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Brown v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 5, 2018


          HUNSTEIN, Justice.

         Appellant Melvin Brown Jr., was tried and convicted of murder and related offenses committed against Javious Tucker and Cyntrelis Boggs.[1] Brown appeals, claiming that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions, that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, that other acts evidence was erroneously admitted at trial, and that the trial court erroneously failed to grant Brown's motion for a mistrial. Because we find that the trial court committed reversible error by admitting Brown's other acts evidence, we reverse.

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the evidence adduced at trial established as follows. On February 2, 2014, Javious Tucker, Cyntrelis Boggs, and Melvin Brown, Jr., all attended a party in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia. At some point during the party, Tucker and Brown began to argue over Brown's refusal to share a small bag of pork skins. The argument became heated, and the two were asked to leave the party. The fight continued outside; the pair were eventually separated, and Brown walked down the road toward another house at the bottom of a steep hill. Tucker and Boggs followed in Tucker's car, driving down the hill toward Brown. There, the men re-engaged in their argument, which included an exchange of words, Brown tugging on the driver's side door handle of Tucker's car, and Tucker exiting the vehicle and waving a tire iron in a menacing manner. After more cursing and threats, Brown walked back up the hill to put some distance between himself and Tucker. Boggs encouraged Tucker to drop the argument and leave the neighborhood.

         While Tucker was driving back up the road, Brown reached his car over the crest of the hill and retrieved a pistol. Though there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, the physical evidence at the scene suggested that Brown walked back toward Tucker's oncoming car and fired multiple shots, working his way around the vehicle. Boggs, who was in the car with Tucker, testified that, when the shooting began, he could not see or identify the shooter because he was blinded by the setting sun. Additionally, according to other witnesses, the path up the hill was so steep that it would have been very hard for a driver to see over the crest of the hill.

         After the shooting, Brown fled the scene. When law enforcement arrived, Tucker was found inside his vehicle; the bottom half of his body was in the front seat, and his torso was laid out in the back face down. The responding officer testified that, based upon Tucker's positioning, it appeared as if he was trying to crawl into the backseat of the car. In total, Brown fired nine shots into the vehicle; seven bullets struck Tucker and one hit Boggs. Tucker died at the scene of multiple gunshot wounds; Boggs was taken to the hospital for treatment of an abdominal wound, which was either caused by a bullet or a piece of flying glass.

         During their investigation, law enforcement recovered a loaded Charter Arms .38 caliber pistol from underneath the driver's side floor mat of Tucker's car. The pistol had not been fired. They also located a tire iron on the center console. Nine .40 caliber shell casings were also recovered from the scene, and subsequent testing determined that all the shots were fired from a Smith & Wesson .40 caliber handgun. Officers learned that, prior to the shooting, Brown's brother bought a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson at a pawn shop. The evidence at trial established that Brown frequently visited his brother's home and knew that his brother had recently purchased a pistol. When officers searched the brother's home, the weapon was missing.

         Brown's car was found abandoned in a wooded area the day after the shooting. A couple of days later, Brown asked an acquaintance for a ride to an apartment complex where one of his friends resided. When the acquaintance arrived, Brown was wearing a women's wig, a jacket, and sweat pants. During the ride, Brown stated that he regretted what had occurred; he was arrested upon his arrival at the complex.

         At trial, the State adduced other acts evidence wherein Brown pled guilty to four counts of aggravated assault for being the gunman in two separate shootings in late 2005. In support of Brown's charges for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon (count 7) and felony murder predicated on the same (count 4), the State presented a certified copy of Brown's prior convictions for false imprisonment and statutory rape.

         Brown argues that his convictions for malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault should be reversed because the State did not prove he did not act in self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. We disagree.

         As an initial matter, Brown's felony murder charges were vacated by operation of law and, therefore, are not before this Court for review. Regarding his malice murder and aggravated assault convictions, when evaluating the sufficiency of evidence, the proper standard of review is whether a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). "'This Court does not reweigh evidence or resolve conflicts in testimony; instead, evidence is reviewed in a light most favorable to the verdict, with deference to the jury's assessment of the weight and credibility of the evidence.'" (Citation omitted.) Hayes v. State, 292 Ga. 506, 506 (739 S.E.2d 313) (2013). "Likewise, the issues of witness credibility and justification are for the jury to decide, and the jury is free to reject a defendant's claim that he acted in self-defense." Shaw v. State, 292 Ga. 871, 872 (742 S.E.2d 707) (2013). Based on the foregoing, we find that the evidence was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Brown was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted.

         2. Prior to trial, pursuant to OCGA § 24-4-404 (b), the State filed a notice of intent to introduce Brown's 2006 guilty plea to four counts of aggravated assault. At a pretrial hearing on the notice, the State showed that the offenses took place in late 2005 after Brown had gotten into a verbal argument at a night club. The next day, Brown obtained a weapon and, while driving through a neighborhood, fired multiple shots at two men he believed to be involved in the altercation. Later that day, Brown once again fired his weapon numerous times at individuals he believed to be involved in the prior verbal argument, though this time he shot at them as they approached him in a vehicle. Brown fled after both of the 2005 shootings.

         The State requested that this other acts evidence be admitted at Brown's trial in order to establish motive, intent, plan, identity, and absence of mistake or accident. The trial court admitted the evidence for the purposes of demonstrating Brown's intent, absence of mistake or accident, and plan, after concluding pursuant to OCGA § 24-4-403 that the probative value of the other acts evidence was not substantially outweighed by undue prejudice. Brown asserts that the admission of this evidence at trial was error. We agree.

         This Court has adopted the Eleventh Circuit's three-part test for determining the admissibility of other acts evidence, requiring that a trial court make findings that,

(1) the evidence is relevant to an issue in the case other than the defendant's character, (2) the probative value is not substantially outweighed by undue prejudice, and (3) there is sufficient proof for a jury to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant committed the prior act. [Cit.] When weighing the probative value of other acts evidence against its prejudicial effect, Georgia courts apply the balancing test set forth in OCGA § 24-4-403, which similarly tracks its federal counterpart. See Fed.R.Evid. 403. On appeal, a trial court's decision to admit evidence pursuant to OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) is reviewed for a clear abuse of discretion, a review requiring the appellate court to make a "common sense assessment of all the ...

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