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Thompson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

November 2, 2017

THOMPSON
v.
THE STATE.

          GRANT, Justice.

         A Fulton County jury found appellant Eric Thompson guilty of two counts of malice murder in connection with the deaths of Andre Geddis and Melody Keller.[1] On appeal, Thompson contends that the trial court erred by admitting certain evidence, including character evidence and hearsay evidence, and denying his motion for continuance. Thompson also challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the guilty verdicts and alleges that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to a portion of the State's closing argument. We agree that some of the challenged character evidence was improperly admitted and that the admission was not harmless. We therefore reverse.

         I.

         Police performing a welfare check found the bodies of Andre Geddis and his fiancée Melody Keller inside their home; someone wielding a .40 caliber gun had shot Geddis and Melody to death. Although there was no sign of forced entry, police suspected robbery because the victims' cars and electronic equipment were missing and the house was in disarray. Police recovered several shell casings and prescription pills from the home.

         Police then canvassed the neighborhood surrounding the victims' home, but their efforts yielded little evidence. A few days later, one of the victims' cars, a white Chevy Malibu, was recovered. The second car, a Chevy Tahoe, was found in a different location a few days later. Both cars had been "stripped."

         Lacking leads, the police obtained a court order for Geddis's cell phone records. As it turns out, Geddis had exchanged phone calls with Thompson's codefendant, Vincent Russell, on the day of the murders. Police were able to determine Russell's phone number from a police report that Russell filed less than one month after the murders. Russell had reported his .40 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun as stolen and had included a phone number-which matched the phone number in Geddis's phone records-in the police report as his contact number. By examining Russell's phone records, police learned that Russell and Thompson[2] made phone calls to each other the same day Geddis and Melody were murdered.[3] Thompson's cell phone records revealed that on the night of the murders, his cell phone pinged off a tower near the victims' house around 9:00 p.m. Roughly a half-hour later, Thompson's phone repeatedly called Russell's phone. Notably, these calls from Thompson's phone to Russell's phone took place while Thompson's phone was located in the same area as the victims' home. Meanwhile, no outgoing calls were made from Geddis's phone after 9:25 p.m. that night. At 11:30 p.m., however, an incoming call to Geddis's phone went unanswered. At that point, Geddis's phone-which was never recovered after his killing-pinged off a cell tower located near Thompson's home, rather than a tower near Geddis's own home and the site of his murder.

         A phone call between Geddis and Coey Keller, Melody's brother, sheds additional light on the timeline and events surrounding the murders. Geddis called Coey around the same time that Thompson's phone approached the victims' home. During the conversation, Geddis told Coey that he had arranged to purchase a .40 caliber gun. Though he did not mention any names, Geddis said he was waiting on someone to come over with the gun. Geddis and Melody were shot to death with a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson gun.

         In addition to the cell phone evidence, the police developed a lead on a man named Ronnie Heath. Heath eventually pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter in connection with the murders after police learned that he stole a car from the victims' house on the night of the murders. In 2009, Heath gave two statements to police implicating Thompson as one of the people involved in Geddis and Melody's murders. At trial, Heath claimed that he had no memory of the night of the murders or of his prior statements to police.[4] But Heath did testify that he had known Thompson for a long time. He denied that he had ever met or known Russell. The State impeached Heath with his 2009 statements to police and a copy of the transcripts of his statements were admitted into evidence. That night, according to Heath's 2009 statements, Thompson, along with two other men, recruited him to go to a house and "test drugs." When the group arrived at the victims' home, Heath and another man, who was dressed in a security guard uniform, got out of the car while Thompson and another associate stayed behind.[5] Thompson told Heath that the security guard had a gun. The security guard knocked on the door and a man who appeared to know the security guard let Heath and the security guard inside. Heath stayed at the front of the house until the security guard returned and gave him a set of keys to a white Chevrolet and told Heath to take the car and leave, which he did.[6] Heath took the white car back to Thompson's house where he, Thompson, and the other man who had ridden with them to Geddis's home began taking certain items from the car (such as the radio and speakers). Melody's brother testified that she drove a white Chevy Malibu. Police officers later recovered Melody's abandoned car, which was missing its radio, wheels, rims, and other items.

         II.

         Thompson contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a directed verdict of acquittal because the State presented insufficient evidence to convict Thompson of the charged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt. We disagree.

         A directed verdict of acquittal should be entered where there is no conflict in the evidence and the evidence demands a verdict of acquittal with all reasonable deductions and inferences. OCGA § 17-9-1 (a). This Court applies the same standard of review to a denied motion for directed verdict as that which is used to determine the sufficiency of the evidence. Kitchen v. State, 287 Ga. 833, 834 (700 S.E.2d 563) (2010) (citing Yat v. State, 279 Ga. 611, 613 (619 S.E.2d 637) (2005)). That means that we apply the standard demanded by Jackson v. Virginia: Whether the evidence was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Thompson was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         The evidence as set out above is sufficient to support Thompson's convictions in this case. While Heath's 2009 statement to police did make up a significant portion of the testimony connecting Thompson to the murders, it was not the only evidence against Thompson. Cell phone evidence indicates Thompson was near the victims' home near the time the crimes took place. Direct testimony establishes that Thompson recruited at least one participant in the robbery scheme that resulted in the murders of Geddis and Melody. There is evidence that Thompson knew the security guard was carrying a gun when they drove to the victims' home for the robbery. Police recovered the victims' white Malibu near Thompson's home and the car was "stripped" in the manner described by Heath. And an unanswered call to Geddis's cell phone pinged off a tower near Thompson's house just a couple of hours after the murders took place. Slight evidence from an extraneous source identifying the accused as a participant in the criminal act is sufficient corroboration of the accomplice to support a verdict. Edwards v. State, 299 Ga. 20, 22 (785 S.E.2d 869) (2016). The evidence was sufficient to corroborate Heath's testimony under OCGA § 24-14-8. Crawford v. State, 294 Ga. 898, 901-902 (757 S.E.2d 102) (2014) (phone records that provide circumstantial evidence of the crimes sufficient to corroborate accomplice testimony). The evidence presented was also constitutionally sufficient for the jury to find Thompson guilty with respect to these charges. Jones v. State, 299 Ga. 377, 379 (788 S.E.2d 477) (2016).

         III.

         Thompson contends that the trial court erred by admitting character evidence alleging that Thompson had participated in an attempted armed robbery three and a half years after the murders and that he was a drug dealer who had purchased an assault rifle.[7] We agree that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting the evidence of the subsequent attempted armed robbery. And we cannot say that the evidence of guilt was such that "there is no reasonable probability that the verdicts of the jury would have been different in the absence of such error." Nichols v. State, 282 Ga. 401, 405 (651 S.E.2d 15) (2007). On the other hand, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence of Thompson's drug activities or the evidence that Thompson purchased a firearm from his codefendant Russell. We address each contention more fully below.

         A. Other Acts Evidence: Subsequent Armed Robbery.

         Thompson's case straddles the divide between Georgia's former Evidence Code and the date our current Evidence Code became effective, January 1, 2013. The hearing on the State's motion to admit evidence pursuant to Rule 404 (b) was held on February 29, 2012. During that hearing, the State posited that evidence of Thompson's participation in the subsequent armed robbery of Ward was admissible to show Thompson's motive, course of conduct, intent, and lack of mistake. The trial court entered a written order dated March 9, 2012, denying in part and granting in part the State's motion and determining that evidence of the subsequent attempted armed robbery of Ward was admissible for the purpose of showing motive, plan, course of conduct, and lack of mistake. Noticeably absent from that order is intent. The trial court's order notes the following similarities between the circumstances surrounding the murders and the attempted armed robbery of Ward: armed robbery of the victims; shots fired; possession of a firearm by the assailants; groups of young men involved; occurrences in the same area; and occurrences close in time.

         Before Thompson's April 2013 trial, the trial court revisited its order at Thompson's request. Thompson specifically asked the trial court to reconsider its ruling in light of the changes to our Evidence Code. Ruling from the bench and outside the presence of the jury, the trial court again determined that the evidence was admissible to show motive, plan, and lack of mistake. Although the trial court maintained that its original findings were correct, it conceded that, under the new Evidence Code, course of conduct was no longer a permissible purpose for other acts evidence. The trial court reiterated its findings that the State could show that Thompson committed the Ward attempted armed robbery, that there was sufficient similarity between the charged murder and the subsequent robbery, and that the probative value of the evidence outweighed its prejudicial effect. In ...


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