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Palmer v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 21, 2018

PALMER
v.
THE STATE.

          GRANT, Justice.

         Appellant Qutravius Palmer and his codefendant Zion Wainwright were convicted of murder and other crimes in connection with the December 2013 shooting death of Xavier Arnold. On appeal, Palmer argues that the trial court erred by failing to order an unprompted evaluation of his competency to stand trial and by denying his motion to sever the codefendants' trials. He also asserts that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance. Finding no error, we affirm.[1]

         I.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence at trial showed that on December 26, 2013, Xavier Arnold and his girlfriend Xenia Aimes, both art students, decided to drive to the Kirkwood neighborhood of Atlanta to take pictures of graffiti near a bike path. They picked up their friend Ibrahim Sanusi on the way, and arrived at the site in Kirkwood around 4:45 p.m.

         After the friends parked and began walking down the bike path, they noticed that two young men had begun to follow them, and stepped to the side of the path to let the men pass. Initially, the two men passed by, but when the group of friends tried to turn around and walk back towards their car, they were approached by Palmer's codefendant Zion Wainwright, who was just 14 years old at the time. Wainwright rushed toward the friends and yelled in Arnold's face "What's up? Why are you acting so hard?" while Palmer stood behind him. Arnold replied that the group of friends was leaving and asked for Wainwright to "chill, " but the confrontation continued. Wainwright pulled out a gun and pointed it at Arnold while Palmer grabbed Arnold under the arms, immobilizing him. Arnold fought back, and he and Palmer fell to the ground where the two wrestled as Arnold tried to escape. In the meantime, Wainwright pointed the gun at Aimes and Sanusi and told Sanusi to empty his pockets, which he did. Wainwright then shot Sanusi in the leg and pointed the gun at Arnold. Aimes ran in front of the gun, screaming, while Wainwright repeatedly yelled at her to move. After Wainwright pushed Aimes out of the way, Sanusi heard Palmer instruct Wainwright to "shoot him."[2] Wainwright complied, and shot Arnold in the back of the head as he began to stand up. Palmer then snatched Aimes's phone away from her, and the two men ran off together in the same direction. Neighbors who heard gunshots called 911. One neighbor actually saw the encounter from her porch and described it to police. Following the calls, Arnold was taken to Grady Hospital by ambulance but died shortly after his arrival.

         During their investigation, the police learned that Aimes was unable to get a good look at Palmer because he was wearing a hood throughout the incident, [3] but it appeared to her that the two men were working together as a "unit, " with the older one in charge. A woman who was familiar with both defendants told law enforcement that she saw Palmer and Wainwright together near the bike path running from the direction of the crime scene shortly after the murder. She said that she heard Palmer ask Wainwright if Wainwright shot the victim, and Wainwright reply that he shot the victim because Palmer told him to. [4] She also identified Palmer from a photographic lineup as the person she saw running from the murder scene with Wainwright.

         A few days after the murder, Palmer showed up at his neighbor's apartment in the morning before she left for work, repeatedly banging on the door until she answered. Palmer appeared frantic and asked to use the phone. He did so, and then looked up a news article about the murder online. He confessed to the neighbor that he was running from the police, that he had been walking with Wainwright (whom he referred to as his cousin) on the day of the murder, and that the two of them were involved in the murder.

         Phone records confirmed that Palmer and Wainwright's cell phones were in the area of the murder at the time that it occurred, and that there was a phone call between the two shortly after the murder. Palmer, however, terminated his phone line the next day.

         Although Palmer has not challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions, we have independently examined the record according to our usual practice in murder cases, and we conclude that the evidence admitted at trial was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Palmer was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         II.

         Palmer contends that the trial court erred in going forward with his trial because doubts existed regarding his competency to stand trial. We disagree.

         On July 18, 2014, about ten months prior to trial, Palmer filed a plea of mental incompetency to stand trial and a motion for psychiatric evaluation. Palmer's motion noted that he had been assaulted in jail and had become increasingly withdrawn and unwilling to communicate with counsel, and that he had made statements to counsel regarding his belief that somebody was "switching his spirit." The trial court ordered a mental evaluation, and Palmer was evaluated by a psychologist with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

         The evaluating psychologist was not convinced. She found that Palmer's "description of seeing things and hearing things during this evaluation was not consistent with descriptions or symptoms of a true psychotic disorder, " and that "Palmer exhibited no symptoms of mental illness during this evaluation." The psychologist identified "no symptoms of a psychotic disorder or mental condition that negatively influenced his cognition or ability to relate to me during this evaluation, " and concluded that there was "no reason he should not be able to work with his attorney or meaningfully participate in his defense." The psychologist ultimately advised that Palmer was competent to stand trial because he "was able to demonstrate functional capacity with respect to the legal proceedings[, ] . . . understood the nature and object of the proceedings against him, [and] could discuss his charge and demonstrate an understanding of general courtroom procedure."

         The evaluation was performed and submitted during September of 2014, and the court found Palmer competent to stand trial based on the psychologist's findings. On appeal, however, Palmer argues that the court should have ordered a new competency evaluation, sua sponte, based on his subsequent behavior during trial. Palmer points to several instances when he tried to communicate directly with the trial court or appeared confused about the trial process. But in denying Palmer's motion for new trial on this ground, the court found that in addition to the pre-trial evaluation determining that Palmer was competent to stand trial, "during the trial neither Defendant's behavior nor his demeanor was such to raise a bona ...


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