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Norman v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 7, 2018


          Blackwell, Justice.

         Karon Norman was tried by a Liberty County jury and convicted of murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime in connection with the fatal shooting of Keith Williams.[1] Norman raises three claims on appeal. First, he claims that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel when his lawyer entered a stipulation at trial about his 1993 juvenile adjudication for murder. Second, Norman contends that the trial court gave erroneous limiting instructions to the jury concerning the evidence of the 1993 murder. Finally, he asserts that his due process rights were violated by the 17-year delay in his post-conviction proceedings. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.

         1. On October 14, 1997, police officers responded to reports of a shooting at the Lakeside mobile home park in Liberty County. There, they found a man later identified as Williams lying on the ground with a bullet wound to the back of the head. After an investigation, Norman and three other high-school age boys - Michael Napper, Terrance Nesbitt, and Lewis Johnson - were charged in connection with Williams's death. Norman was tried alone, however, and the other three codefendants, being the only eyewitnesses to the murder, testified against him. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, their testimony shows the following.

         On the day in question, after school, Norman and Napper bought some shoes and went to Nesbitt's home in Lakeside. There, Norman took a "black gun" from his waist and passed it around for Napper and Nesbitt to see. All three then headed over to the mobile home park laundromat, where they met up with Johnson. Some time later, as it was getting dark, a red Camaro pulled up near the laundromat, with Williams in the passenger seat. Norman, Nesbitt, and Johnson approached Williams and talked to him about buying drugs. Williams showed them a plastic bag with powder cocaine and two blue baggies of crack cocaine. No purchase was made at the time, however, so Williams got back in the car and drove off.

         Norman, Napper, Nesbitt, and Johnson then walked back toward Nesbitt's home. They stopped when they saw the red Camaro parked near one of the mobile homes. Williams came out of the mobile home and continued the conversation with Norman about buying drugs. Apparently, Williams wanted a higher price than Norman was willing to pay. As negotiations began to break down, Norman pulled out a gun and shot Williams in the back of the head. After the shooting, Norman and the others ran to Napper's home, where Norman divided the drugs among the four of them. Norman and Johnson then left by taxi. During a subsequent search of Norman's residence, the police found a blue baggie with crack cocaine in his room. The gun was never recovered.

         Norman testified in his own defense and laid the blame for the killing on Johnson. According to Norman, when he and the others were at the laundromat, he (Norman) bought some drugs from the driver of the red Camaro. Later, when Norman and the others came to Williams's mobile home, it was Johnson who again started negotiating with Williams for a sale of drugs. Williams handed some drugs to Johnson and told him to hurry up and make a decision. A few minutes later, Norman testified, Williams turned to walk toward his car, and "that's when we heard the gunshot." Norman asserted that Johnson, not him, held the gun at the time the shot was fired. And when the group came to Napper's house after the shooting, it was Johnson who divided up the drugs. Norman could not say what happened to the gun - he testified that he never possessed it.

         Norman does not dispute that the evidence is sufficient to sustain his convictions. But consistent with our usual practice in murder cases, we independently have reviewed the record to assess the legal sufficiency of the evidence. We conclude that the evidence presented at trial, when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Norman was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Norman argues that his trial lawyer rendered ineffective assistance when he entered into a stipulation about a 1993 murder for which Norman had been adjudicated delinquent as a juvenile. Before trial, the State filed a motion to present evidence of a "similar transaction, " namely, that Norman "committed the offense of murder in that he . . . did shoot and kill Jerome King with a pistol" in Savannah in 1993, and that Norman "was treated as a juvenile offender . . . and was placed on probation/supervision by the juvenile court." The trial court held a hearing on the State's motion, during which the prosecution produced a copy of the juvenile court felony adjudication and also introduced the testimony of a detective who had investigated the 1993 shooting. This evidence showed that, on October 26, 1993, Norman was watching a neighborhood stickball game when two young men approached him from different directions, holding their hands in their pockets. One of the men told Norman not to run, at which point Norman shot him in the chest, killing him. According to the juvenile court order, there was "evidence that drug dealing between the two boys was involved in their dispute" and that "there were other incidents of violence involving the two." Norman's counsel opposed the admission of this evidence, arguing that it was substantially more prejudicial than probative and not sufficiently similar to the killing of Williams to be admissible.

         After the hearing, the trial court reserved its ruling pending the resolution of other issues. Shortly before trial, the trial court granted the State's motion, ruling that the 1993 murder evidence was admissible "to show intent, course of conduct and state of mind and motive of the defendant, " and that the court would "give an instruction to the jury concerning the limited purpose to which the evidence is offered." That same day, the prosecution filed a list of more than ten witnesses from Savannah who would testify about the 1993 shooting.

         At trial, toward the end of the State's case-in-chief, the prosecuting attorney informed the court that he had talked to Norman's lawyer about stipulating to "the testimony of the juveniles who observed the [1993] shooting . . . for the purpose of us not producing these witnesses, " and that Norman's attorney was "willing to stipulate as to what the witnesses would testify to as to how the shooting occurred." Norman's lawyer agreed. The trial court then charged the jury on the limited purposes for which they could consider the 1993 murder evidence, and the prosecutor announced the following stipulation to the jury:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what we have is a stipulation as to what some witnesses will testify to if they were here before you. The stipulation is . . . on this particular incident that there were a lot of kids gathered around watching a stickball game. Among those who would testify would be [naming six witnesses].
Those boys would testify that they were there at the stickball game and they observed the victim, Jerome Steve King, and his running buddy, Antonio Smalls, approach [Norman] from opposite sides of the street, that as they approached the defendant they had their hands sort of under their arm like this and that certain people assumed that those two gentlemen were armed. And as they approached [Norman] and got within about six to eight feet, that [Norman] pulled out a gun and shot [King] in the chest and he died of his injury. That's what our stipulation is. In lieu of putting up the evidence itself, [Norman] and his attorney are agreeing that that's what the testimony would be.

         The State further called a detective to testify about his investigation of the 1993 murder. Among other things, the detective read to the jury a transcript of the interview he conducted with Norman at the time, in which Norman essentially confessed to the shooting.

         On appeal, Norman contends that his trial lawyer rendered ineffective assistance when he "stipulated to the admissibility" of the 1993 murder evidence.[2] Norman asserts that the 1993 murder evidence was crucial to the State's theory of the case (that Norman, not Johnson, shot Williams), and he points out that the prosecution heavily emphasized the 1993 murder in its closing argument. But the record, as described above, shows that trial counsel never stipulated to the admissibility of this evidence; in fact, trial counsel opposed the State's motion to admit this evidence, and the trial court ruled against the defense on this issue. What trial counsel did was stipulate to the substance of the eyewitness testimony surrounding the 1993 murder - testimony that the State planned to introduce through several juvenile witnesses. And the essential facts revealed in that testimony were introduced anyway through the testimony of the investigating detective. So the only thing that counsel's stipulation accomplished was to have fewer witnesses describe the 1993 shooting to the jury. Evidence of this shooting would have come in regardless of the stipulation, given the trial court's ruling that it was admissible, and given the State's readiness to present this evidence. In ...

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