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Edwards v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 28, 2017



         Ryan Russell Edwards was convicted of malice murder and other crimes in connection with the death of his 13-month old child.[1] Edwards appeals and argues that the trial court (1) erred in granting the State's challenge to his use of peremptory strikes against certain jury members, (2) improperly prohibited him from preserving his claim that trial counsel was ineffective, and (3) made a merger error at sentencing. We agree that the trial court made a merger error and therefore vacate in part and remand for resentencing, but we otherwise affirm Edwards's convictions.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the trial evidence showed as follows. Edwards and Toni Brown had a child, Mikkah, who was born in December 2010. Mikkah lived with Brown and her two other children, A.B. and B.B. In January 2012, Brown, who was working two jobs while also attending college, called Edwards to watch her children after her babysitter quit unexpectedly. Edwards agreed and stayed at Brown's home for a few days to watch the children while Brown was at work.

         On January 26, Brown saw Mikkah before she left for work around 10:20 p.m., and he appeared healthy and was behaving normally. During the night, A.B., who was then 12 years old, went downstairs to get a drink of water and saw Edwards holding onto something tied around 13-month-old Mikkah's neck and swinging the child like a "rag doll." A.B. said that Edwards swung Mikkah around for 30 to 45 seconds. When Edwards finally noticed A.B., he sat Mikkah on the floor. A.B. was concerned and wanted to call his mother but couldn't because Edwards had the only phone in the house.

         When Brown returned from work the following morning (January 27), she checked on her kids. Mikkah was in bed with Edwards and appeared to be asleep. When Brown kissed Mikkah, she noticed an abrasion on his forehead. Brown asked Edwards about the injury, and he responded that Mikkah might have fallen off a toilet. Edwards took the child out of the room, telling Brown to rest and reassuring her that Mikkah was fine and just tired from staying up late. Brown noticed that Mikkah's head was "wobbly" when Edwards picked him up.

         At some point, A.B. told Brown that he saw Edwards swinging Mikkah around by his neck the night before. Brown tried to wake Mikkah, but he was unresponsive and his head was "flopping around." Brown rushed Mikkah to a pediatric urgent care facility, accompanied by Edwards and her two other children. Nurses told Brown that Mikkah was in respiratory arrest and needed to be airlifted to a children's hospital. The police were called after A.B. told urgent care staff about Edwards's actions the previous night. Edwards told the police that Mikkah had been sick and throwing up and that Edwards began to play fight with the child to "get his energy level back up."

         After being airlifted to the children's hospital, Mikkah was placed on life support. Doctors told Brown that Mikkah had severe brain damage, part of his brain stem was gone, and he would never breathe or eat on his own or speak again. Mikkah was taken off life support after a few days and died as a result of his injuries.

         A medical examiner testified that Mikkah's cause of death was blunt force head trauma evidenced by retinal hemorrhages, a swollen brain, subdural hemorrhages, and two skull fractures caused by at least two forceful impacts to the child's head. A physician with experience in child abuse issues who evaluated Mikkah at the children's hospital testified that the retinal hemorrhages were consistent with rapid acceleration and deceleration of the head, such as by significant and forceful head trauma. The doctors also described the child's other injuries, including a tear to the child's frenulum likely caused by a very forceful impact to the mouth; abrasions and bruising on the neck, back, and chest; and additional hemorrhages in the thoracic and lumbar regions of the child's spinal cord.

         1. Although Edwards does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, it is our customary practice in murder cases nevertheless to review the record and determine whether the evidence was legally sufficient. Having done so, we conclude that the evidence was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Edwards 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).

         2. Pursuant to Georgia v. McCollum, 505 U.S. 42 (112 S.Ct. 2348, 120 L.Ed.2d 33) (1992), the State challenged Edwards's peremptory strikes against Jurors 45, 57, 59, 68, 70, and 73. Edwards argues that the trial court erred in evaluating the State's motion because the court improperly combined steps two and three of the three-part McCollum evaluation, which impermissibly shifted the burden of persuasion. We disagree.

         In McCollum, the Supreme Court of the United States held that defendants are prohibited from engaging in purposeful racial discrimination in the exercise of peremptory strikes. See Allen v. State, 280 Ga. 678, 680 (2) (b) (631 S.E.2d 699) (2006). When the State raises a McCollum objection, the trial court must engage in a three-step process to determine if the defendant's peremptory challenges were used in a racially discriminatory manner. Id.

The opponent of a peremptory challenge must make a prima facie showing of racial discrimination; the burden of production shifts to the proponent of the strike to give a race-neutral reason for the strike; the trial court then decides whether the opponent of the strike has proven discriminatory intent.

Id. (citation omitted). Although the burden of production shifts to the defendant if the State makes a prima facie case, the ultimate burden of persuasion as to discriminatory intent rests with - and never shifts from - the State. See Purkett v. Elem, 514 U.S. 765, 768 (115 S.Ct. 1769, 131 L.Ed.2d 834) (1995); Chandler v. State, 266 Ga. 509, 510 (467 S.E.2d 562) (1996).

         We find no merit to Edwards's argument that the court improperly merged steps two and three of the McCollum inquiry. After the trial court found that the State made a prima facie case of racial discrimination, the court asked Edwards to explain his reasons for the strikes. Following Edwards's race-neutral reasons, the trial court asked the State for additional argument, implicitly indicating it was moving to step three. The State did not challenge Edwards's reasons for striking Juror 68 but argued that his reasons for striking the other jurors were pretextual. The trial court gave Edwards one final opportunity to make an argument, saying "at this point in time, the burden is on you. You get the final word." Reading this last statement in isolation may appear as though the court placed the ultimate burden of persuasion on Edwards. But we don't read statements in isolation; we read them in context. See Brown v. State, 290 Ga. 865, 868 (2) (b) (725 S.E.2d 320) (2012) ("[W]ords often gain meaning from context . . . ."). In context, the trial court suggested to Edwards that it was tentatively persuaded by the State's argument and was giving him one final opportunity to convince the court to accept his reasons for using his peremptory strikes. Edwards gave additional arguments before the court sustained the State's motion as to Jurors 45, 57, 59, 70, and 73 and denied the motion as to Juror 68.[2] The fact that the trial court used the term "race neutral" in its ultimate findings - a term generally used in connection with the second McCollum step - does not alter our conclusion that the court properly conducted the McCollum inquiry in considering Edwards's peremptory strikes. See Colem ...

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