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Winters v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 19, 2018


          GRANT, JUSTICE

         Appellant Tacomsi Winters was tried and found guilty of felony murder and related offenses in connection with the shooting death of Dionte Bradley.[1]On appeal, Winters contends that she received ineffective assistance of trial counsel, and that the trial court committed plain error in instructing the jury. We disagree and affirm.


         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the evidence admitted at trial showed the following. Winters was romantically involved with Bradley, but the two had a tumultuous relationship and argued frequently. On one occasion, for example, Winters tried to run Bradley and some of his friends off the road as they were driving from one club to another. Later that night, she punched Bradley and hit him in the face with the heel of her shoe, requiring him to get stitches.

         Although Bradley paid the rent for the house where Winters lived, he did not live there with her; instead, he lived with his fiancée and their daughter. It is fair to say that Winters was unsatisfied with that arrangement. One night in May of 2011, Bradley was at home asleep with his fiancée, Wyterius Brewster, when the power went out-but only in their home. When Brewster looked out the window, she saw Winters running across their yard. Soon afterward, Winters called Brewster and informed her that she and Bradley had been having unprotected sex and had "started to get serious, " but she was also upset that Bradley refused to leave his family and "didn't want to mess with [Winters] no more." During that call, Winters also disclosed that she knew Brewster's full name, where Brewster lived, and that Brewster had a lot of children. A few months later, Brewster was driving to a club to give Bradley his car keys and Winters, who was driving in the opposite direction, swerved toward Brewster as though she was going to hit her. When Brewster was leaving the club, she once again saw Winters driving toward her; Brewster pulled over and called Bradley, who came out and escorted her home.

         Less than a month before Bradley's death, witnesses saw Winters become "furious" and argue heatedly with Bradley because he was talking to another woman at a club. According to an acquaintance who overheard his conversations, Bradley's demeanor during phone calls with Winters in the days before his death became increasingly agitated, "hateful, " and "angry." The day before his death, Bradley spent the afternoon and early evening with two women that Winters knew. It is not clear whether the intentions of any party were romantic. Bradley seemed worried about Winters though, and he told his companions that he was "fed up" with her. The women tweeted about their activities with Bradley that day; Winters followed one of the women on Twitter, and admitted to police that she spent time on Twitter during the afternoon and evening before the shooting.

         Winters was, in short, incredibly agitated regarding Bradley's interactions with other women. Witnesses testified that Bradley received multiple phone calls from Winters on the night of his death, and one overheard Bradley arguing with Winters on the phone at about 3:00 in the morning. Phone records were obtained for two of the six cell phones recovered from Winters's residence, and showed seven calls and a text message from Winters's cell phone to Bradley's cell phone between 10:00 p.m. that night and 2:04 a.m. on the day of Bradley's death. Bradley left his recording studio alone sometime after 3:30 a.m. He told friends he was going to "the house, " and they thought he was going home.

         Apparently the friends were incorrect. At approximately 3:55 a.m. on December 22, 2011, East Point police officers responding to a 911 call from Winters found Bradley dead in Winters's home. He had been shot in the chest. His car was parked in the driveway, and the engine was still warm when police arrived.

         Winters was taken to the East Point police station and interviewed by police in three separate sessions. Videos of all three interviews were played for the jury at trial. Initially, Winters told police that a noise had awakened her and that she had turned on the bedroom light to find Bradley standing in front of her. He gave her a blank look and said, "Baby, it's me, " and then collapsed. After he fell, Winters said, she saw that his shirt was wet with blood and called 911. Winters claimed to the officers that Bradley had not been shot inside the house, but must have been injured before he got there. Winters also said that she did not know how Bradley had gotten into her house. Although Bradley at one point had a key to the house, Winters did not think he still did because instead of using his key, Bradley always called before he came over so that she could open the door for him. Winters steadfastly denied arguing with Bradley that night, and said that they were not having any problems.

         During the course of the interviews, one of the police detectives told Winters that they knew Bradley had been killed in her house because his wound would have killed him within seconds; he could not have driven or even walked after being shot. Winters eventually admitted that she had shot Bradley in her bedroom, but argued that she had heard a noise and shot him in the dark, believing that he was an intruder. She did not realize that it was Bradley, she said, until she turned on the light. Winters also admitted, however, that before calling 911 she had gone to her back yard and thrown the gun into some bushes behind her house. Police later recovered the gun in the same area Winters described.

         Winters does not contend that the evidence was insufficient to support her convictions. Nevertheless, as is our practice in murder appeals, we have reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find Winters guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which she was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).


         Winters argues that her trial counsel was ineffective for failing to pursue a motion to suppress certain evidence introduced at trial. To succeed on an ineffective assistance claim, Winters must show both that her lawyer's performance was deficient, and that she was prejudiced by her lawyer's errors. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-696 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984); Merritt v. State, 296 Ga. 98, 100-101 (765 S.E.2d 316) (2014). To meet the first prong of the Strickland test, Winters must overcome the "strong presumption" that trial counsel's performance was adequate and that his decisions were "made in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Marshall v. State, 297 Ga. 445, 448 (774 S.E.2d 675) (2015) (citation omitted); see Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-688. This burden is "extremely difficult" to meet where, as here, trial counsel did not testify at the motion for new trial hearing. Wilson v. State, 277 Ga. 195, 199 (586 S.E.2d 669) (2003).

         To demonstrate prejudice for purposes of the second prong, Winters "must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. If either the deficient performance or the prejudice prong of the Strickland test is not ...

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