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Mitchell v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

June 18, 2018

MITCHELL
v.
THE STATE.

          Boggs, Justice.

         In October of 2012, a jury found Charles Mitchell guilty of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault, arson, concealing the death of another, making a false statement, and possession of a firearm in commission of a felony in connection with the murder of Gboye Jalloh.[1] Mitchell was sentenced to two life terms plus five years. His amended motion for new trial was denied, and Mitchell appeals, asserting as his sole enumeration of error remarks made by the trial court during preliminary instructions to the jury venire. For the reasons stated below, we affirm.

         Construed to support the verdict, the evidence showed that Mitchell was involved in a dispute with the victim over money. On April 1, 2010, Mitchell was at his house with two friends, coindictees Reggie May and Victor Holmes, [2]when he sent a text message to the victim, ostensibly inviting him to meet some "college girls, " and told him to "come by yourself." When the victim arrived, Holmes left in his vehicle. Mitchell and May got into the victim's rental car, and the victim said that he wanted to smoke before going to meet the girls. Mitchell knew of an unfinished subdivision nearby, so they drove into the entrance and parked. As they sat in the parked car, Mitchell produced a pistol, said, "April fools, April fools, " and pulled the trigger, but the gun did not fire. Mitchell and the victim struggled over the gun until Mitchell shot and wounded the victim, then pulled him into the passenger seat. May asked Mitchell what was going on, and he responded, "We trying to get this check, man." At this point, Holmes reappeared, driving his car, and followed Mitchell as he drove the victim's car to a nearby park. After demanding, "Where the cards at?" Mitchell rifled the moaning and cursing victim's wallet for gift cards and obtained from him the identification code for the cards. Mitchell and Holmes had a discussion which May could not hear; they then dumped the victim into the trunk of his car, and Mitchell shot him twice in the head. The three men left in Holmes' car, but Mitchell suddenly exclaimed that he had touched the trunk of the victim's car. They drove to a gas station where Mitchell put some gas in a cup. Mitchell and Holmes dropped May off at his house, and told him to "say nothing, they don't want to have to do nothing to [May's] mom or [his] family." Mitchell and Holmes then returned to the scene, where Mitchell set the car on fire by throwing a gasoline-soaked rag in the trunk. Firefighters responding to a report of a fire discovered the victim's body in the car trunk, burned beyond recognition. The medical examiner testified that he could determine, despite the extensive destruction of the body, that the cause of death was two gunshot wounds to the head. Police interviewed Mitchell and he denied having seen the victim recently; after further investigation police confronted Mitchell, who changed his story and stated that he shot the victim in self-defense and that Holmes helped him burn the body.

         1. Although Mitchell has not raised the sufficiency of the evidence in his appeal, we note that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's guilty verdicts under Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. In his sole enumeration of error, Mitchell contends the trial judge erred in her statements made during the court's preliminary questioning of the venire pursuant to OCGA § 15-12-164:

Have any of you, for any reason, formed or expressed any opinion in regard to the guilt or innocence of the accused, Charles Mitchell? If so, please raise your hand.
Have any of you any prejudice or bias resting on your mind, either for or against the accused, Charles Mitchell?
Is your mind perfectly impartial between the State, that is the district attorney, and the accused, Mr. Charles Mitchell? So everybody's hand should have gone up. Let me ask that question again. Is your mind perfectly impartial, that is, you have not prejudged the case, you have not formed an opinion, between the State and the accused?
Is everyone's hand up? All right.

         At the hearing on Mitchell's amended motion for new trial, the trial judge explained that the court first asked if the jurors had any bias or prejudice, and no one raised a hand, but when asked if they were impartial, again no one raised a hand. Faced with this contradiction, the trial judge concluded that the jurors were confused by the question and did not understand the meaning of impartial, that the statement complained of was a comment on the fact that the responses to the second and third question were contradictory, and that once the question was rephrased, the jurors responded by raising their hands. The trial court therefore denied the motion for new trial on this ground.

         (a) Mitchell contends that the trial court's comments violated OCGA § 17-8-57. At the time of Mitchell's trial in 2012, that Code section provided in its entirety:

It is error for any judge in any criminal case, during its progress or in his charge to the jury, to express or intimate his opinion as to what has or has not been proved or as to the guilt of the accused. Should any judge violate this Code section, the violation shall be held by the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals to be error and the decision in the case reversed, and a new trial granted in the court below with such directions as the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals may lawfully give.

(Emphasis supplied.) This Code section was amended by Ga. L. 2015, p. 1050, § 1, which slightly revised the first sentence of the former Code section. That sentence now provides:

It is error for any judge, during any phase of any criminal case, to express or intimate to the jury the judge's opinion as to whether a fact at issue has or has not been ...

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