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Williams v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 30, 2017



         Appellant Brodrick Williams was convicted of malice murder, armed robbery, and a firearm offense in connection with the shooting death of Daniel McGee. Appellant contends that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support his convictions and that he was deprived of his right to conflict-free counsel. We conclude that the evidence was legally sufficient to support Appellant's murder and firearm convictions, but not his armed robbery conviction. We also conclude that Appellant has not shown that his trial counsel had an actual conflict of interest that adversely affected counsel's representation. We therefore affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the trial court.

         1. (a) Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at Appellant's trial showed the following. In the early morning hours of December 9, 2008, Tavaris Samuels, who was 20 years old, was driving in his mother's car through Harrisburg, Georgia, with Appellant, who was 16, Tanya Landers, and Sierra Burns. Landers, who was Samuels's girlfriend, rode in the passenger seat while Appellant and Burns rode in the back seat. Appellant was carrying a 9-millimeter pistol, and Samuels was carrying a .22-caliber revolver. When the car passed Daniel McGee, who was riding his bicycle down Starnes Street, Landers pointed out the gold chain necklace that McGee was wearing. Samuels turned the car around, rolled down his window, and stopped the car beside McGee. Landers asked McGee where he got his necklace. While McGee answered, Appellant told Samuels that he wanted the chain, and Samuels replied, "I hope you know what you're getting into."

         Appellant then got out of the car, walked over to McGee, pointed his gun at McGee, and told McGee to give him the chain. McGee instead grabbed Appellant by the shirt, and the two started tussling. Samuels, Landers, and Burns, who remained in the car, heard a gunshot. After one of the women encouraged Samuels to help Appellant, Samuels got out of the car with his gun drawn, walked over to where Appellant and McGee continued to grapple, and fired a shot into McGee's head.[1] McGee fell to the ground. Appellant then went through McGee's pockets before he and Samuels returned to the car and drove away. While they were driving off, Appellant told the others that he had dropped the clip from his gun. Samuels later threw one or both of the guns into a river.

         A couple hours after the shooting, the Richmond County Sheriff's Department received a call that a man appearing to be drunk had fallen off his bicycle. A deputy sheriff responded and found McGee on the ground next to his bike, which did not have a seat. McGee had great difficulty responding to the deputy's questions, but eventually he mumbled his name and shook his head "yes" when the deputy asked if he had fallen off the bike. The deputy called an ambulance, and McGee was taken to a hospital, where he was placed on mechanical ventilation and life support. He died later that day. A .22-caliber bullet was found in McGee's brain; the cause of his death was a single shot to the head. Investigators determined that the shooting occurred about a block from where McGee was found; he had attempted to ride his bicycle after Appellant and his friends fled, but only made it a short distance. At the shooting location, investigators found blood, vomit, a magazine for a 9-millimeter pistol, McGee's bicycle seat, his black cap, and the charm pendant from his necklace. The broken necklace chain was found at the hospital with McGee's clothing.

         About ten weeks later, Samuels was arrested on other charges, and he gave a statement to law enforcement regarding McGee's murder, which led to Appellant's arrest. In a post-arrest interview, the audio recording of which was played at trial, Appellant admitted that he got out of the car, pointed his gun at McGee, and said, "Empty out your pockets"; that his clip fell out of the gun when he was tussling with McGee; and that Samuels then got out of the car and shot McGee in the head.

         (b) Appellant and Samuels were indicted together for malice murder, felony murder, armed robbery, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. Prior to trial, on January 13, 2010, Samuels pled guilty to all of those charges as well as robbery under a separate indictment, and he agreed to testify against Appellant as part of a negotiated plea agreement.[2] On February 23, 2010, after learning of Samuels's plea deal, Appellant's trial counsel moved to withdraw from further representation because both Appellant and Samuels were represented by attorneys from the Augusta Judicial Circuit Public Defender's Office and such representation might constitute a conflict of interest under a proposed formal advisory opinion regarding the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct. After a hearing, the trial court denied the motion. Before trial began on June 1, 2010, Appellant's counsel renewed the motion to withdraw, and the trial court again denied it. Samuels testified against Appellant at trial. Appellant did not testify. On June 3, the jury found Appellant guilty on all charges.[3]

         2. Appellant argues that the evidence summarized above was insufficient to support his convictions.

When we consider the legal sufficiency of the evidence, we must "put aside any questions about conflicting evidence, the credibility of witnesses, or the weight of the evidence, leaving the resolution of such things to the discretion of the trier of fact." White v. State, 293 Ga. 523, 523 (1) (753 S.E.2d 115) (2013) (citation omitted). Instead, we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, id., and we inquire only whether any rational trier of fact might find beyond a reasonable doubt from that evidence that the defendant is guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). With this standard in mind, we now turn to the sufficiency of the evidence in this case.

Walker v. State, 296 Ga. 161, 163 (766 S.E.2d 28) (2014).

         (a) As to the convictions for malice murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, the evidence showed that Appellant was carrying a pistol, told Samuels that he wanted the gold chain before he approached McGee, and pointed his gun at McGee and demanded the chain; after McGee and Appellant began fighting, Samuels and the two women in the car heard a gunshot. Samuels then got out of the car with his own gun drawn, walked over to where Appellant and McGee were fighting, and fired the fatal shot into McGee's head. Appellant then went through McGee's pockets and left with Samuels. From this evidence, a rational jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Appellant was guilty of malice murder and firearm possession as a party with Samuels, particularly given Appellant's own possession of a gun and attempt to rob and apparently to shoot McGee before Samuels came to Appellant's assistance. See id.; OCGA § 16-2-20 (defining parties to a crime); Dublin v. State, Case No. S17A0822, 2017 WL 4017919, at *5 (decided Sept. 13, 2017) ("'Whether a person was a party to a crime can be inferred from his presence, companionship, and conduct before and after the crime was committed.'" (citation omitted)).

         (b) There was not, however, sufficient evidence to support Appellant's armed robbery conviction. "A person commits the offense of armed robbery when, with intent to commit theft, he or she takes property of another from the person or the immediate presence of another by use of an offensive weapon . . . ." OCGA § 16-8-41 (a). To prove the "taking" element of armed robbery, the State must show both that the defendant caused the "slightest change of location" of the property allegedly taken and that "complete dominion" over the property was transferred at least temporarily from the victim to the defendant. Gutierrez v. State, 290 Ga. 643, 644 (723 S.E.2d 658) (2012). The indictment in this case alleged that Appellant took "a chain and charm" from McGee. But the chain was found with McGee's clothing at the hospital, and the necklace's pendant was found on the ground at the shooting site. Because the chain was still with McGee's clothing, there is no evidence that Appellant ever moved the chain or exercised control over it. And while the movement of the pendant from the chain around McGee's neck to the ground might satisfy the slight change of location requirement, there is no evidence that Appellant ever had complete dominion over the pendant.

         Because the evidence showed that McGee refused to comply when Appellant demanded the chain, this case is different from cases like Gutierrez, where the defendant's complete dominion over the cash within the victims' cash register was demonstrated when the victims opened and moved the cash drawer after they were directed to do so by the armed intruder. See Gutierrez, 290 Ga. at 645. See also State v. Watson, 239 Ga.App. 482, 486 (1999) ("At the time the barber obeyed King's order at gunpoint to drop the money, King exercised complete control over not only the barber but all items within the barber's control, including the money dropped at King's direction."). There also is no evidence that Appellant ever successfully grabbed the chain or pendant away from McGee and moved either item himself, making this case different from cases like Harris v. State, 334 Ga.App. 299 (2015), where the evidence showed that the defendant snatched the victim's necklace from his neck and carried it 30 yards away ...

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