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Watson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 7, 2018


          NAHMIAS, Justice.

         Appellant Allen Watson was convicted of felony murder and possession of a firearm in connection with the shooting death of Jackise McKie. On appeal, he contends that the trial court erred by allowing the lead detective to testify as a firearms expert and raises two claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. We affirm.[1]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. On the evening of November 9, 2014, Randall Whitfield hosted a party in his garage for people to watch a Falcons game, drink, and gamble. Among the guests were Appellant, McKie, Tyre Howard, and Paul Hogan. They and Whitfield had attended high school together, and Whitfield regularly hosted similar parties during Falcons games. Appellant arrived at the party with a bottle of liquor, a handgun, and a guest, unknown to the regular group and identified only as "Cool," who was also armed with a handgun. Shannon Fort, Howard's girlfriend who was also at the party, was upset about the guns, so Howard asked that everyone put their guns on a table off to the side; Appellant, Cool, and Hogan complied. Fort and Hogan later testified that the mood was tense and there was a bad "vibe" at the party, which they attributed to Cool.[2]

         Cool and McKie gambled for most of the evening. At some point, Appellant and Cool left the party to get more liquor and cash to continue gambling, and they retrieved their guns on their way out. When they returned, Cool and McKie resumed playing dice. They soon began to argue, and McKie accused Cool of cheating. Appellant drunkenly intervened on behalf of Cool. Appellant and McKie stood facing each other, both yelling, "What are you going to do?" as if they were going to fight. Whitfield attempted to ease the tension by standing between Appellant and McKie, trying to calm down McKie, and telling the two men to "chill it out." But Appellant then pulled out his gun, cocked it, swung his arm around Whitfield, and hit McKie in the forehead with the gun. The gun fired, with the bullet entering McKie's skull just above his right eye and exiting the back of his head, killing him. According to Hogan, Appellant said, "Da*n, fu*k, the gun went off, bro. I shot the man, fu*k." Appellant and Cool then fled the garage.

         When the police arrived at the scene, they found a .380-caliber pistol, a .40-caliber live round under a car in the driveway, and a .40-caliber projectile embedded in the wall of the garage. The party guests did not know if the .380-caliber pistol was one of the guns that Appellant and Cool brought to the party, and no other gun was recovered in connection with the shooting. The medical examiner was unable to determine what caliber bullet had struck and killed McKie.

         Whitfield and Hogan both identified Appellant as the shooter in a photo lineup and at trial. No witness indicated that anyone other than Appellant brandished a gun before McKie was shot. The party guests described Cool and the investigation yielded a potential address for him, but he was never further identified or located. Appellant did not testify at trial. His theory of defense was that the State could not prove that Appellant was the shooter, primarily because the investigation was mishandled, including by the failure to pursue and locate Cool. Appellant did not claim that the shooting was accidental.

         Appellant does not challenge the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions. Nevertheless, in accordance with this Court's practice in murder cases, we have reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence presented at trial and as summarized above was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). See also Vega v. State, 285 Ga. 32, 33 (673 S.E.2d 223) (2009) ("'It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence.'" (citation omitted)).

         2. Appellant contends that Detective Courtney Brown, who led the investigation of the shooting, should not have been allowed to testify as an expert about the firearms involved in the case. But the one objection Appellant's trial counsel made was properly overruled, the trial court did not plainly err with regard to the detective's subsequent, unobjected-to testimony about guns, and Appellant's trial counsel was not ineffective in not raising further objections.

         (a) On direct examination at trial, Detective Brown described his experience with and knowledge of firearms as follows:

I've been an officer for almost twenty years. Every year that I have been an officer, you have to qualify sometimes once, sometimes twice a year with firearms. The firearms that I've been trained with mainly have been 9 millimeter, [.]380 caliber, and [.]40 caliber handguns. In this training they teach you the nomenclature of the gun, which is basically the gun itself, the different parts of the gun, how to load the weapon, how to make the weapon safe, proper handling techniques, so on and so forth. And I probably have over, I would say, 300 to 400 hours of training, firearms training.

         The prosecutor then questioned Detective Brown about the difference between .40-caliber and 9-millimeter firearms. The detective explained that in most cases the only apparent difference between those two types of handguns is their barrels, as their frames are mostly the same size so the guns look the same. Appellant's trial counsel objected to this line of questioning on the ground that there was no foundation for Detective Brown to talk about guns. The trial court overruled the objection. Later in the direct examination, the prosecutor asked the detective to discuss trigger pull. Without objection, Detective Brown testified that he thought it takes five to eight pounds of pressure to pull the trigger and fire most semiautomatic handguns, although he has seen a .40-caliber gun modified to require only about three pounds of pressure. On redirect examination, the prosecutor asked Detective Brown whether it was possible for a .380-caliber gun, like the one found at the crime scene, to fire .40-caliber ammunition like that found at the scene. Again without objection, the detective answered that it was not possible.

         (b) Appellant argues that the testimony described above was "beyond the ken of the average layman" and so required Detective Brown to be qualified as an expert in firearms. Smith v. State, 247 Ga. 612, 619 (277 S.E.2d 678) (1981).[3] A witness can be qualified as an expert in a particular field if he demonstrates "special knowledge . . . derived from experience." Billings v. State, 293 Ga. 99, 104-105 (745 S.E.2d 583) (2013) (citation and quotation marks omitted). By overruling Appellant's objection following the question and answer regarding the difference between .40-caliber and 9-millimeter firearms, the trial court implicitly accepted Detective Brown as an expert on that subject. See Bly v. State, 283 Ga. 453, 458 (660 S.E.2d 713) (2008). We review the trial court's ruling only for an abuse of discretion, see Thomas v. State, 290 Ga. 653, 658 (723 S.E.2d 885) (2012), and the court did not abuse its discretion in overruling Appellant's objection. Detective Brown's description of his training over many years with both .40-caliber and 9-millimeter handguns sufficiently qualified him to describe the general difference in appearance between the two guns, which was the answer to which Appellant objected.

         (c) To the extent Appellant now argues that Detective Brown's experience with firearms was insufficient to qualify him to answer the questions he was subsequently asked about trigger pull pressure and the possibility of a .380-caliber gun firing .40-caliber bullets, our review is limited to plain error, because Appellant did not object to these questions at trial. See OCGA § 24-1-103 (a) (1), (d). To establish plain error on these evidentiary rulings, Appellant must show that the error alleged was not affirmatively waived; was obvious and not subject to reasonable dispute; probably affected the outcome of the trial; and seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. See Gates v. State, 298 Ga. 324, 327-328 (781 S.E.2d 772) (2016).

         Pretermitting the other elements of this test, Appellant has not shown that the detective's disputed testimony likely affected the outcome of the trial. Two eyewitnesses who knew Appellant identified him as the shooter; one of them testified that Appellant said "I shot the man" right after shooting the victim; no witness indicated that anyone else brandished a gun before the victim was shot; and Appellant did not claim that the shooting was unintentional. Thus, it is not probable that the jury would have reached a different verdict had it not heard Detective Brown's generalized testimony about trigger pull pressure or been told that a ...

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