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Anglin v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 16, 2017


          Peterson, Justice.

         Nehemiah Anglin appeals his conviction for felony murder and marijuana possession following the death of Damion Wright.[1] Anglin argues that the trial court erred by admitting (1) testimony that he put a "hit" on the State's primary witness; (2) evidence of his alleged membership in a gang, including evidence of his tattoos; (3) other evidence he says is hearsay; (4) security camera footage; and (5) testimony concerning the credibility of a witness. He also argues that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to object to certain jury charges and that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his convictions. We find that the evidentiary decisions of which Anglin complains either did not amount to an abuse of the trial court's discretion or were harmless error. We also find that Anglin's claims of deficient performance by counsel are either without merit or abandoned, we reject his argument that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions, and we affirm.

         The evidence presented at trial showed as follows. Wright was fatally shot outside of an apartment complex in late March 2014, after meeting Anglin.[2]Daniel Squires, indicted with Anglin on all of the charges, testified for the State.[3] According to Squires, Anglin had a telephone conversation with Wright in which Anglin agreed to purchase three ounces of marijuana for $800. Wright's wife, Latoya Wright, testified that she overhead her husband talking on the telephone and arranging a meeting before he went out the night he was killed. She said she heard her husband complain that the other party had not shown up for a meeting planned for earlier that day and tell the caller that he would have his gun with him, lest the other person "try anything funny[.]"

         Squires testified that James Valentine drove him and Anglin to meet with Wright. Squires and Anglin got into Wright's car at a QuikTrip convenience store ("QT"), and Wright drove the car to a nearby apartment complex. Anglin gave Wright money in exchange for the drugs but complained that he couldn't smell the marijuana and handed it back to Wright. Wright pulled out a gun and told Squires and Anglin to get out of the car. A struggle ensued, and Anglin grabbed the gun and hit Wright in the head with it a few times before Wright got out of the car, saying "y'all got it." At that point, Squires testified, Anglin exited the car, pointed the gun at Wright, and fired a single shot towards Wright, from a distance of ten to twenty feet. Leaving the drugs behind, Squires and Anglin ran to the nearby QT, where Valentine picked them up.

         The State tried to establish, in part through Squires's testimony, that the circumstances of the murder could be explained by Anglin's affiliation with the Bloods gang. Squires testified at trial about a prior drug transaction in which Wright pulled a gun on Anglin and Valentine, angering Anglin. Squires also testified that Valentine was a member of the Bloods gang, while Anglin (like Squires) was merely an affiliate, still in need of earning the gang's trust before he could become a member. Additionally, during a recorded interview that was played for the jury, Squires described an incident after the shooting in which he was beaten by several fellow inmates on a jail bus. In this interview, Squires mentioned rumors that he heard that Anglin was trying to "get [him] eight, " meaning hurt Squires. Squires also reported the words of an unidentified inmate in the Bloods gang, who told him that the reason for the beating was that Anglin said Squires was "snitchin' on him."

         The State also called Irungo Tate, who said he had spoken with Anglin after the shooting while both of them were in jail. Tate testified that Anglin had told him about the shooting, saying that he and Squires[4] "ran up on" a drug dealer as he was getting out of his car and "there was some shots fired, " although Anglin did not say who shot the dealer. Tate recalled hearing Anglin say that Squires was "snitching" and he was arranging a hit on Squires. Tate also testified that Anglin told him about being in the Bloods gang and that he had seen tattoos on Anglin, one of which was "M.O.B., " a tattoo that Tate said Anglin told him meant "Member of Blood."

         Two other eyewitnesses to the shooting, Llasman Felix and Laporscha Mitchell, also testified. Felix testified for the State that he saw one person start running away from an argument, and another person follow and shoot him from about 30 feet away, but he was not able to identify the shooter at trial. Mitchell, called by the defense, also testified that she saw the shooting. She testified that she had known Anglin[5] through a mutual friend for two years prior to the shooting and that he was not one of the men that she saw at the apartment complex that night.

         Police found a bag containing 2.93 ounces of marijuana on the driver's side floorboard of Wright's car. A detective testified that Anglin's fingerprint was on the bag. The medical examiner testified that Wright, who wore eye glasses, had a deep laceration in the web space of his right hand, consistent with someone wrenching a gun out of it, and a small abrasion over the left forehead, consistent with someone knocking his glasses off. Forensic evidence indicated that Wright was killed by his own gun from a distance of greater than ten feet; the gun was found in a wooded area behind the QT.

         Anglin did not testify at trial, but the State played an audio recording of a police interview of him. After being dropped off by Valentine, Anglin told police, he met Wright at the QT. Anglin then got into the car with Wright and purchased a small amount of marijuana. Afterwards, Anglin said, he went into the QT, leaving Wright - still alive - behind in the parking lot. Anglin said he was not present when Wright was shot.

         1. Anglin first argues conclusorily that the evidence against him was insufficient. Having reviewed the evidence presented at trial, we conclude that the evidence was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Williams was guilty 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).

         2. Anglin argues that the trial court erred by admitting statements by Squires that Anglin had put a hit out on him. We find that these statements were cumulative of other evidence, and thus any error in their admission was harmless.

         The admission of evidence is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court, and the trial court's decision whether to admit or exclude evidence will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion. See Young v. State, 297 Ga. 737, 739 (2) (778 S.E.2d 162) (2015). Anglin argues that Squires's testimony about the attack on the bus was hearsay because he lacked personal knowledge of Anglin being involved, while the State argues that the statements at issue were admissible for non-hearsay purposes such as to explain the motivations of Squires's attackers. But even assuming without deciding that the admission of the statements was an abuse of discretion, we conclude that any such error was harmless and thus does not merit reversal. Under the new Evidence Code, applicable to the 2015 trial of this case, "[e]rror shall not be predicated upon a ruling which admits . . . evidence unless a substantial right of the party is affected[.]" OCGA § 24-1-103 (a). And the erroneous admission of hearsay is harmless where substantial, cumulative, legally admissible evidence of the same fact is introduced. See United States v. Means, 695 F.2d 811, 818 (11th Cir. 1983) (erroneous admission of hearsay was harmless where cumulative of testimony by numerous witnesses).[6] Here, the trial court admitted the recording of Squires's interview based on the State's proffer that Squires would testify, and that Tate would testify that Anglin told him he arranged for the hit on Squires. Tate testified as much later; the references in Squires's interview to "rumors" and a statement by another inmate that Anglin had arranged a hit on him thus were cumulative of Tate's testimony. Tate's testimony - based on Anglin's own statements - was at least as compelling as those references in Squires's interview. And Anglin does not challenge the admission of Tate's testimony on this point. Thus, even if Squires's recorded statements included speculation and hearsay, any error in their admission was harmless.

         3. Anglin argues that evidence of his alleged membership in a gang should have been excluded because there was no evidence the crime was gang-related, and the evidence of gang membership was highly prejudicial to him. The decision to admit the gang evidence was a question committed to the discretion of the trial court, see Young, 297 Ga. at 739 (2), and we conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion in this regard.

         Anglin acknowledges that evidence regarding gang membership may be relevant to show motive. See United States v. Harrell, 737 F.2d 971, 978 (11th Cir. 1984); Wolfe v. State, 273 Ga. 670, 674 (4) (a) (544 S.E.2d 148) (2001).[7]But he contends there was no evidence presented at trial to show that the charged crimes were motivated by gang membership. We do not read the record this way. Squires testified that Anglin was seeking membership into the Bloods gang and thus in need of earning the gang's trust. The State later called an expert witness who testified that the "code" of being in a gang required violent responses to being threatened. Squires testified that Wright pulled a gun on Anglin in a prior meeting.[8] Wright's widow testified that Wright warned a caller just before setting out the night he was killed that he would have his gun in case the caller tried "anything funny." And Squires testified that Wright, indeed, brought a gun to the fatal meeting with Anglin. This testimony enabled the State to explain why Anglin shot Wright, while leaving the drugs behind at the scene. The evidence of gang membership thus was relevant to and probative of motive.

         Under OCGA § 24-4-403, "[r]elevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice[.]" It is true that evidence of gang membership can be highly prejudicial. See Lingo v. State, 329 Ga.App. 528, 532 (765 S.E.2d 696) (2014) (physical precedent only), cited in Shaw v. State, 301 Ga. 14, 19 (2) (799 S.E.2d 186) (2017). But in a criminal trial, inculpatory evidence is inherently prejudicial; "it is only when unfair prejudice substantially outweighs probative value that the rule permits exclusion." United States v. Edouard, 485 F.3d 1324, 1346 (11th Cir. 2007) (citation and punctuation omitted; emphasis in original). And

Rule 403 is an extraordinary remedy, which should be used only sparingly, and the balance should be struck in favor of admissibility. Thus, in reviewing issues under Rule 403, we look at the evidence in a light most favorable to its admission, maximizing ...

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