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Dent v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 19, 2018

DENT
v.
THE STATE.

          HINES, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Terrance Justin Dent appeals his convictions and sentences for felony murder while in the commission of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, as well as the denial of his motion for new trial, as amended, all in connection with the shooting death of Jevon Freeman. Dent challenges the sufficiency and weight of the evidence, the failure to charge the jury on voluntary manslaughter in accordance with Edge v. State, 261 Ga. 865 (414 S.E.2d 463) (1992), and the effectiveness of his trial counsel. Finding the challenges to be without merit, we affirm.[1]

         The evidence construed in favor of the verdicts showed the following. Around 4:30 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. on November 6, 2013, Freeman went to meet potential buyer Dent, who had responded to Freeman's Craigslist ad to sell an iPhone. Freeman had listed the selling price as $500 but Dent was offering to pay $450. In arranging the sale, Freeman requested that the meeting be in a public place, namely a gas station on Riverdale Road; however, Dent was adamant about meeting at a church at the intersection of I-85 and Garden Walk Boulevard. Freeman agreed to meet there even though he voiced to his best friend that he was worried about being robbed as the church would be empty at that time and it would be dark outside.

         When Dent and Freeman met in the church parking lot, they went to the door of the daycare facility at the church and requested entry to complete the sale of the iPhone. An employee at the daycare facility declined to let them enter. Minutes later, the employee heard gunshots and called the police.

         When officers responded to the scene at 6:18 p.m., they found Freeman shot and unresponsive, slumped over in his car. Officers found approximately $450 in cash scattered on the ground and a Samsung cell phone belonging to Freeman outside the driver's door on the ground. Dent was no longer on the scene. Freeman was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

         Freeman's phone records revealed that in the minutes prior to his death, Freeman communicated with a cell phone number belonging to Dent. The cell phone number was known to be Dent's because he had used it a year earlier to place a 911 call. That time, Dent had posted an ad on Craigslist for the sale of an iPad. Allegedly, when Dent and the buyer met for the sale, the buyer took the iPad and left without paying; when Dent asked for his money, the buyer threatened to fight him. Dent reported this alleged incident and his address was listed on that incident report. Accordingly, officers obtained and executed a search warrant for Dent's residence.

         During the search, investigators located two Samsung cell phones in Dent's bedroom. Search warrants were obtained for electronic data and messages on those cell phones. The phone messages revealed plans by Dent to purchase a .22 caliber pistol on November 1, 2013, the same type of gun used to kill Freeman. Internet searches conducted by Dent in the days leading up to the crimes were also located on the phones, including searches about purchasing and using firearms, such as "can a 22 caliber kill, " "getting shot with gun, " "how to kill someone, " "how to rob someone with a gun, " "how to scare people with a gun, " and "how to shoot and kill somebody." It also revealed searches done only hours after the murder: "guy shot in Riverdale, Georgia, " "what do police do when they test for fingerprint, " "what if the police found my fingerprint, " and "do the police have everyone's fingerprints."

         On November 8, 2013, two days after the murder, Dent was arrested and interviewed. After waiving his Miranda[2] rights, Dent related three different accounts about the incident. Dent first stated, contrary to text messages between him and Freeman, that their meeting initially was to be at the church. He also stated that he drew his gun, reached backward, and shot at Freeman one time after Freeman placed him in a chokehold and he became frightened for his life. Dent's version of events, especially his supposed position when firing his weapon, did not make sense to the police, so they challenged his story. Dent's next story did not include an alleged chokehold or any touching; he said that he turned and shot Freeman because Freeman was acting "weird and suspicious" during the sale. He ran from the car, turned to see Freeman chasing him, and shot again. Dent's third and final version of events was that he already had the gun in his hand during the transaction, and that he shot Freeman when he felt Freeman was acting "weird" while counting the money. Dent said that he fired a second shot when he saw Freeman try to get back up and walk towards him. Dent never claimed that Freeman brandished a weapon or was armed in any manner, and in his second and third accounts, Dent admitted that Freeman did not threaten him with physical harm.

         During the interview, Dent also provided the location of the ammunition, pistol, and iPhone. The iPhone was located inside Dent's school locker, and the pistol was found in the possession of his friend, Latrel Avante Irving.[3] Dent had given Irving the gun at school two days after the shooting. Irving testified that Dent told him at school the day after the murder that when Freeman was counting the money, Freeman "kept looking back at him like he was going to do something." Irving further testified that Dent told him that when Dent was running away, Freeman chased him, so he turned around and shot at Freeman twice. Dent did not mention that there was any kind of struggle.

         The medical examiner testified that Freeman was killed by a gunshot wound to the chest, which pierced the heart and rendered it unable to pump blood. There was no sign of soot or stippling, and the bullet was fired from an indeterminate range. The bullet recovered from Freeman's body was a .22 caliber bullet fired by the derringer pistol purchased by Dent.

         1. Dent contends that the evidence presented by the State was insufficient as a matter of law to support his conviction for felony murder. He maintains that the State's case rested primarily on the erroneous theory that he intended to rob Freeman, even though the evidence did not support it, and that the evidence, which was circumstantial, did not exclude the reasonable hypothesis that he shot Freeman in self-defense.

         When evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence:

Evidence may be less than overwhelming, but still sufficient to sustain a conviction. 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. Instead, we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, 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.

Walker v. State, 296 Ga. 161, 163 (1) (766 S.E.2d 28) (2014) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Furthermore, in order to establish the killing of another in self-defense, it must be shown that the circumstances would have excited the fears of a reasonable person that his safety was in danger. It is a jury question as to whether such a showing has been made, and therefore, whether a defendant's claim of self-defense should be accepted. Howard v. State, 298 Ga. 396, 398 (1) (782 S.E.2d 255) (2016). "A jury is free to reject a defendant's claim that he acted in self-defense." Id.

         There was sufficient evidence from which a rational trier of fact could find that Dent's shooting of Freeman was not justified as self-defense and that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Dent also contends that the evidence was sufficiently close to warrant this Court to exercise discretion as the "13th juror" pursuant to the general grounds set forth in OCGA §§ 5-5-20[4] and 5-5-21[5] and grant him a new trial. However,

[w]e are without authority to do so. A motion for new trial based on OCGA § 5-5-20, i.e., that the verdict is contrary to the evidence, addresses itself only to the discretion of the trial judge. Whether to grant a new trial based on OCGA § 5-5-21, i.e., that the verdict is strongly against the evidence, is one that is solely in the discretion of the trial court, and the appellate courts do not have the same discretion to order new trials.

Smith v. State, 292 Ga. 316, 317 (1) (b) (737 S.E.2d 677) (2013). Consequently, when an appellant asks this Court to review a trial court's denial of a new trial based upon the general grounds, "this Court must review the case under the standard set forth in Jackson v. Virginia, [supra], that is, if the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, supports the verdict or verdicts. [Cit.]" Allen v. State, 296 Ga. 738, 741-742 (2) (770 S.E.2d 625) (2015), quoting Williams v. State, 296 Ga. 573, 574 (769 S.E.2d 318) ...


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