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Jones v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

April 16, 2018

JONES
v.
THE STATE.

          GRANT, JUSTICE.

         Jahbari Jones ("Jones") appeals his convictions for malice murder and theft by taking in connection with the shooting death of his cousin, Tradae Jones. Jones contends that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his convictions and that the trial court erred in instructing the jury during the separate trial on the issue of Jones's mental competency, in excluding statements Jones made to police by telephone after the shooting and before his arrest, and in not including the lesser offenses of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter on the verdict form. We disagree, and therefore affirm.[1]

         I.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. At the time of Tradae's death, Jones and Tradae lived with other family members, including Jones's mother, Cassandra Jones, and Tradae's mother, Sheri Adebayo, in a house in Marietta, Georgia. Late in the afternoon on November 3, 2009, while Tradae was out with his girlfriend, Cassandra noticed that her CD player was missing. She became upset and said that Tradae had stolen it. Jones also became upset; Adebayo called Tradae, and Jones angrily accused him of stealing the CD player. Tradae denied stealing the CD player and said he was heading home.

         After the phone call with Tradae, Jones went out to a shed in the back yard and got a sawed-off shotgun that belonged to Tradae. Jones's brother, Aderami "Remi" Jones, went out to the shed and saw Jones holding the shotgun. Jones was visibly upset and angry. When Remi asked Jones what he was going to do with the gun, Jones responded, "What do you think?" Later that afternoon, Remi went back out to the shed and continued to press Jones about what he was planning to do, finally asking if Jones was going to shoot Tradae. Jones answered, "Yeah." Tradae's mother Adebayo also encouraged Jones to let the matter drop, emphasizing that the two men were cousins and the CD player was not valuable, but Jones responded, "No, auntie, I got something for Tray [referring to Tradae] this time."

         When Tradae returned to the house with his girlfriend, Jones ran out to meet him and the two argued in the front yard. Tradae suggested they take the argument to the back yard, and Jones agreed. Jones went through the house and out to the shed. Tradae went around the side of the house and, when Jones emerged at the door of the shed holding the shotgun, Tradae approached him saying, "So you're going to shoot me bra? You're going to shoot me?" Jones pointed the shotgun at Tradae, and Tradae grabbed the barrel and pointed it at his own chest. The two continued to argue and after a minute, Jones's arm moved back and forth as though operating the pump action. The shotgun discharged, and the shot blew a hole in the left side of Tradae's chest, obliterated the base of his heart, and penetrated his diaphragm and liver. Tradae's hands were not touching the shotgun when it discharged. Tradae nonetheless continued to stand, and after a moment, Jones knocked him out of the way with the gun and fled. Tradae died from the gunshot wound within a couple of minutes after the shooting, despite the efforts of his mother and his girlfriend to resuscitate him.

         Jones threw down the gun, ran around the side of the house, and jumped over the fence. He got into Tradae's girlfriend's Ford Explorer, which was parked in the driveway. She tried to hang onto the door of the Explorer, but Jones backed out and drove away. He was arrested several hours later in Tennessee, after leading police on a high-speed chase in the Explorer.

         Georgia Bureau of Investigation firearms examiners tested the shotgun used to shoot Tradae, and found that it functioned normally. A trigger pull test was performed and showed that an average of 7.75 pounds of force was required to pull the trigger, a typical value for that type of gun-not a "hair trigger, " in other words. The weapon also had a trigger guard. There was no indication that simply knocking or bumping into the shotgun could have fired it. Moreover, the weapon was a pump-action shotgun, meaning that it must be pumped in order to chamber a shell before it can be fired. And Jones's own expert in forensics and crime scene investigation, while also opining that the gun could have discharged accidentally if Tradae had jerked the gun back while Jones's finger was on the trigger, conceded that the evidence was also consistent with an intentional trigger pull.

         II.

         Jones contends that the evidence introduced at trial was insufficient to permit the jury to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which he was convicted. Specifically, he argues that the verdicts were "decidedly and strongly against the weight of the evidence" and "contrary to law and the principles of justice and equity." That, however, is not the relevant standard for sufficiency of the evidence on appeal. Rather, that is the standard that trial judges apply when deciding a motion for new trial on the "general grounds" set out in OCGA §§ 5-5-20 and 5-5-21. See Smith v. State, 300 Ga. 532, 534 (796 S.E.2d 671) (2017) (decision on a motion for new trial on the "general grounds" set out in OCGA §§ 5-5-20 and 5-5-21 is solely within the discretion of the trial court). When the sufficiency of the evidence is raised on appeal, this Court's review is limited to an evaluation of whether the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, is sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Jones was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979); Nichols v. State, 292 Ga. 290, 290 (736 S.E.2d 407) (2013). Here, the evidence easily meets that standard.

         To prove the crime of malice murder, the State was required to present evidence showing that Jones acted with express or implied malice in killing Tradae. See OCGA § 16-5-1 (a). Jones argues that the evidence supported his defense that the shooting was accidental, pointing to testimony by his brother Remi that Jones said before the argument that he did not know if the shotgun was loaded. But there was ample evidence to support a finding that Jones deliberately fired the shotgun with the specific intent to kill Tradae, including evidence that Jones was angry about the stolen CD player, went out to the shed to get the shotgun before Tradae arrived home, told his aunt that he had "something for Tray this time, " told his brother Remi that he planned to shoot Tradae, deliberately pointed the shotgun at Tradae, and worked the pump to chamber a shell while the two continued to argue. Even if there were not evidence of specific intent to kill, which there was here, malice may also be inferred by conduct which demonstrates "such a reckless disregard for human life as to show an abandoned and malignant heart." Bozzie v. State, 302 Ga. 704, 706 (808 S.E.2d 671) (2017) (citation and punctuation omitted). Accordingly, and at the very least, the jury was authorized to find that Jones acted with reckless disregard for human life by pointing the shotgun at Tradae and, after Tradae grabbed the barrel of the gun and pointed it directly at his own chest, working the pump action to chamber a shell. It is the jury's role rather than this Court's to resolve any conflicts in the evidence, and "the resolution of such conflicts adversely to the defendant does not render the evidence insufficient." Graham v. State, 301 Ga. 675, 677 (804 S.E.2d 113) (2017) (citation omitted).

         Any challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting Jones's theft conviction also fails. Theft by taking is committed when a person unlawfully takes the "property of another with the intention of depriving him of the property." OCGA § 16-8-2. Evidence admitted at trial showed that Jones drove away from the scene of the shooting in Tradae's girlfriend's Ford Explorer without her permission and despite her attempts to stop him. Jones drove the Explorer to Tennessee, and was still in possession of the vehicle when he was apprehended after a high-speed chase. In short, the evidence summarized above was legally sufficient to support the jury's finding beyond a reasonable doubt that Jones was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted and sentenced. See Jackson, 443 U.S. at 318-319; Clark, 283 Ga. at 235.

         III.

         Jones also contends that the trial court erred by failing to give his requested instruction on the form of the verdict in his separate trial on the issue of mental competency. On ...


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