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Richardson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

January 22, 2019


          Benham, Justice.

         Appellant Charles Richardson was convicted of murder and associated offenses arising out of the shooting death of Kyle Jennings.[1] Appellant now challenges his convictions on the basis that he received ineffective assistance of counsel; finding no error, we affirm.

         Reviewing the record in a light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence adduced at trial established as follows. In a prior drug transaction, Jennings paid Appellant with a counterfeit $100 bill and received $95 in change; Appellant sought out Jennings and spoke with him about the counterfeit money. Later, Appellant shot Jennings outside a convenience store where Jennings and his friends, Terrell McBride and Cyruss Hearst, had gone to make purchases. Hearst testified that he had exited the store with the victim, saw Appellant approach the victim, heard Appellant repeatedly say, "Let me get that," and watched as Appellant shot Jennings. According to Hearst, Appellant retreated across the street to his car after the shooting. McBride testified that he was inside the store when he heard gunshots, ran outside, made eye contact with a person he knew as "Chuck," and saw him run across the street to a car he recognized as belonging to Chuck; McBride identified Appellant as the person he saw and testified that Appellant had a gun. Appellant was apprehended months later in Chicago.

         1. Though not raised by Appellant as error, in accordance with this Court's standard practice in appeals of murder cases, we have reviewed the record and find that the evidence, as stated above, was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. In his enumerations of error, Appellant asserts that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in three different ways. To succeed on his claims, Appellant bears the heavy burden of showing "both that his counsel performed deficiently and that, but for the deficiency, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of his trial would have been more favorable." Slaton v. State, 303 Ga. 651, 652 (814 S.E.2d 344) (2018). See also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 694 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984).

To prove deficient performance, one must show that his attorney performed at trial in an objectively unreasonable way considering all the circumstances and in the light of prevailing professional norms. Courts reviewing ineffectiveness claims must apply a strong presumption that counsel's conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional performance. Thus, decisions regarding trial tactics and strategy may form the basis for an ineffectiveness claim only if they were so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have followed such a course. If the defendant fails to satisfy either the "deficient performance" or the "prejudice" prong of the Strickland test, this Court is not required to examine the other.

(Citation omitted.) Slaton, 303 Ga. at 652-653. We address each of Appellant's claims in turn.

         (a) Prior to trial, Appellant's mother provided trial counsel with the name and contact information of Renaldo Hollingsworth, whom she identified as a potential exculpatory witness. Likewise, in pre-trial discovery, the State mentioned Hollingsworth as a person who was present at the scene of the crimes. Trial counsel did not call Hollingsworth as a witness, and Appellant claims ineffective assistance of counsel as a result.

         At the hearing on Appellant's motion for new trial, Hollingsworth - a close friend of Appellant - testified that he was across the street from where the shooting occurred. After hearing gunshots, he ducked, and when he immediately looked up again, the person he saw running away from the scene did not fit Appellant's physical description. According to Hollingsworth, he was available to testify at trial, had given Appellant's mother his contact information for the purpose of passing it on to trial counsel, but he never heard from counsel; he acknowledged, however, that despite his apparent enthusiasm to testify and his close relationship with Appellant, he never sought out trial counsel directly. Indeed, trial testimony reflects that Hollingsworth was actively avoiding any involvement in the case and fled from law enforcement who were seeking a witness statement. Trial counsel testified that he recalled learning about Hollingsworth and that, though he had no specific recollection as to whether he spoke with Hollingsworth, he was certain he would have attempted to reach Hollingsworth as part of his standard pre-trial investigation.

         "The motion for new trial court was entitled to believe counsel's testimony on this issue, see Warren v. State, 283 Ga. 42, 44 (6) (656 S.E.2d 803) (2008), and likely did as the court denied [Appellant's] amended motion [for new trial]" with respect to this claim. Thomas v. State, 300 Ga. 433, 439 (796 S.E.2d 242) (2017). At most, Appellant demonstrated that Hollingsworth never actually spoke with trial counsel; however, trial counsel testified that he would have attempted to reach out to Hollingsworth, and it does not follow that trial counsel did not pursue Hollingsworth as a witness simply because Hollingsworth and trial counsel never connected. Cf. Hudson v. State, 284 Ga. 595, 589 (669 S.E.2d 94) (2008) (no deficient performance where trial counsel made good-faith effort to locate witness but was unsuccessful). Accordingly, Appellant has failed to demonstrate deficient performance.

         Moreover, Appellant cannot demonstrate prejudice. While Appellant contends that Hollingsworth's testimony would have been helpful to his defense, trial counsel used Hollingsworth's absence at trial to great advantage, eliciting testimony that Hollingsworth was a person of interest in the shooting and was actively evading law enforcement. Trial counsel also used Hollingsworth's absence to question the quality of the State's investigation-police were unable to locate or question him-and to suggest that Hollingsworth was the actual shooter. Accordingly, the trial court did not err when it denied relief on this claim.

         (b) During closing argument, the State asserted that the testimony of certain witnesses was "the truth." The prosecutor then argued in his final closing that, "My job that I took an oath to do is to seek the truth. That's what the State is doing in this case." According to Appellant, the prosecutor improperly vouched for the credibility of witnesses, attacked the credibility of trial counsel, and attempted to bolster the prosecution's standing with the jury, and, as such, he says that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object.

         "Closing arguments are judged in the context in which they are made." Adams v. State, 283 Ga. 298, 302 (3) (e) (658 S.E.2d 627) (2008). With respect to the prosecutor's first remarks, we conclude that the prosecutor permissibly urged the jurors to conclude the prosecution's witnesses offered credible testimony based on the evidence presented. See Menefee v. State, 301 Ga. 505, 515 (4) (a) (iii) (801 S.E.2d 782) (2017). Here, the prosecutor's references to the truth were made in the context of asking the jury to apply their common sense when, for example, judging the credibility of witnesses. Where a prosecutor's argument was not improper, trial counsel's decision not to object does not amount to deficient performance. See Lamar v. State, 297 Ga. 89, 93 (3) (772 S.E.2d 636) (2015).

         With respect to the prosecutor's second argument - that it was his job to "seek[] the truth" - even assuming that trial counsel was deficient for failing to object, Appellant has failed to demonstrate prejudice. The statement, while troubling, was made in response to the argument from defense counsel that, with respect to his intense cross-examination of witnesses, he "had a job to do" and that he was there "to stand up for [Appellant] and help him." Viewed in the context of dueling attorneys exchanging arguments concerning their role in the judicial process, "the improper remarks of the prosecuting attorney did not undermine the fundamental fairness of the trial," Powell v. State, 291 Ga. 743, 749 (733 S.E.2d 294) (2012), and the jury - which was instructed that the arguments of counsel ...

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