious, rather than subject to reasonable dispute. Third, the error must have affected the appellant's substantial rights, which in the ordinary case means he must demonstrate that it affected the outcome of the trial court proceedings. Fourth and finally, if the above three prongs are satisfied, the appellate court has the discretion to remedy the error - discretion which ought to be exercised only if the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

State v. Kelly, 290 Ga. 29, 33 (2) (a) (718 S.E.2d 232) (2011) (citations and punctuation omitted).

         The trial court made no error, much less plain error, in reading the indictment to the jury during the competency hearing. At issue in a competency proceeding is whether "a defendant is capable at the time of the trial of understanding the nature and object of the proceedings going on against him and rightly comprehends his own condition in reference to such proceedings, and is capable of rendering his attorneys such assistance as a proper defense to the indictment preferred against him demands." Lewis v. State, 279 Ga. 69, 70 (3) (608 S.E.2d 602) (2005). Whether a defendant understands the nature and gravity of the charges against him is highly relevant to the competency proceeding. Black v. State, 261 Ga. 791, 794 (2) (410 S.E.2d 740) (1997). Because the indictment provided information about the nature and gravity of the charges against Booth, the trial court made no error in reading the indictment to the special jury where it otherwise properly charged the jury on its duty to determine Booth's competency. See Waldrip v. State, 267 Ga. 739, 743 (6) (482 S.E.2d 299) (1997) (trial court did not err in allowing the State to repeatedly refer to the pending charges against a defendant at the competency proceeding; the nature of the charges was relevant to the competency determination and the court properly charged the jury on its role), abrogated on other grounds as recognized by Archie v. State, 248 Ga.App. 56, 57 (1) n.3 (545 S.E.2d 179) (2001).

         3. Booth argues that the trial court erred by admitting evidence of other acts for the purpose of proving his intent to commit the charged crimes. We disagree.

         The other acts evidence involved Booth's assault and battery of ex-girlfriends. Traveaka Banks testified that, during the time she dated and lived with Booth, Booth became angry and hit Banks in the head and arms with his fist after she said she wanted to end their relationship. Ciara Hassell, another of Booth's ex-girlfriends, also testified that Booth was physically abusive during their relationship. Once, Booth became angry when he asked Hassell to use her food stamp card and she told him she did not have it. Booth threw things and then hit Hassell in the head. For this offense, Booth pled guilty to family violence battery. Hassell also said that about a week after the first incident, she and Booth were arguing about money when Booth hit her on the head with his hand and threw something that hit her in the back. Booth pleaded guilty to aggravated stalking and family violence battery for his acts during the argument.

         We review a trial court's decision to admit other acts evidence for an abuse of discretion. See State v. Jones, 297 Ga. 156, 159 (1) (773 S.E.2d 170) (2015). For trials, like Booth's, that occur after January 1, 2013, the admissibility of other acts evidence is governed by OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) ("Rule 404 (b)"), which provides that "[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts shall not be admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, including, but not limited to, proof of . . . intent . . . ." For other acts evidence to be admissible, the moving party must show that: (1) the evidence is relevant to an issue other than the defendant's character, (2) the probative value is not substantially outweighed by undue prejudice under OCGA § 24-4-403, and (3) there is sufficient proof so that the jury could find that the defendant committed the acts. Jones, 297 Ga. at 158-159 (1); Bradshaw v. State, 296 Ga. 650, 656 (3) (769 S.E.2d 892) (2015). Rule 404 (b) is a rule of inclusion, but it does prohibit the introduction of other acts evidence when it is offered for the sole purpose of showing a defendant's bad character or propensity to commit a crime. See Jones, 297 Ga. at 160 (2); see also United States v. Covington, 565 F.3d 1336, 1341 (11th Cir. 2009) ("Rule 404 (b) prohibits the introduction of pure propensity evidence.")[2]; Ronald L. Carlson & Michael Scott Carlson, Carlson on Evidence 128 (5th ed. 2016) ("Rule 404 (b) is one of inclusion [that] allows extrinsic evidence unless it tends to prove only criminal propensity.").

         Booth asserts an argument regarding only the first part of Rule 404 (b)'s three-part test. He argues that the other acts evidence, which he claims constituted no more than battery or simple battery, was not relevant to the issue of intent because the intent required for battery or simple battery was not the same as that for the offenses charged here.[3] He focuses specifically on the intent required for malice murder. Malice murder, however, is not the only crime for which he was prosecuted in this case and thus for which the State was required to prove intent. Booth was ...

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