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Wilson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

September 13, 2017


          GRANT, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Charles Rodney Wilson was convicted of murder and related offenses in connection with the October 2012 shooting death of Jesse Howard. Wilson now appeals, asserting various errors in the adjudication of his motion for new trial, insufficiency of the evidence, evidentiary error, and improper refusal to bifurcate the trial of certain counts. Though none of Wilson's enumerations have merit, we do note an error in his sentencing, and we therefore affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand for resentencing.[1]


         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence at trial showed that Wilson, a convicted felon, shot and killed victim Howard on October 25, 2012. Earlier that month, Howard had broken into Wilson's car and stolen several ounces of marijuana. During the days that followed, Wilson sought out Howard, first at Howard's girlfriend's workplace and then at his grandmother's home. Wilson told Howard's girlfriend to tell him that Wilson "got something for him, he going to do something to him." At Howard's grandmother's home, Howard's mother, who answered Wilson's knock at the door and told him that Howard was not there, noticed that Wilson "was standing at an angle, as if he had something on his side."

         On the day of the shooting, two of Wilson's friends spotted Howard with Scotty Hawk at the mall. Knowing that Wilson was looking for Howard, the friends followed the men as they left the mall in Howard's girlfriend's black Honda Accord and drove to Stonehenge, an Athens neighborhood where both men lived. One of the friends called Wilson and told him they had located Howard. Wilson drove to Stonehenge and found Howard standing in Hawk's driveway with Hawk and two other men, Stepny Billups and Fred Hunter.

         Hawk, who had noticed he was being followed and saw Wilson's car pull up, approached Wilson and asked what was going on. Wilson had a handgun in his lap and was "talking in a rage." After attempting to calm Wilson down, Hawk walked away from Wilson's car to talk to his neighbor. Wilson then exited the car with his gun and called to Howard to come in the street, threatening to "whoop his ass." Hawk told Howard to go inside because Wilson had a gun. Howard yelled back that Wilson "ain't going to do nothing." Wilson chambered a round, ran toward Howard, and hit him in the head with the gun; the gun fired, and Howard fell to the ground. Wilson fled.

         Police responders found Howard lying on the ground next to the Honda Accord with a fatal gunshot wound to the head. The officers observed what appeared to be a bullet mark on the side of the Accord; according to Howard's girlfriend, the mark had not been there before the shooting. As for Wilson, after disappearing for several days and getting rid of his handgun, he turned himself in to law enforcement.

         At trial, Billups and Hunter both testified that Wilson had struck Howard with the gun and the gun discharged almost immediately. Hawk testified that Wilson had hit Howard with the gun, Howard grabbed Wilson, and then Wilson shot Howard in the head.

         The medical examiner determined that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head; Howard also had abrasions consistent with being struck with a gun on the forehead. The bullet had entered through Howard's left ear and exited from behind his right ear. Gunpowder stippling at the entrance wound indicated, based on its diameter and concentric pattern, that the muzzle-to-target distance was three to five inches with no obstruction. Upon questioning about the possibility that the fatal wound had been inflicted by a ricocheting bullet rather than a direct gunshot, both the medical examiner and a State crime scene reconstruction expert testified that this scenario was unlikely. Specifically, both witnesses opined that both the stippling pattern observed on the victim and the bullet's apparent trajectory were inconsistent with the possibility of a ricocheting bullet. Theorizing about the bullet mark on the Accord, the crime scene expert suggested that two shots had been fired, one hitting the Accord and one hitting the victim. Based on the bullet's path through the victim's head, the crime scene expert also rejected the theory that the fatal gunshot had been fired simultaneously with the blow to the victim's forehead.

         Wilson testified at trial that he had never intended to shoot Howard and instead intended only to hit him with the gun. He also testified that he had believed Howard was armed at the time, though investigators found no weapons on or around Howard at the scene.

         Contrary to Wilson's contention, the evidence described above was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Wilson was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). See also Vega v. State, 285 Ga. 32, 33 (1) (673 S.E.2d 223) (2009) ("'It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence.'").


         Wilson contends that the verdict was contrary to "the principles of justice and equity" and "decidedly and strongly against the weight of the evidence" under OCGA §§ 5-5-20 and 5-5-21. "When properly raised in a timely motion, these grounds for a new trial-commonly known as the 'general grounds'- require the trial judge to exercise a broad discretion to sit as a 'thirteenth juror.'" White v. State, 293 Ga. 523, 524 (2) (753 S.E.2d 115) (2013) (citation and punctuation omitted). Wilson did timely move for a new trial on these general grounds, citing evidentiary conflicts and witness credibility issues. Following a hearing at which Wilson's counsel expressly requested that the court exercise its discretion as the "thirteenth juror, " the trial court denied the motion for new trial. Wilson challenges the trial court's decision in several respects, none of which is supported by law.

         (a) Wilson asserts that there is no evidence that the trial court actually exercised its discretion as the "thirteenth juror." But "the trial court need not explicitly speak of its discretion with respect to the general grounds, and unless the record shows otherwise, we must presume that the trial court understood the nature of its discretion and exercised it." Murdock v. State, 299 Ga. 177, 178 (2) (787 S.E.2d 184) (2016). This Court will thus presume, in the absence of affirmative evidence to the contrary, that the trial court did properly exercise such discretion. Compare Butts v. State, 297 Ga. 766, 771-772 (3) (778 S.E.2d 205) (2015) (presuming trial court properly exercised its discretion where the general grounds were expressly referenced at the new trial hearing but summary denial order did not explicitly address its weighing of the evidence as a thirteenth juror), with White, 293 Ga. at 525 (reversing for consideration of general grounds where record reflected that trial court reviewed new trial motion only for legal sufficiency of the evidence); Walker v. State, 292 Ga. 262, ...

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