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Johnson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 14, 2017

JOHNSON
v.
THE STATE.

          GRANT, Justice.

         An Effingham County jury found appellant Kevin Johnson guilty on all eight counts of an indictment filed in connection with the death of Melanie Haynes, a two-year-old child.[1] Johnson contends that the evidence at trial was insufficient to support his murder conviction and that the trial court erroneously admitted a custodial statement he made without having been advised of his Miranda[2] rights. Because the evidence was plainly sufficient to support the jury's malice murder verdict and because the challenged statement did not require Miranda warnings, we affirm.

         I.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence at trial shows that on February 8 and 9, 2010, Johnson was babysitting Melanie, the two-year-old daughter of his girlfriend Angela Rocha. Johnson lived with Rocha at the time and, on certain occasions, he watched Melanie while Rocha was at work. On February 8, 2010, Johnson called Rocha and told her that Melanie had fallen and had a bruise on her head. Rocha testified that her child appeared normal when she returned from work that evening and before she left for work the next morning. The next day, Johnson again called Rocha while she was at work. This time, he reported that Melanie was vomiting. Johnson called Rocha later that same day and told her Melanie was having trouble breathing. On Rocha's instruction, Johnson called 911. When the ambulance arrived, an emergency medical technician found Melanie not breathing and without a heart rate. She was cold, pale, and bluish. There were no signs or smells of vomit in the house or on Melanie's breath or body. Although first responders attempted to revive Melanie, she never regained consciousness and died at the hospital as a result of her injuries.

         While the ambulance took Melanie to the hospital Johnson spoke to law enforcement at the house, and they conducted a search with his consent. He told one of the responding officers that Melanie had fallen off the couch the day before. Johnson did not mention any other falls or injuries to the officers. When Rocha arrived, the ambulance had already left. At the hospital, doctors told Rocha that Melanie was not likely to regain consciousness and that the child's injuries were not accidental. Rocha testified that Johnson initially told her that Melanie had fallen off the couch, but did not mention that Melanie had also fallen in the bathtub until later that day.

         The next day, at the request of law enforcement, Johnson agreed to come to the Effingham County Sheriff's Office for an interview. Officers told Johnson that they were conducting an investigation into Melanie's death but that he was "free to leave" if he wanted. During this interview, Johnson told investigators that Melanie had hit her head by falling off the sofa twice and falling in the bathtub. When Johnson was arrested two days later, an investigator read his Miranda rights and Johnson executed a waiver of constitutional rights form. After his arrest, Johnson again told investigators that Melanie had fallen off the couch twice and had fallen in the bathtub. But this time, Johnson told investigators Melanie hit the right side of her head in the bathtub. Previously, Johnson had indicated Melanie hit the left side of her head.

         While Johnson was still in custody, roughly two weeks after his arrest, he requested to speak to Investigator Michelle Buchmeyer from the Effingham County Sheriff's Office. Investigator Buchmeyer arrived as requested, and was accompanied by Investigator Jeremy Scott. Investigator Buchmeyer testified that Johnson initially asked her for his Social Security card, and went on to tell her that the police had "ruined his social life." When asked how his social life had been ruined, Johnson did not answer the question but instead stated, somewhat incongruously, that he was swinging Melanie around when she accidentally hit her head hard on an open dresser drawer. Johnson said he had not mentioned the incident with the dresser before because he did not think it was important. Investigator Buchmeyer testified that no threats were made against Johnson. Johnson, on the other hand, testified that his statement about swinging Melanie around was a "complete lie, " and that he told the lie because he felt threatened and intimidated by Investigator Jeremy Scott. According to Johnson, Investigator Scott had a reputation "for beating people." Johnson did not testify, however, that Investigator Scott actually threatened him.

         In addition to his various statements to law enforcement, Johnson wrote a letter to Rocha about Melanie's death. In the part of the letter that Johnson read to the jury, he wrote, "I think I know what happened to Melanie, " but that it was not "intelligent to write it in this paper." By the time of his trial testimony, Johnson's story was that he assumed that Melanie jumped off a dresser into a tub of balls, and that he had told Rocha about his assumption after writing the letter.

         At trial, the first responders who helped Melanie testified that her face was bruised. And when Rocha saw Melanie at the hospital ON February 10, she had more bruises on her face than she did when Rocha left for work that morning. The State called two expert witnesses, who each testified that Johnson's explanations did not sufficiently account for the severity of Melanie's injuries.[3] Instead, the experts stated that Melanie's death was the result of intentionally inflicted traumatic brain injury, and could not have been caused by an accident or a simple fall. One expert testified that "perhaps one or two" of Melanie's injuries could have been caused by Melanie striking her head on the corner of a dresser while spinning around, but that the totality of the injuries were not consistent with that scenario.

         II.

         Contrary to Johnson's contention, the evidence was plainly sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         Here, Johnson and the child were the only ones in the house after Rocha left, and Rocha testified that the child appeared normal when she left for work. Expert testimony established that Melanie's injuries were intentionally inflicted and not the result of a fall or accident. Throughout the investigation, Johnson offered explanations for the child's injuries, but none of these explanations were consistent with the evidence. The jury thus had sufficient evidence to find Johnson guilty of malice murder beyond a reasonable doubt. See, e.g., Zamora v. State, 291 Ga. 512, 512-514 (1)-(2) (731 S.E.2d 658) (2012) (holding that the evidence was sufficient for a rational jury to convict the defendant of malice murder where a child was left alone with the defendant, the child died, and an autopsy revealed the injuries sustained by the child could not have occurred from the normal activities of a toddler).

         III.

         Johnson's next contention is that the trial court erred by admitting his statement that he was swinging Melanie around when she hit her head on the dresser. Specifically, Johnson claims that during the time he made that statement he was in custody, but that he had not been re-advised regarding his Miranda rights. Johnson also argues that Investigator Scott ...


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