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Pike v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

January 29, 2018



         Matthew Jacob Pike appeals his conviction and sentence for malice murder and related crimes in connection with the death of Justin Klaffka. He challenges the denial of severance of his trial from that of his coindictees, the admission of certain evidence, and the legal sufficiency of the evidence of his guilt. For the reasons which follow, the challenges are without merit and we affirm.[1]

          The evidence construed in favor of the verdicts showed the following. On the evening of April 8, 2012, Pike, William Slaton ("Slaton"), and Klaffka entered the Houston County mobile-home residence of Garrett Fluellen ("Fluellen") and committed armed robbery. Slaton's brother, Daniel Slaton ("Daniel"), had driven the men to and from the crime scene. Anthony Scott and others were at Fluellen's residence at the time of the armed robbery; Scott knew Klaffka as he had previously traded drugs with him. During the armed robbery, Fluellen got a glimpse of one attacker's face, and was able to run away and call 911. When Pike, Slaton, and Klaffka returned to Daniel's car, Pike cut Klaffka on the right thigh and was "cussing him out" because Pike was angry at Klaffka for letting Fluellen escape. Pike and Slaton became worried that Klaffka would implicate them in the armed robbery.

         On April 10, 2012, Klaffka's girlfriend, Amanda Mitchell, witnessed a fight between Pike, Slaton, and Klaffka at 119 Dixie Trail in Houston County, where Pike was living along with Slaton, Daniel, and Pike's brother, David Pike ("David"). Pike and Slaton confronted Klaffka and began to beat him; Pike hit Klaffka on the right side of his head. After the beating, Klaffka was bleeding very badly and was taken into the bathroom shower to be cleaned up. Then Pike, Slaton, and Daniel walked Klaffka to Daniel's car and Pike directed Daniel where to drive; the three men drove Klaffka to a Houston County boat ramp on the Ocmulgee River, an area known as Knowles Landing. After arriving at the boat ramp, Klaffka was taken out of the vehicle; Pike held a knife to Klaffka's neck. The men began to argue and then Slaton, who was standing behind Klaffka, put his arm around Klaffka's neck and started to choke him. After a couple of minutes, Pike told Slaton to "get out of the way" because he was "doing no good" even though Klaffka "had the fight already out of him" and was "hardly doing anything." Pike put his hands around Klaffka's neck and Pike and Slaton took Klaffka down to the river. Pike began to simultaneously choke and attempt to drown Klaffka, and then left Klaffka in the water. Pike and Slaton got back in the car and removed their clothing. Pike reached over with his knife to Daniel, threatening Daniel that if he said anything he would kill him. Pike stated that "it went too far, that he couldn't just let [Klaffka] go because he would go tell the cops." The three men drove back to 119 Dixie Trail; David had cleaned up the bathroom with bleach. That night, Pike and Slaton burned their clothes. They told David that they "threw [Klaffka's] ass off of [Highway] 96, " and that they had killed Klaffka and floated him down the river.

         On April 15, 2012, fishermen at Knowles Landing discovered Klaffka's body floating in the river. The medical examiner determined that Klaffka's injuries were consistent with manual strangulation and that the cause of death was asphyxia due to strangulation in conjunction with blunt force head trauma.

         1. In separate enumerations of error, Pike contends that the State's evidence as a whole was legally insufficient to support his murder conviction, and that the trial court erred in refusing to direct verdicts of acquittal on all of the charges against him because the State failed to establish venue in Houston County. But, such contentions are wholly without merit.

         The State presented ample evidence of the elements of the crimes charged, including that of venue, which is a jurisdictional element of every crime requiring that the State prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Bulloch v. State, 293 Ga. 179, 187 (4) (744 S.E.2d 763) (2013). Consequently, we view the evidence of venue as we do in a challenge to the general sufficiency of the evidence, that is, the evidence of venue is viewed in a light most favorable to supporting the verdicts in order to determine whether the evidence was sufficient to permit a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime or crimes were committed in the county in which the defendant was indicted. Propst v. State, 299 Ga. 557, 561 (1) (b) (788 S.E.2d 484) (2016). In general, a criminal action is to be tried in the county in which the crime or crimes were committed. Id.; see Ga. Const. 1983, Art. VI, Sec. II, Par. VI; OCGA § 17-2-2 (a).[2] However, OCGA §17-2-2 (h) provides that "if in any case it cannot be determined in what county a crime was committed, it shall be considered to have been committed in any county in which the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that it might have been committed." And, the provisions of subsection (h) may be used to determine venue in homicide cases. See Bulloch v. State, 293 Ga. 179, 187 (4) (744 S.E.2d 763) (2013). What is more, the State can prove venue by both direct and circumstantial evidence. Propst v. State, supra at 561 (1) (b).

          In this case, the State presented testimony at trial establishing that the crimes against Klaffka culminating in his murder were committed in Houston County. Such testimony included, inter alia, that Knowles Landing, the place where Klaffka's body was discovered, was in Houston County, that Klaffka was severely beaten at 119 Dixie Trail, which was in Houston County, and that he was then taken to Knowles Landing where he was strangled to death. The evidence established beyond a reasonable doubt that venue was properly in Houston County. Bulloch v. State, supra at 187 (4). Thus, the failure to prove venue was not a meritorious basis for granting directed verdicts of acquittal. What is more, the evidence as a whole was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Pike was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Pike next contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion to sever because his defense, which was that the State's evidence did not overcome his presumption of innocence, was antagonistic to that of his codefendant, Slaton[3]; Pike argues this was so because in the joint trial with Slaton he was forced to defend himself against not only the proof offered by the State, but also the alibi defense argued by Slaton's counsel, [4] i.e., that only Pike and Daniel killed Klaffka and Slaton was not present, so that he suffered prejudice amounting to a denial of due process. But, the argument is unavailing.

         First, the transcript of the hearing in the matter reveals that Pike failed to make the present argument to the trial court. His argued basis below for severance was the likelihood that at trial the State would "get into" Slaton's extensive prior criminal history, and that Pike would get "lumped up with that, " and thus, prejudice the jury against him. In any event, even if the present challenge of antagonistic defenses is preserved for our review, "antagonistic defenses are insufficient to require severance in a non-death penalty case absent a showing of prejudice." Johnson v. State, 301 Ga. 205, 208 (III) (800 S.E.2d 296) (2017).

[I]t is not enough for a defendant to raise the possibility that a separate trial would have given him a better chance of acquittal; a defendant is entitled to severance only where there is a clear showing of harm or prejudice and a showing that failure to sever would result in the denial of due process. [Cit.] A defendant cannot rely upon antagonism between co-defendants to show prejudice and the consequent denial of due process; a defendant must show that the failure to sever harmed him.

Kelly v. State, 267 Ga. 252, 253 (2) (477 S.E.2d 110) (1996) (internal citation omitted). Pike's claim that the joint trial with Slaton forced him not only to defend against the proof offered by the State, but also to defend against the defense pressed by Slaton does not demonstrate the required prejudice and denial of due process because such a situation exists in any case in which codefendants have antagonistic defenses. Marquez v. State, 298 Ga. 448, 450-451 (2) (782 S.E.2d 648) (2016). What is more, despite Slaton's argued alibi defense, the jury arrived at guilty verdicts against Slaton as well as Pike, obviously accepting the State's case which was substantially the same for Pike and Slaton. There is nothing to suggest that the outcome of Pike's trial would have been different had he been tried separately from Slaton. Simply, Pike has failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by the joint trial so that he was denied due process; consequently, there is no showing that the trial court abused its discretion in denying severance. Id.

         3. Pike also contends that the trial court erred in allowing, over objection, certain autopsy photographs of Klaffka, maintaining that the photographs were not only gruesome, but had no independent probative value and served only to prejudice and inflame the jury. But, there was no error in admitting the photographs at issue.

         Inasmuch as Pike's trial occurred after January 1, 2013, the effective date of Georgia's new Evidence Code, the code is ...

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