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Taylor v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 7, 2018


          Peterson, Justice.

         Zachary B. Taylor appeals his conviction for malice murder based on the 2004 death of Lamar Railey 16 days after Taylor struck him with his car.[1]Taylor argues that his malice murder conviction is not supported by sufficient evidence because the State did not prove intent and causation. He also argues that the trial court erred when it denied Taylor's motion to change venue and when it denied Taylor's challenge under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69) (1986). We find that the evidence of intent and causation was sufficient to convict Taylor of malice murder. We also conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Taylor's motion for a change of venue or commit reversible error in denying Taylor's Batson challenge. We affirm.

         1. Taylor was first tried in 2005, when a jury found him guilty of malice murder and other crimes. This Court affirmed Taylor's murder conviction on direct appeal. See Taylor v. State, 282 Ga. 44 (644 S.E.2d 850) (2007) ("Taylor I"). In April 2013, Taylor's petition for habeas corpus relief was granted on the basis that trial counsel had been ineffective in handling issues related to Taylor's mental health. Taylor was retried in February 2015.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence at Taylor's retrial showed as follows. Taylor had a history of animosity toward Railey, who owned a body shop and towed Taylor's car at the request of law enforcement in 2002. Claiming that the towing was unlawful, Taylor unsuccessfully sued Railey in federal court, unsuccessfully sought arrest warrants against Railey, and confronted Railey outside his shop.

         On the evening of February 13, 2004, Railey and one of his body shop employees observed a mid-sized sedan parked across the street from the shop with its engine running. About the same time, Harris County 911 received a call from a man who identified himself as Zachary B. Taylor, asking that officers be dispatched to Railey's body shop because a felony was in progress. The caller said he would be on the scene in a green Chrysler but declined to explain exactly what was happening. A few minutes later, 911 began receiving calls from multiple individuals reporting that they had seen a car strike a pedestrian at a gas station around the corner from the body shop. Witnesses testified that they saw a car hit Railey, who was thrown over the car before landing on the pavement; the car then drove off. One witness, Keith Hammond, reported to 911 that the car was a dark green Chrysler, with a Harris County tag and a license plate bearing the letters DAWGLB.

         A deputy initiated a traffic stop of a car matching the description given by Hammond. Taylor was driving the car. In Taylor's car, law enforcement found an envelope with Railey's name on it, containing documents regarding Taylor's attempts to obtain an arrest warrant against Railey. Meanwhile, Railey was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a fractured ankle. He was discharged from the hospital within a few days.

         On February 29, 2004, emergency medical services were summoned to Railey's home. He was sitting in a wheelchair with a cast on his right leg. His blood oxygen saturation and blood pressure were low and he reported feeling as though he were about to pass out. Railey went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and was pronounced dead soon after arriving.

         Taylor did not concede at trial that he had struck Railey with his car, but a focus of the trial was whether Railey's death was actually caused by the hit and run. The GBI medical examiner who performed Railey's autopsy concluded that Railey died as a result of a pulmonary thromboembolism that was caused by deep vein thrombosis ("DVT") in his right leg, which in turn was caused by trauma to the leg when he was struck by the car. A defense expert testified that Railey could have been suffering from DVT prior to the incident and that he could not say to a reasonable degree of certainty that the thrombus below his right knee traveled to and embolized in his lung.

         Taylor challenges on appeal the sufficiency of the evidence to support his conviction, arguing in particular that the State did not prove two essential elements of malice murder: (1) that he formed the intent to kill Railey; and (2) that the hit and run proximately caused Railey's death. We disagree on both points.

         When evaluating the sufficiency of evidence, the proper standard of review is whether a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). "This Court does not reweigh evidence or resolve conflicts in testimony; instead, evidence is reviewed in a light most favorable to the verdict, with deference to the jury's assessment of the weight and credibility of the evidence." Hayes v. State, 292 Ga. 506, 506 (739 S.E.2d 313) (2013) (citation omitted). "[I]t is the role of the jury to resolve conflicts in the evidence and to determine the credibility of witnesses, and the resolution of such conflicts adversely to the defendant does not render the evidence insufficient." Graham v. State, 301 Ga. 675, 677 (1) (804 S.E.2d 113) (2017) (citation and punctuation omitted).

         "A person commits the offense of murder when he unlawfully and with malice aforethought, either express or implied, causes the death of another human being." OCGA § 16-5-1 (a). Considering first the issue of intent, "[w]hether a killing is intentional and malicious is for the jury to determine from all the facts and circumstances." Oliver v. State, 276 Ga. 665, 666 (1) (581 S.E.2d 538) (2003).

[T]he crime of malice murder is committed when the evidence shows either an express or, in the alternative, an implied intent to commit an unlawful homicide. The meaning of malice murder is consistent with the general rule that crimes which are defined so as to require that the defendant intentionally cause a forbidden bad result are usually interpreted to cover one who knows that his conduct is substantially certain to cause the result, whether or not he desires the result to occur.

Sheffield v. State, 281 Ga. 33, 35 (2) (635 S.E.2d 776) (2006).

         Here, the State presented evidence from which rational jurors could conclude that Taylor intended to hit Railey with his car. In particular, there was evidence that Taylor bore a grudge against Railey for towing his car, leading Taylor to go so far as to sue Railey, seek arrest warrants against him, and confront him at his shop. See Peterson v. State, 274 Ga. 165, 170-171 (4) (549 S.E.2d 387) (2001) (evidence of prior quarrel between defendant and victim may be admissible to show defendant's intent). There was evidence from which the jury could conclude that Taylor was lying in wait for Railey outside the shop minutes before the hit and run occurred. Witnesses testified that the impact was strong enough to loft Railey several feet into the air, but Taylor drove off without stopping to render aid. This evidence authorized the jury to conclude that Taylor intended to hit Railey. The jury thus also was authorized to conclude that Taylor formed at least an implied intent to kill Railey, as the law assumes that a person intends a result that his action "is substantially certain to cause, " and intentionally hitting a pedestrian with a vehicle in a manner that lofts that person several feet into the air is substantially certain to kill the pedestrian.

         Taylor also argues that the State did not prove the requisite causation, arguing that the record showed there were many different factors in the victim's death apart from the hit and run. Proximate cause is the causation standard for murder cases. See State v. Jackson, 287 Ga. 646, 649 (2) (697 S.E.2d 757) (2010); OCGA ...

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