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Mizell v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

December 10, 2018


          BOGGS, JUSTICE.

         In July of 2014, a jury found Willie Mizell guilty of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, and concealing the death of another in connection with the death of Cassandra Bryant.[1] Mizell was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 10 years. His amended motion for new trial was denied, and he appeals, asserting as his sole enumeration that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress. For the reasons stated below, we affirm.

         The evidence at trial, viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, showed that in October 2003, Mizell was renovating units in the Essex Courts Apartments. He lived on the premises, in the rear of Building F. The only other occupant of Building F was the complex's maintenance supervisor, who lived in the front of the building. The supervisor testified that, on October 7, 2003, Mizell worked on a paid job for him off-site. During the work, Mizell told him that he had met a girl, and she was coming over to his house that night. That evening, the supervisor was awakened by a loud noise. About 30 minutes later, someone knocked on his front door, and then on his bedroom window. He got up, pulled the blinds open, and saw Mizell, who was sweating and appeared agitated. Mizell asked for money, but the supervisor replied that he had already paid him, and Mizell left.

         On the same evening, the victim told her good friend and roommate that she intended to visit a man named "Willie" at the Essex Courts Apartments. She never returned, but the next morning an apartment resident called the police to report that she had found a body. It was lying in and partially concealed by a patch of kudzu next to a dumpster behind Building F. Police responded and found a small, partially nude female barely alive and so severely beaten that emergency personnel could not intubate her due to damage to her face and jaw. She died shortly afterwards at Grady Hospital. The medical examiner noted a total of 48 blunt force trauma injuries to the victim's face, head, neck, torso, and extremities, and the cause of death was bleeding around the brain due to blunt force injury of the head and neck. She was also strangled or struck in the neck with sufficient force to fracture her thyroid cartilage. Abrasions on her pelvic area were consistent with being dragged across a hard surface, such as pavement, while unconscious.

         As part of their investigation, police checked dumpsters around the crime scene. In a dumpster on the opposite side of the apartment complex from Building F, they found an orange towel. Wrapped inside of it were a red washcloth, a blue washcloth, six Doral cigarette butts, a marijuana cigarette butt, two white tennis shoes - one of which appeared bloodstained - and part of a broken denture. Another detective noticed that Mizell was watching the search and asked Mizell whether he knew the victim or had seen anything unusual. Mizell responded that he had not seen anything unusual or out of the ordinary that night and had no information to give them, other than that he had seen a strange car next to the dumpster the night before. Later the same day, another detective received a call from a resident to return to the scene and meet with Mizell, who said he had some information he wanted to give police. Mizell told the detective that he thought he had handled some possible evidence and had concerns that his fingerprints were on it. He led the detective to the same dumpster where the towel was found and retrieved a plastic bag containing some items of women's clothing, a blue slipper, and a sheet, which appeared to be stained with blood.

         When the detective took Mizell to the police station for further questioning, Mizell claimed to have been with his girlfriend for the entire night.[2]After the detective asked Mizell if there was "any reason we should find your fingerprints on the dead lady's body," and eliciting the response, "You shouldn't find mine," the detective staged a radio call ostensibly from the medical examiner, reporting that the examiner had found fingerprints on the victim's skin. The detective testified that Mizell was "visibly shaken" and "just froze."

         Initially, Mizell gave the police permission to search his apartment, but, as they approached his apartment for the search, he became "somewhat belligerent," refused to sign a consent form, and told officers to get a search warrant. The police obtained a warrant the same day, and, in the search of the apartment, discovered a broken portion of a denture, a blue slipper that was the same size and opposite foot of the blue slipper from the dumpster, Doral cigarette butts, and bloodstains on the walls and bed linens. Execution of a second search warrant a few days later recovered pieces of carpet, which reacted to luminol - indicating the presence of blood - and appeared to have been scrubbed. The two fragments of denture "fit like a piece of a puzzle" and, when reassembled, fit "perfectly" into the mouth of the victim, who had missing teeth that corresponded to the denture as well as a deformity of her palate that required an unusual plate design. The blood on the carpet sample was determined to be the victim's, and the cigarette butts contained both the victim's and Mizell's DNA.

         Following his arrest, Mizell waived his Miranda rights and was interviewed by police; the video recording of the interview was played for the jury. Mizell's account of the incident changed significantly. He admitted that the victim was in his apartment, and, while he had first stated that he never touched her, he then said that he helped her stand up. While he had first declared that the victim left his apartment naked, when confronted with the evidence of blood on the sheet, he stated that he wrapped the sheet around her. He then claimed that a man called "Jazmo" was staying at his apartment and had been there in his absence, but a police canvas of the neighborhood with his photograph turned up no one who recognized the man or had seen him in the complex. When police located "Jazmo," he willingly gave a DNA sample and allowed police to take photographs, and his two roommates confirmed that he was at their apartment that night.

         1.Although Mizell has not raised the sufficiency of the evidence in his appeal, we hold that the evidence was sufficient to support Mizell's convictions 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, Mizell asserts that the trial court erred in its order of October 14, 2004, denying his motion to suppress the evidence found during the search of his apartment. He contends that the evidence was insufficient to show that he was involved in the crime, and that no "nexus" existed between the crime and his apartment. He cites no law for this contention, citing only case law on preservation of error and the standard of review and a general statement that the home is "the first among equals" under the Fourth Amendment. Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6 (II) (A) (133 S.Ct. 1409, 185 L.Ed.2d 495) (2013).[3]

         OCGA § 17-5-21 (a) provides that a search warrant may be issued only upon an affidavit "which states facts sufficient to show probable cause that a crime is being committed or has been committed." This Court summarized the applicable standards in State v. Palmer, 285 Ga. 75, 77-78 (673 S.E.2d 237) (2009):

The magistrate's task in determining if probable cause exists to issue a search warrant is simply to make a practical, common-sense decision whether, given all the circumstances set forth in the affidavit before him, including the veracity and basis of knowledge of persons supplying hearsay information, there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.
The trial court may then examine the issue as a first level of review, guided by the Fourth Amendment's strong preference for searches conducted pursuant to a warrant, and the principle that substantial deference must be accorded a magistrate's decision to issue a search warrant based on a finding of probable cause.
Our appellate courts will review the search warrant to determine the existence of probable cause using the totality of the circumstances analysis set forth in Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (103 SC[t] 2317, 76 L.Ed.2d 527) (1983). The duty of the appellate courts is to determine if the magistrate had a substantial basis for concluding that probable cause existed to issue the search warrant. The Fourth Amendment requires no more. In reviewing the trial court's grant or denial of a motion to suppress, we apply the well-established principles that the trial court's findings as to disputed facts will be upheld unless clearly erroneous and the trial court's application of the law to undisputed facts is subject to de ...

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