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Jackson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

December 10, 2018



         Zjuantavious Marquis Jackson appeals his convictions for malice murder and other charges related to the shooting death of Detavious Milner at an April 2015 house party in Floyd County.[1] He argues that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective when he argued against bifurcating a charge that Appellant possessed a firearm as a convicted felon. Appellant also argues that his post-trial discovery of material evidence requires that he be granted a new trial. Appellant has not overcome the presumption that trial counsel's decision to withdraw Appellant's request for bifurcation was part of an objectively reasonable trial strategy, and Appellant has not satisfied the standard for obtaining a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. We affirm.

         The evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict shows that Appellant, Joseph Jackson, and Javarick McCain met on the evening of April 7, 2015, and Appellant told the others that Quatevious Johnson owed him money. Appellant gave Joseph Jackson a gun and said they were going to go get his money. McCain dropped off Appellant and Joseph Jackson near Johnson's house. Appellant and Joseph Jackson went into the house and approached a crowd gathered in a bedroom. Pointing the gun at the room, Joseph Jackson demanded money. When no one complied, Appellant told Joseph Jackson to shoot. Joseph Jackson didn't shoot, and so Appellant took the gun and started shooting, fatally wounding Milner. Three other victims, including Johnson, were shot but survived. Appellant chased Johnson, convinced him to give up money stashed in his sock, and tried to shoot him again, but the gun did not fire. McCain then picked up Appellant and Joseph Jackson and drove off.

         Although Joseph Jackson (also indicted for murder) testified that Appellant fired the gun, other prosecution witnesses implicated Joseph Jackson as the shooter. McCain (also indicted) testified that Joseph Jackson acknowledged shooting someone. Johnson identified Joseph Jackson as the shooter, thought he recognized the voice of one of the robbers as Appellant's, and picked Appellant out of a photo array. Two other witnesses who survived being shot did not positively identify the shooter at trial but indicated in their testimony that the person who had the gun initially was the same one who fired it.

         Tremaine Smith, an inmate incarcerated with Appellant, testified that Appellant admitted he went to Johnson's house the night of the shooting but claimed Joseph Jackson was the shooter; Smith acknowledged having previously told police that Appellant admitted to being the shooter. The jury also heard evidence that Appellant offered money to people in exchange for implicating Joseph Jackson.[2]

         The defense presented the testimony of Calvin Adams, who claimed that he saw Joseph Jackson (carrying a gun) and McCain, but not Appellant, walking up the street by Johnson's house on the night of the shooting.

         1.Although Appellant does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, we have independently reviewed the record and conclude that the trial evidence was legally sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty 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).

         2.Appellant argues that he was denied the assistance of constitutionally effective counsel when his lawyer argued against bifurcation of the felon in possession of a firearm charge. We disagree.

         Appellant was indicted for malice murder, felony murder (predicated on armed robbery, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, and burglary), armed robbery, burglary, five counts of aggravated assault, four counts of aggravated battery, two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, participation in criminal street gang activity, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Appellant filed a pre-trial motion to bifurcate the trial such that the felon in possession count would not be tried until after the jury returned a verdict on the "homicide phase"; he also asked the trial court to accept a stipulation of his status as a convicted felon and preclude the State from referring to his past convictions or the felon in possession charge during the first phase of trial. At a pre-trial hearing, however, Appellant withdrew the request to bifurcate, although he continued to insist that he be allowed to stipulate to his status as a felon. Both the trial court and the State indicated a preference for a bifurcated trial, but the trial court ultimately agreed to try all counts together. The jury was told that the parties stipulated that Appellant previously had been convicted of a felony.

         Asked at a hearing on Appellant's motion for new trial about the withdrawal of Appellant's request for bifurcation, trial counsel acknowledged that he did not want the jury to hear about the prior felony and that the Court would have bifurcated the trial had he insisted on it. But trial counsel testified that he had concluded that bifurcation was not required and that trying all counts together was the best strategy. Trial counsel indicated that he viewed the State's case as flawed, recalling that two surviving victims identified the shooter as Joseph Jackson, who was the only person who named Appellant as the shooter. "I thought if we were going to win it, we were going to win it on - on the first time," trial counsel testified. "Beyond that, we were talking about having to win two murder trials."

         To prevail on his ineffectiveness claim, Appellant "must show that trial counsel's performance fell below a reasonable standard of conduct and that there existed a reasonable probability that the outcome of the case would have been different had it not been for counsel's deficient performance." Scott v. State, 290 Ga. 883, 889 (7) (725 S.E.2d 305) (2012) (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984)). Where a convicted defendant fails to meet his burden of establishing one prong of the Strickland test, we need not review the other, as a failure to meet either of the prongs is fatal to an ineffectiveness claim. See Lawrence v. State, 286 Ga. 533, 533-534 (2) (690 S.E.2d 801) (2010). A party seeking to prove deficient performance "must show that his trial counsel acted or failed to act in an objectively unreasonable way, considering all of the circumstances and in light of prevailing professional norms." Muckle v. State, 302 Ga. 675, 680 (2) (808 S.E.2d 713) (2017) (citation omitted). "There is a strong presumption that trial counsel's conduct falls within the range of sound trial strategy and reasonable professional judgment." Newkirk v. State, 290 Ga. 581, 582 (2) (722 S.E.2d 760) (2012). "We accept the trial court's factual findings and credibility determinations unless clearly erroneous, but we independently apply the legal principles to the facts." Robinson v. State, 277 Ga. 75, 76 (586 S.E.2d 313) (2003) (citation and punctuation omitted).

         Pretermitting whether bifurcation were even available, see Jones v. State, 265 Ga. 138, 139-141 (2) (454 S.E.2d 482) (1995), we cannot say that Appellant has overcome the strong presumption that trial counsel's decision to withdraw the request for bifurcation was within the range of sound trial strategy and reasonable professional judgment. We reach this conclusion in the light of trial counsel's stated reasons for trying all counts together - that he assessed the State's evidence as weak, and he did not want to give the prosecution multiple opportunities to persuade the jury to convict Appellant of something. See Harris v. State, 234 Ga.App. 126, 129 (3) (505 S.E.2d 49) (1998) (no ineffectiveness in failing to move for bifurcation of felon in possession count where strategy was to seek acquittal on aggravated assault count; "[t]rial counsel's decision not to move for a bifurcated trial was not the result of inadequate preparation but the result of his choice of trial tactics" based on conversations with client).

         3. Appellant also argues that the trial court erred in denying him a new trial based on his claim of newly discovered evidence. Again, we disagree.

         Appellant claims that he is entitled to a new trial due to the discovery of a new witness, Brandon McGlotha. McGlotha testified at a hearing on the motion for new trial that on the night of the shooting, Joseph Jackson and McCain approached him in front of Johnson's house, asking for a cigarette. He testified that he then saw Joseph Jackson and McCain enter the house, heard gunshots about five minutes later, then saw two men wearing the same clothes that Joseph Jackson and McCain had been wearing "running after" Johnson. McGlotha testified that he did not see Appellant at Johnson's house that night. Appellant testified at the hearing that, although he had known McGlotha for more than a decade, he did not realize McGlotha had been at the scene of ...

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