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Taylor v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 7, 2018


          HUNSTEIN, Justice.

         Appellant John Taylor was tried and convicted of malice murder and related offenses in connection with the February 2011 death of Gene Musgrave and aggravated assault of Robert Sauls.[1] Taylor appeals, alleging that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, that the trial court erred during closing argument, and that his indictment was fatally defective. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence adduced at trial established that, on February 25, 2011, Taylor was being driven from Warner Robins to Jeffersonville, Georgia, by a friend. During their drive, Taylor was acting strange, asked where he could obtain a gun, and talked about killing someone. The friend became uncomfortable with the conversation, dropping Taylor off on the side of the road and leaving. Taylor then made his way to the Ambassador Inn in Twiggs County, Georgia, where he checked in and was assigned to Room 120. Later that same evening, Taylor returned to the check-in counter and requested the key to Room 118, which was occupied by longtime patron Gene Musgrave; the hotel's owner refused Taylor's request.

         At several times throughout the evening, the hotel's video surveillance system captured a man (later identified as Taylor) wearing a brown jacket walking around the property and eventually entering a black 2007 Chrysler 300 that belonged to Musgrave. Between 3:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. on February 26, 2011, video cameras captured Taylor as he approached Musgrave's room; the video showed Musgrave answer the door and be pushed back inside by Taylor.

         The two men spent several minutes in the room together before the video showed Taylor exiting Musgrave's room, getting into the victim's vehicle and leaving the premises. Taylor returned to the hotel in Musgrave's car around 4:45 a.m. and went back to Room 120.

         Between 9:30 and 10:00 that same morning, two hotel employees, Robert Sauls and Fannie Clark, arrived for work. While cleaning, Clark saw Taylor move Musgrave's vehicle from the parking space in front of Room 118 to a space near Room 120 and then stand near the trunk of the car. Shortly thereafter, Taylor entered the room where Sauls was cleaning and began repeatedly beating and stabbing Sauls with a tool. Clark witnessed the attack and called the hotel manager who immediately ran to the scene in an attempt to stop the assault; he could not enter, however, as Taylor had blocked the doorway. The hotel manager left the scene to call 911 and, when he returned, he found Taylor in Room 120 wiping his hands on a paper towel. Officers responded to the scene and found Sauls lying on the bathroom floor covered in blood. Sauls was taken to the hospital where doctors were able to save his life.

         After reviewing the surveillance footage from the prior evening, officers went to Room 118 where they found Musgrave lying on the floor, his blood and brain matter scattered throughout the room. Musgrave had sustained numerous blunt force injuries to the head and face, consistent with being beaten with a crowbar or pipe. The medical examiner opined that blunt force trauma to the head caused Musgrave's death.

         Taylor was arrested at the scene and, while conducting a pat down search, officers located a set of keys in Taylor's pocket, which included keys to Musgrave's car and to a safe inside Musgrave's room. During their investigation, law enforcement also found numerous tools in the trunk of Musgrave's car. In Room 120, they located a blood-soaked paper towel, a pair of shoes, and a blood-spattered brown jacket; DNA testing revealed the presence of blood on Taylor's shoes which matched the DNA of both victims, and Musgrave's blood was also found on Taylor's jacket.

         1. Though not enumerated by Taylor, we find that the evidence as summarized above was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Taylor was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. During its case-in-chief, the State called Deputy James Faulk to provide, among other things, testimony regarding the video surveillance footage obtained from the hotel. On many occasions during the deputy's testimony, the prosecutor asked Deputy Faulk to identify the person depicted on the surveillance video as Taylor. Deputy Faulk, without objection from trial counsel, identified the suspect in the video as Taylor. Taylor claims that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to Deputy Faulk's testimony as improper opinion testimony. We disagree.

         To establish ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that his counsel's performance was professionally deficient and that, but for such deficient performance, there is a reasonable probability that the result of the trial would have been different. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984). "A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. at 694. "If the defendant fails to satisfy either prong of the Strickland test, this Court is not required to examine the other." (Citation omitted.) Propst v. State, 299 Ga. 557, 565 (788 S.E.2d 484) (2016). "In reviewing the trial court's decision, '[w]e accept the trial court's factual findings and credibility determinations unless clearly erroneous, but we independently apply the legal principles to the facts.'" (Citation omitted.) Wright v. State, 291 Ga. 869, 870 (734 S.E.2d 876) (2012).

         Here, even if we were to assume that counsel acted deficiently by failing to object to Deputy Faulk's testimony identifying Taylor as the suspect on the surveillance video, because the evidence of Taylor's guilt was overwhelming, he has failed to show that he was prejudiced by counsel's alleged deficient performance. Accordingly, his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is without merit.

         3. Next, Taylor alleges that the trial court erred by failing to rebuke the prosecutor during closing arguments for impermissibly commenting on Taylor's right to remain silent. The relevant facts supporting this enumeration show that, at trial, while cross-examining the State's lead investigator, the following exchange occurred between defense counsel and the witness:

Q: Okay. So my question is: the two times in ten years of having the Magistrate meet you, which you just testified to, all this, would you, is the reason, was everyone focused on that one person ...

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