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Stuckey v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 14, 2017


          NAHMIAS, Justice.

         Appellant Dominique Javonte Stuckey was convicted of malice murder and first-degree arson after he killed his grandmother, Velma Stuckey, and set her and her house on fire. In this appeal, he claims that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in four ways. None of those claims has merit, and we affirm.[1]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence at trial showed the following. The crimes occurred on March 29, 2009. Appellant, who was then 15 years old, had been living with his grandmother in Douglasville for two or three years after being kicked out of the homes of several other family members for being homosexual. Although she allowed Appellant to live with her, his grandmother did not approve of his sexual orientation or behavior. She was particularly upset by his online interactions with other gay men, many of whom were older than Appellant. He communicated on different online chat rooms and social media outlets, including MySpace, Black Gay Chat, and Yahoo instant messenger. He also communicated by text message with some of the men that he met online; he exchanged sexually explicit photographs with them, participated in sexual conversations, and arranged to meet some of them in person to have sex.

         Appellant often told his friends and online acquaintances about his difficulties with his grandmother. A few months before the murder, Appellant asked his cousins, "I wonder how you could kill somebody and get away with it?" About a month before the murder, Appellant sent a text message to his cousin saying that his grandmother made him sick and that he could kill her because she was going to kick him out of the house. Two days before the murder, Appellant sent a series of text messages to various people saying that his grandmother was kicking him out.

          The night before the murder, Appellant was discussing sexual activity on Black Gay Chat with a college student. As their communications continued into the early morning hours, Appellant and the student made plans to meet to have sex. Around 5:30 a.m., Appellant searched for directions to the student's house in Carrollton and began getting ready for their rendezvous. Appellant took his grandmother's SUV and told the student that he had to return the car before his grandmother woke up. As Appellant drove to the student's home, he became lost and did not have enough time to make it there and back before his grandmother woke up. Appellant sent a text message to the student informing him of this problem and then began to return home.

         On the way home, Appellant stopped at a convenience store to ask for directions at about 8:00 a.m. The store clerk wrote down directions for Appellant, and noticed that he seemed very nervous. Around 8:30 a.m., Appellant stopped at a gas station about eight minutes from his home and pumped a dollar's worth of gasoline into a gas can; he then drove off.

         At 9:03 a.m., Appellant called 911 to report that when he returned to his grandmother's house, it was on fire with his grandmother and two dogs trapped inside. He claimed that someone had broken into the house because the front door was open and his television was missing. Appellant then called his cousins to let them know about the fire. He told them that he climbed through his window to get into the house and tried to go upstairs to save his grandmother, but he could not because the ceiling was falling in on him. Appellant also called a friend and gave inconsistent stories about the fire.[2]

         When firefighters arrived, there was a lot of smoke coming from the left corner of the house. The front door was locked and all of the ground floor windows were closed, as was Appellant's basement bedroom window. Firefighters entered the home through the unlocked basement door. Firefighter Mike Shadix made his way to the corner of the house where Appellant said his grandmother was trapped and where the fire and smoke were concentrated. However, there were no flames coming through the roof or out of the building; the ceiling was not falling. The throw rug, door casings, and carpet in the grandmother's bedroom were on fire, and Shadix's ability to see was limited as he entered the bedroom from the hallway. He found the victim's body lying on the bedroom floor. She was dead, having been burned to the point where she felt "crunchy."

         After the fire was put out and the smoke cleared, Shadix observed that the bed coverings were coated in blood and were scattered on the floor under the victim's body. In addition to being burned, the victim had been repeatedly hit and stabbed; she had multiple blunt force injuries to her head and lacerations on her scalp, mouth, and face, including one stab wound to her open left eye. Cast-off blood stains on the headboard and on the wall behind the bed indicated that the stabbing happened while the victim was lying in bed. The head from a garden hoe was found covered in blood under the victim's body after she was moved. This object was consistent with her injuries, and the blood was later determined to be hers. A forensic toxicologist found that the victim had extremely high levels of carbon monoxide in her blood, as well as burns, soot, and smoke in her airway, meaning that she was alive and breathing (although likely unconscious) for some time after the fire was set. The medical examiner concluded that the victim's cause of death was blunt force injuries to the head along with smoke and soot inhalation.

         Based upon the burns and smoke patterns in the house, an arson investigator determined that an ignitable liquid was poured around the victim's body after she was lying on the bedroom floor; the liquid was also poured on the bed and out the bedroom doorway into the hallway. The liquid was then ignited in the hallway. The investigator concluded that the fire was started intentionally to conceal a crime. The victim's SUV, which Appellant had been driving, was parked in the driveway instead of the garage where it was usually kept, and police officers who came to the scene said that the SUV smelled of gasoline and citrus cleaning solution. Carpet samples from the interior of the vehicle were taken and tested positive for the presence of gasoline.

         Two weeks after the murder, a gas can and a clear plastic bed comforter bag were found in the woods near the house. The bag contained a Lysol can, a lighter, a woman's scarf and jacket, and jewelry that matched items from the victim's jewelry box found inside her home. Three items from the bag tested positive for the presence of gasoline. Appellant's computer, which was seized and searched, had a deleted file containing internet searches for "how뚏ꒊ奾늉麢" and "how뚏ꒊ奾늉麢 without getting caught."

         After Appellant was arrested on September 9, 2009, he gave two statements to investigators that were admitted at trial. He initially denied any involvement in his grandmother's death and the house fire. Eventually, however, Appellant admitted that he was responsible for the fire but claimed that his older boyfriend attacked his grandmother with the garden hoe. Appellant said that he believed his grandmother was dead after the attack, so he left the house to create an alibi with the student in Carrollton. On his return after getting lost, he tried to cover up the attack by staging the house to look like it was burglarized, setting everything on fire, and then calling 911. Appellant did not testify at trial; his defense was based on his final statement.

         The alleged boyfriend testified for the State that he was introduced to Appellant by a mutual friend. They had kissed but never had a relationship beyond that. He did not want to be around Appellant and tried to distance himself, but Appellant did not take this well and kept trying to reach out. On the day of the murder, Appellant sent the boyfriend a text message that said his house was on fire and his grandmother was trapped inside. The boyfriend denied any involvement in the crimes.

         Appellant does not challenge the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions. Nevertheless, in accordance with this Court's practice in murder cases, we have reviewed the record, and we conclude that the evidence presented at trial and summarized above was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt 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). See also Vega v. State, 285 Ga. 32, 33 (673 S.E.2d 223) (2009) ("'It was for the ...

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