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State v. Orr

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 8, 2018

THE STATE
v.
ORR.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          Branch, Judge.

         Following a jury trial in Floyd County Superior Court, Otto Orr was convicted of a single count each of family violence battery and cruelty to children in the third degree. Orr filed a motion for a new trial asserting, inter alia, that the trial court erred when it failed to declare a mistrial after the State impermissibly commented on Orr's pre-arrest silence. After a hearing, the trial court granted Orr's motion. The State now appeals from that order, arguing that in light of Georgia's new Evidence Code, the law relied on by the lower court is no longer valid. We find no error and affirm.

         On appeal from the grant or denial of a motion for a new trial, we employ two different standards of review:

We review de novo the trial court's decision as to any questions of law, while applying the clearly erroneous standard of review to any factual findings made by that court. . . . Thus, we will uphold the trial court's factual findings if there is any evidence to support them, and we defer to the trial court's credibility determinations.

Wedel v. State, 328 Ga.App. 28, 28 (761 S.E.2d 454) (2014) (citations omitted).

         The facts relevant to this appeal are undisputed and show that the charges against Orr arose out of a physical altercation between Orr and his wife, which took place in the presence of their infant child. At trial, Orr claimed he acted in self-defense, testifying that on the night in question, he was talking on the phone with his sister, but his wife assumed he was on the phone with "another woman." Acting on this assumption, his wife hit Orr on the head with a glass ashtray, splitting his skin and causing significant bleeding. Orr responded by striking his wife with his closed fist, but he claimed that he only struck his wife one time. On cross-examination, Orr acknowledged that he had never contacted police to report this alleged assault by his wife nor had he told anyone in law enforcement prior to trial about his wife's role in the couple's altercation.

         Orr also presented the testimony of his sister and his cousin. Orr's sister stated that she was talking on the telephone with Orr on the night in question when she suddenly heard screaming and yelling. When Orr returned to the conversation, he reported that his wife had hit him in the head with an ashtray. When the sister saw Orr later that night, she observed that he had a gash on his head. On cross-examination, the sister acknowledged that Orr did not report the incident to the police, although she encouraged him to do so.

         Orr's cousin offered similar testimony, stating that she had seen Orr at his mother's home late on the night in question and saw that he had a "goose egg" on his head where the skin was split and bleeding. In response to questions from the prosecutor on cross-examination, the cousin acknowledged that Orr did not report his wife's conduct to police or take a picture of his wound, explaining that Orr did not want his wife to get in trouble.

During her closing argument, the prosecutor stated:
[Orr] wants to now claim self-defense. I find that particularly convenient. He never told the story [of his wife's attack on him] to the police, never once said: . . . I'm the victim here. She came at me with an ashtray. I submit to you this is something [Orr] made up because he has an interest in the outcome of this case.

         Immediately following these statements, defense counsel moved for a mistrial on the ground that the State's argument constituted an impermissible comment on Orr's right to remain silent. The trial court denied the motion, and the jury found Orr guilty on both counts of the indictment. After entering judgment on the jury's verdict, however, the trial court granted Orr's motion for a new trial, concluding that it had erred in denying the motion for a mistrial. This appeal followed.

         In granting Orr a new trial, the lower court relied on Mallory v. State, 261 Ga. 625 (409 S.E.2d 839) (1991), overruled on other grounds, Clark v. State, 271 Ga. 6, 9-10 (515 S.E.2d 155) (1999), and its progeny. Mallory held that in criminal cases, the State could not comment upon a defendant's silence or failure to come forward "even where the defendant has not received Miranda warnings and where he takes the stand in his own defense." 261 Ga. at 630 (5). In reaching this conclusion, the Court recognized that evidence of a defendant's silence was not prohibited by federal constitutional law. Id. at 629-630 (5). The Court also acknowledged that a party's silence normally would constitute an admission against interest under former OCGA § 24-3-36.[1] The Mallory Court concluded, however, "that in criminal cases, a comment upon a defendant's silence or failure to come forward is far more prejudicial than probative. Accordingly, from the date of publication of this opinion . . . such a comment will not be allowed." 261 Ga. at 630 (5).

         Relying on Mallory and its progeny, the Georgia Supreme Court has explained that there is "a bright-line rule in Georgia that the State may not comment on either a defendant's silence prior to arrest or failure to come forward voluntarily." Sanders v. State, 290 Ga. 637, 640 (4) (723 S.E.2d 436) (2012). See also Reynolds v. State, 285 Ga. 70, 71 (673 S.E.2d 854) (2009) (the State is strictly prohibited from commenting upon a defendant's silence because "in the situation of a criminal defendant, this failure to speak or act will most often be judged as evidence of the admission of criminal responsibility"); Collins v. State, 289 Ga. 666, 667-668 (1) (715 S.E.2d 136) (2011). And in Jarrett v. State, 265 Ga. 28 (453 S.E.2d 461) (1995), the Supreme Court extended Mallory and held ...


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