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State v. Arline

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 14, 2018

THE STATE
v.
ARLINE.

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

          McFadden, Presiding Judge

         After a jury found Ronald Arline guilty of aggravated child molestation, rape, and child molestation, the trial court granted his motion for new trial on the general grounds. The state appeals, arguing that the trial court applied the wrong standard in granting the motion and that, in granting it, the trial court showed bias against the state. We affirm. [1]

         The trial court found dispositive the alleged victim's revelation to prosecutors - on the seventh day of trial, after the state had rested - that, contrary to what she had said up to that moment, she had been sexually active with an adult male other than Arline during the period of time alleged in the indictment. This revelation, the trial court explained in a detailed and thoughtful order, presented defense counsel with a "strategic dilemma": if he called the victim to the stand, he would have "no guarantee of what she might say." The defense did not call her, and the jury never learned of the belated disclosure.

         1. General grounds.

         The authority of trial courts to grant new trials on the general grounds was part of the deposit of English common law upon which Georgia law was founded, Graddy v. Hightower, 1 Ga. 252, 254 (1846), was recognized in the Judiciary Act of 1799, Morgan v. Morgan, 15 Ga. 288, 289 (1854), and was codified in the first Georgia Code. Code 1863, §§ 3637, 3641. The current versions of those provisions is as follows. "In any case when the verdict of a jury is found contrary to evidence and the principles of justice and equity, the judge presiding may grant a new trial before another jury." OCGA § 5-5-20. "The presiding judge may exercise a sound discretion in granting or refusing new trials in cases where the verdict may be decidedly and strongly against the weight of the evidence even though there may appear to be some slight evidence in favor of the finding." OCGA § 5-5-21.

         Applying the general grounds here, the trial court noted that there were substantial conflicts in the evidence, including variations among the allegations the alleged victim had brought forward and her alleged recantations of those allegations. But he noted also that those conflicts had been thoroughly and competently aired at trial. Consequently, he held, the evidence was not only "legally sufficient, " see Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979), but also "not contrary to the evidence presented at trial" and "not decidedly and strongly against the weight of the evidence."

         What concerned the trial court was the evidence the jury did not hear. The trial court noted that the district attorney's initial reaction to the alleged victim's untimely revelation was to "verbally contemplate[] terminating the prosecution." And the order explains in detail how important that testimony would have been. "Accordingly the [trial] court exercise[d] its discretion on the sole ground of 'principles of justice and equity' (OCGA § 5-5-20), [and] grant[ed] a new trial to defendant Arline."

         The state argues that the trial court misconstrued OCGA § 5-5-20, that the statute has two required elements. According to the state, a trial court may not grant a new trial under that provision unless "the verdict of a jury is found contrary to evidence and the principles of justice and equity." In other words, the state would have us hold, because the trial court found the verdict not contrary to the evidence that the jury did hear, he was without power to remedy a violation of the principles of justice and equity. The trial court was without power, the state argues, because that injustice and inequity was wrought by the alleged victim's failure to timely disclose vital evidence the jury consequently did not hear.

         We are not persuaded. The state has cited no authority for the proposition that a trial judge considering the general grounds must disregard matters heard by the court but not by the jury. On the contrary, as our Supreme Court has explained:

Even when the evidence is legally sufficient to sustain a conviction, a trial judge may grant a new trial if the verdict of the jury is "contrary to the principles of justice and equity, " OCGA § 5-5-20, or if the verdict is "decidedly and strongly against the weight of the evidence." OCGA § 5-5-21. When properly raised in a timely motion, these grounds for a new trial - commonly known as the "general grounds" - require the trial judge to exercise a "broad discretion to sit as a 'thirteenth juror.'" In exercising that discretion, the trial judge must consider some of the things that he cannot when assessing the legal sufficiency of the evidence, including any conflicts in the evidence, the credibility of witnesses, and the weight of the evidence.

Hornbuckle v. State, 300 Ga. 750, 755 (5) (797 S.E.2d 113) (2017) (citation, punctuation, and emphasis omitted). "Our sovereign, the law, has in effect said to the trial judge: We charge you to let no verdict stand unless your conscience approves it, although there may be some slight evidence to support it." Walker v. State, 292 Ga. 262, 264 (2) (737 S.E.2d 311) (2013) (citation and punctuation omitted). Thus, contrary to the state's argument, "the fact that the evidence [was] legally sufficient to sustain [the] convictions [did] not prohibit the trial court from exercising its discretion to grant a new trial on the general grounds [that the verdict was contrary to the principles of justice and equity]." State v. Byrd, 341 Ga.App. 421, 424 (2) (801 S.E.2d 99) (2017) (citation omitted).

Although the discretion of a trial judge to award a new trial on the general grounds is not boundless - it is, after all, a discretion that should be exercised with caution and invoked only in exceptional cases in which the evidence preponderates heavily against the verdict - it nevertheless is, generally speaking, a substantial discretion. An appellate court will not disturb the first grant of a new trial based on the general grounds unless the trial court abused its discretion in granting it and the law and the facts demand the verdict rendered.

State v. Hamilton, 299 Ga. 667, 670-671 (2) (791 S.E.2d 51) (2016) (citations and punctuation omitted). Here, because the trial court did not abuse its discretion and the law and facts did not demand the verdict rendered, we ...


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