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Byrd v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

February 28, 2018


          MILLER, P. J., DOYLE, P. J., and REESE, J.

          Reese, Judge.

         A jury found Archie Byrd, III, guilty of six counts of trafficking of persons for sexual servitude.[1] He appeals from the trial court's denial of his motion for new trial, arguing that he received ineffective assistance of counsel and that the trial court erred in failing to merge all of his convictions into a single count for sentencing purposes. For the reasons set forth, infra, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [2] the evidence showed the following facts. In the early months of 2012, a 17-year-old woman met the Appellant through a friend. Shortly thereafter, the Appellant asked the young woman (hereinafter, "the victim") to work for him as a prostitute. The victim needed money to pay her phone bill, so she allowed the Appellant to take her from Atlanta to a hotel in Clarke County to meet a man and have sex with him for money. According to the victim, she did not want to become a prostitute and intended the incident to be a onetime event. However, the Appellant convinced her to work for him on a regular basis for the next few months. He placed several ads with her picture on prostitution websites to solicit clients, and, when clients called requesting her services, he drove her from Atlanta to Athens, Gainesville, and other places to meet the clients. During this time, the Appellant became increasingly abusive to the victim to the point where she was afraid to leave.

         In early April 2012, however, the victim told the Appellant that she was not feeling well and could not work for him as a prostitute. The Appellant got angry and abandoned her at a bus stop, where she met two strangers, who then contacted the police. A police officer took her to the station, where she waited until her mother picked her up to take her back home to Atlanta. The victim only stayed at home one night, however, because the Appellant convinced her to come back and work for him again.

         A few days later, on April 10, 2012, the Appellant drove the victim from Atlanta to a Clarke County hotel to meet a "client" who had responded to a website advertisement. Unbeknownst to either the Appellant or the victim, the "client" was actually an agent with the United States Department of Homeland Security ("USDHS"), which was working with the Human Trafficking Unit of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation ("GBI") on an undercover operation to rescue juveniles who are being sexually exploited. The victim arrived at the hotel room to meet the "client, " and she agreed to provide him with sexual services. As soon as the victim accepted money from the "client, " however, the "client" signaled to other agents, who entered the room and interviewed the victim. The initial encounter between the "client" and the victim, and the interview that followed, were video-recorded. The recording was played for the jury at trial.

         As part of the sting operation, other government agents were posted outside the hotel and observed the victim arrive in a car that was driven by the Appellant and owned by his uncle. After the Appellant dropped the victim off at the hotel and drove away, agents followed the vehicle and attempted to stop it. The Appellant did not stop, however, and the agents lost sight of the car. The agents later found the car after it had been wrecked and abandoned. The Appellant and a female passenger had escaped, although the passenger was later found and arrested.

         Meanwhile, after questioning the victim at the Clarke County hotel, GBI agents took her back to Atlanta and placed her in a group home. The next day, however, the victim left with the Appellant, and they eventually traveled to California, where she continued to work as a prostitute.

         On April 12, 2012, the State obtained a warrant for the Appellant's arrest. Almost two years later, in February 2014, the Appellant was arrested on the warrant and held without bail in the Athens-Clarke County Jail. The State charged him with one count of trafficking of a person for the purpose of sexual servitude.[3]

         On September 3, 2014, the State obtained a material witness warrant for the victim. A few days later, law enforcement officers took her into custody pursuant to the warrant, then kept her in jail to ensure that she did not leave the area and that she was available for questioning prior to the Appellant's trial. During custodial interviews by law enforcement officers, the victim provided significantly more information than she had during the April 2012 interview; the new information implicated the Appellant in numerous crimes. Based upon these disclosures, the State re-indicted the Appellant, charging him with three counts of trafficking the victim for sexual servitude through the use of coercion and three related counts of committing those same crimes without coercion.[4]

         At the Appellant's trial, the victim identified the Appellant as the man who had posted the website ads offering her sexual services to prospective clients, driven her to meet clients, and taken the money she received from those clients. A GBI agent testified that the agency had contacted the website operators and confirmed that the Appellant had placed the ads at issue. Agents had also obtained a search warrant for the hotel where the victim was staying with the Appellant; the Appellant's name was on the hotel's registration form. Inside the room, agents found a handgun that belonged to the Appellant, as well as personal items belonging to him and the victim. Personal items belonging to the Appellant and the victim were also found in the car that had been driven to the hotel by the Appellant on April 10, 2012.

         The jury convicted the Appellant on all six counts of the indictment. The trial court sentenced the Appellant to three concurrent life sentences on Counts 1, 3, and 5 (trafficking for sexual servitude with coercion), and merged the convictions on Counts 2, 4, and 6 (trafficking for sexual servitude without coercion) into the related odd-numbered counts for the purpose of sentencing. After the trial court denied the Appellant's motion for new trial, the Appellant filed the instant appeal.

In order to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a criminal defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance so prejudiced the client that there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the trial would have been different.[5] The criminal defendant must overcome the strong presumption that trial counsel's conduct falls within the broad range of reasonable professional conduct. We accept the trial court's factual findings and credibility determinations unless clearly erroneous, but we independently apply the legal principles to the facts.[6]

         With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to the Appellant's specific claims of error.

         1. The Appellant contends that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance when, during consideration of a proposed plea deal, counsel incorrectly advised him on his eligibility for parole if he were to be convicted on the charges as indicted. He argues that he relied on counsel's misinformation when he rejected the proposed plea deal and that, if he had been properly advised, he would have accepted the deal instead of going to trial.

The two-part test of Strickland v. Washington ordinarily applies to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in the plea process. Thus, to prevail on such a claim, the defendant must demonstrate both that trial counsel's performance was unprofessional, and that but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the proceedings would have been different. [If] the defendant demonstrates that counsel's representation in the plea process fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, the inquiry turns to whether the defendant has demonstrated the required prejudice.[7]

         "[T]he proper question at the prejudice step is whether [the Appellant] demonstrated that, but for counsel's deficient performance, there is a reasonable probability that he would have accepted the State's plea offer."[8] However, "[i]f an appellant fails to meet his or her burden of proving either prong of the Strickland test, the reviewing court does not have to examine the other prong."[9]

         The record shows that, on September 24, 2014, the State notified the Appellant that it intended to seek a life sentence if the Appellant was convicted of the charged offenses at trial. On October 8, 2014, the State e-mailed the Appellant's counsel and offered the Appellant a sentence of 50 years, with 20 years to serve, in exchange for his guilty plea. The e-mail stated that the plea offer expired at noon on October 15, 2014. Counsel informed Byrd about the plea offer, but Byrd did not accept the offer prior to the deadline, nor did he make a counter-offer to the State for a lesser sentence prior to trial.

         The Appellant argues that his counsel's performance was deficient because counsel allegedly misinformed him that, if he was convicted at trial and given a life sentence, he would be eligible for parole in 14 years. According to the Appellant, after he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, he ...

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