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Coleman v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 14, 2017

COLEMAN
v.
THE STATE.

          MELTON, Presiding Justice.

         Following a jury trial, Jordan Michael Coleman appeals his conviction for the malice murder of Alvin Hall and related crimes, contending, among other things, that there was insufficient evidence of venue and that he received ineffective assistance of trial counsel.[1] For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

         1. In the light most favorable to the verdict, the record shows that, on the night of December 30, 2009, Newton County firefighters responded to a 911 call from Maria Clark about a car burning in a forested area behind her house. Hall's body was found in the trunk of the car. An autopsy revealed that Hall died of gunshot wounds before the fire had been deliberately set. Hall's phone records showed that the last call he received was from Candace Pope. Police interviewed Pope, who led them to Coleman.

         Further investigation revealed that, on the Wednesday night that he was murdered, Hall had arranged a date with Pope. Pope knew that Hall kept money in a pouch under the seat of his car, and she enlisted Coleman and Brandon Hambrick to assist her in stealing it. Pursuant to a plan they had previously concocted, Pope was sitting in Hall's car with him when Coleman and Hambrick walked up. Coleman pointed a gun at Hall and made him get into the backseat. Coleman ordered Hall to give up his money, but Hall responded that he did not have any and that he would not "get any money on his [credit] card" until the following Monday. Coleman then bound Hall's hands with duct tape and forced him into the trunk of his own car.

         Coleman, Hambrick, and Pope decided to hold Hall as their captive until he received money on the following Monday. As they were driving Hall to a place to hold him, the trunk of the car popped open, and Hall tried to run away. Coleman caught up with Hall, Hall struggled, and Coleman shot him twice. Coleman then put Hall in the trunk of the car, drove to a wooded cul de sac, and asked Pope to retrieve some gas. Pope returned with a gas can, and Coleman took the gas from her. He then went back to the wooded area where he had parked Hall's car, returned with the gas can, and told the others that things "had been taken care of." In January 2010, Coleman told Keisha Williams that he killed Hall after "things got crazy." Hambrick testified at trial that Coleman shot Hall twice.

         This evidence was sufficient to enable the jury to find Coleman guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Coleman nonetheless contends that there was insufficient evidence of venue in Newton County, where he was tried. We disagree.

         The evidence of venue presented at trial was conflicting. The record shows that, after being arrested, Hambrick decided to speak with investigators. On February 18, 2010, Hambrick described the area where Hall was shot as the same area in which the car was set on fire in Newton County. In a later interview, Hambrick said that the victim was shot in Scottdale, located in DeKalb County. At Coleman's trial, however, Hambrick testified unequivocally that the shooting occurred near the place where the car was burned in Newton County. Williams testified that Coleman had previously told her that he shot Hall at a house in DeKalb County. It was undisputed that the body was found in Newton County.

         In murder cases, the manner in which venue is determined is set forth in OCGA § 17-2-2 (c). This provision

sets forth a three-step process by which a jury in a criminal homicide case may reach a factual finding about where the crime was committed. First, according to the statutory rule, the jury is to determine from the facts presented at trial the county in which the cause of death was inflicted. Once that factual issue is determined, the homicide "shall be considered, " as a matter of law, "as having been committed" in that county. If that is the county in which the accused is being tried, then proper venue has been established. If, however, the jury cannot determine where the cause of death was inflicted, the statute gives further instructions: it directs the jury to determine as a matter of fact the county in which the death occurred. Once that factual issue is determined, the homicide "shall be considered, " as a matter of law, as having been committed in that county. If the jury can determine neither the county in which the cause of death was inflicted nor the county in which the death occurred, then the jury is required to determine the county in which the dead body was discovered. Applying the venue statute, the homicide "shall be considered, " as a matter of law, as having been committed in the county in which the body was discovered. Once the jury has determined from the facts presented, and pursuant to these substantive statutory rules, the location where the crime was committed, it can then determine whether proper venue has been established by the state.

(Footnote omitted.) Shelton v. Lee, 299 Ga. 350, 354-355 (2) (b) (788 S.E.2d 369) (2016). In the light most favorable to the verdict, Hambrick testified that he witnessed the shooting occur in Newton County. This testimony alone supports the jury's determination that venue in Newton County was proper, as the jury, as arbiter of fact and credibility, was authorized to reject contrary testimony. Moreover, if the jury had been unable to determine the actual county in which the cause of death was inflicted or death occurred due to the conflicting testimony, it is undisputed that Hall's body was found in Newton County. The evidence of venue was sufficient.

         3. In a related enumeration of error, Coleman maintains that the trial court erred by instructing the jury regarding the option to find venue in the county where the body was found. Because there was conflicting evidence as to venue for Hall's murder, the trial court properly instructed the jurors regarding the entirety of OCGA § 17-2-2 (c), including the exception allowing venue to be placed in the county in which the body was found if venue could not be otherwise determined. The trial court's charge was properly adjusted to the evidence presented at trial.

         4. Coleman contends that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by (a) failing to offer evidence from a competency evaluation indicating that Hambrick had a deal with the State to testify for a reduced sentence and (b) failing to adequately cross-examine witnesses concerning testimony given by Hambrick that had not been disclosed in discovery. We disagree with both contentions.

In order to succeed on his claim of ineffective assistance, [Coleman] must prove both that his trial counsel's performance was deficient and that there is a reasonable probability that the trial result would have been different if not for the deficient performance. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984). If an appellant fails to meet his or her burden of proving either prong of the Strickland test, the reviewing court does not have to examine the other prong. Id. at 697 (IV); Fuller v. State, 277 Ga. 505 (3) (591 S.E.2d 782) (2004). In reviewing the trial court's decision, "'[w]e accept the trial court's factual findings and credibility ...

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