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Slaton v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 7, 2018

SLATON
v.
THE STATE.

          HINES, Chief Justice.

         Appellant William Slaton, Matthew Pike ("Pike"), and Daniel Slaton ("Daniel"), appellant's brother, were jointly indicted for malice murder and other crimes in connection with the death of Justin Klaffka.[1] Daniel pled guilty to several crimes and testified for the State at appellant's trial. Appellant was tried along with Pike, and both were convicted of malice murder. We have already affirmed Pike's conviction. See Pike v. State, 302 Ga. 795 (809 S.E.2d 756) (2018). Following the denial of appellant's motion for new trial, as amended, he appeals, contending, among other things, that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in numerous respects. We disagree and affirm.

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence, which is set forth in detail in Pike, 302 Ga. at 795-796, authorized a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant and Pike killed Klaffka on April 10, 2012, because they became worried that he would tell the police that the two of them, along with Klaffka, had committed an armed robbery on April 8, 2012, at the mobile-home residence of Garrett Fluellen ("Fluellen"). Accordingly, the evidence is sufficient to support the verdict. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2.Appellant contends that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to explain to him both that the plea offer the State had made to him included the possibility of parole and that, if he rejected that offer and was convicted after a trial, he faced a mandatory sentence of life without parole due to his prior record.

         To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance, appellant must show both that his counsel performed deficiently and that, but for the deficiency, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of his trial would have been more favorable. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 694 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984). "While the test imposed by Strickland is not impossible to meet, the burden is a heavy one." Wiggins v. State, 295 Ga. 684, 686 (2) (763 S.E.2d 484) (2014).

To prove deficient performance, one must show that his attorney performed at trial in an objectively unreasonable way considering all the circumstances and in the light of prevailing professional norms. Courts reviewing ineffectiveness claims must apply a strong presumption that counsel's conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional performance. Thus, decisions regarding trial tactics and strategy may form the basis for an ineffectiveness claim only if they were so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have followed such a course. If the defendant fails to satisfy either the "deficient performance" or the "prejudice" prong of the Strickland test, this Court is not required to examine the other.

Capps v. State, 300 Ga. 6, 8 (2) (792 S.E.2d 665) (2016) (citation omitted).

         Here, at the motion for new trial hearing, appellant's trial counsel both testified that, before appellant rejected the State's plea offer, they explained to him both that the State's plea offer included the possibility of parole and that, if he was convicted after a trial, he faced a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Moreover, the record shows that at a pre-trial motions hearing, the trial court more than adequately explained these issues to appellant, and his lead counsel told the trial court, "for the record, I have explained all that to him already." In its order denying the motion for new trial, the trial court found that appellant's trial counsel had adequately informed appellant of these matters. Based on the record, we cannot say that the trial court's factual finding was clearly erroneous. See Jenkins v. State, Ga. (S.E.2d) (Case No. S17A1743, decided Mar. 15, 2018) (2018 WL 1323679, at *4) (in reviewing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, "'[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)). Appellant therefore has failed to show that his trial counsel performed deficiently.

         3. Appellant contends that his trial counsel were ineffective in failing to move to sever appellant's trial from that of Pike and that the trial court also erred in failing to sever the co-defendants' trials.

         (a) Contrary to appellant's contention, his trial counsel did move to sever appellant's trial from that of Pike on the ground that the co-defendants were raising antagonistic defenses. Therefore, appellant's claim that his trial counsel performed deficiently by failing to assert this ground for a severance fails.

         We also conclude that the trial court did not err in denying that motion based on the ground of antagonistic defenses. Pike raised this same issue in his appeal, and we resolved it against him. See Pike, 302 Ga. 798-799 (2). There, we explained that "'[a] defendant cannot rely upon antagonism between co-defendants to show prejudice and the consequent denial of due process; a defendant must show that the failure to sever harmed him.'" Id. at 798 (2) (citation omitted). Here, "the State's case . . . was substantially the same for Pike and Slaton, " id. at 799 (2), and the record shows that appellant was able to present his alibi defense to the jury, while blaming the murder on Pike and Daniel. Therefore, as we did in Pike's case, we conclude in appellant's case that

[t]here is nothing to suggest that the outcome of [appellant's] trial would have been different had he been tried separately from [Pike]. Simply, [appellant] has failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by the joint trial so that he was denied due process; consequently, there is no showing that the trial court abused its discretion in denying severance.

Id.

         (b) Appellant also claims that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to move for a severance on the ground that there was evidence that was admissible against Pike but not against appellant. Appellant points to testimony that he elicited from David Pike, Pike's brother, on cross-examination that Pike was a "beast" and a "tough guy." Trial counsel did not move for a severance on this ground, but we conclude that this ineffective assistance claim is without merit. Whether to raise this ground in the motion to sever was a matter of trial strategy, see Powell v. State, 297 Ga. 352, 356 (5) (b) (773 S.E.2d 762) (2015), and because the testimony in question generally supported appellant's defense that Pike committed the murder, we conclude that the ...


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