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Young v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 4, 2019


          Blackwell, Justice.

         Preston Young was tried by a Henry County jury and convicted of murder and aggravated assault in connection with the death of his estranged wife, Sharon Sylvester.[1] Young contends that the evidence is legally insufficient to sustain his convictions, that he was denied effective assistance of counsel, and that the trial court erred in several ways, including in its evidentiary rulings and its jury charge. Upon our review of the record and briefs, we find no merit in these claims of error, and so, we affirm Young's conviction for murder. We do note, however, that the aggravated assault should have merged with the murder, and we vacate the conviction and sentence for aggravated assault.

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence at trial shows the following. Young and Sylvester met in 2009 and married in February 2010. The couple separated about a year later, and Young filed for divorce in April 2011, seeking $50, 000 in alimony. Sylvester counterclaimed, opposing any alimony and citing Young's adultery. On August 5, 2011, the couple had an unsuccessful divorce mediation.

         Less than a week later, on the afternoon of August 11, 2011, Henry County Police officers responded to a request for a child welfare check at Sylvester's home after Sylvester's three-year-old granddaughter activated the OnStar device in a vehicle parked in the garage. Officers knocked on the doors and had dispatch call the home but were unable to reach anyone. After the officers entered the home through an unlocked door, they found Sylvester's body in the bathroom. Sylvester was cold to the touch, showed no signs of life, and had no visible injuries other than a little blood running from her nose. The officers found signs of forced entry at the backdoor, but the only items missing from the home were Sylvester's wedding ring and a photograph of Young. Additionally, officers found an empty tube of antibiotic ointment that had been cut in half.

         According to the medical examiner, Sylvester died from manual strangulation, as indicated by cartilage damage around her neck and the presence of extensive petechiae under her eyelids. In addition, the examiner found hemorrhages under her scalp, neck, back, arms, and legs. The hemorrhages occurred near the time of death and were evidence of blunt force trauma.

         Around 9:30 on the evening of August 11, investigators contacted Young. They told him there was an emergency with his wife, and they needed to speak with him. Young initially agreed to meet at the police station that evening, but he then told investigators instead that he would speak with them at his home the next day. Officers were unable to locate Young at his home that evening and determined that he had fled. During their investigation, officers discovered that Young was dating two other women. One girlfriend told investigators that Young had stayed at her house on the night of August 9 and returned to her house briefly on the night of August 11. She testified that she saw no injuries on Young on August 9 but did see a scratch on his neck on August 11.

         Police used Young's credit card transactions and emails to trace his whereabouts. On August 12, Young purchased antibiotic ointment from a Walmart in Dalton, Georgia. On August 15, Young sent emails from Orlando, Florida, and a few days later from DeKalb County, Georgia. On August 31, Young was located and arrested in Chamblee, Georgia. Young informed the arresting officers that he had been camping in the woods nearby. Upon his arrest, the officers documented scratches on Young's neck, shoulders, and forearms.

         Young contends that the evidence is legally insufficient to sustain his convictions because there were no eyewitnesses to the killing and there was no DNA evidence linking him to the murder. This contention is without merit. Among other things, the State presented evidence that Young and Sylvester were in the midst of a contentious divorce, and days prior to her death, the two participated in an unsuccessful mediation. The only items missing from the home were Sylvester's wedding ring and a picture of Young. More significantly, after being contacted by the police, Young fled the area and remained in hiding until he was arrested by police. See McClain v. State, 303 Ga. 6, 9 (1) (810 S.E.2d 77) (2018) (evidence of flight may be "considered as an act reflecting consciousness of guilt"). In addition, an empty tube of antibiotic ointment was found at the crime scene, Young purchased antibiotic ointment on the day after the killing, he was observed to have no injuries prior to the killing, and he had visible scratches afterwards. Despite Young's contention, the State had no obligation to present DNA evidence to prove his guilt. "Although the state is required to prove its case with competent evidence, there is no requirement that it prove its case with any particular sort of evidence." Plez v. State, 300 Ga. 505, 506 (1) (796 SEd2 704) (2017) (citation omitted). Taken as a whole, the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Young was guilty of murder and aggravated assault. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B), (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Although Young raises no claim of merger error, we note that the trial court erred when it failed to merge the aggravated assault with the murder. The aggravated assault (as charged in the indictment) was based on Young beating Sylvester with his hands, and the murder was based on his strangling her. Merger generally is required when there is no deliberate interval between the non-fatal injuries that form the basis for aggravated assault and the fatal injury that forms the basis for the murder. See Alvelo v. State, 290 Ga. 609, 611-612 (2) (724 S.E.2d 377) (2012). In this case, there was no evidence of a deliberate interval between the beating and the strangling. Accordingly, the conviction and sentence for aggravated assault must be vacated.

         3. Young contends that the trial court abused its discretion when it allowed into evidence numerous photographs taken shortly after Young's arrest (and approximately 19 days after Sylvester's death), which depicted scratches on Young's neck, shoulders, and arms. Young argues that the State offered no evidence specifically linking the scratches to Sylvester's death, and for that reason, the evidence was irrelevant. We disagree.

         "As a general rule, the admission of evidence lies within the sound discretion of the trial court. See Plez v. State, 300 Ga. at 507-508 (3). In this case, despite the 19-day delay between Sylvester's death and Young's arrest, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it concluded the photographs were relevant. The State presented evidence that if attacked, Sylvester likely would have fought back, specifically by scratching her attacker. The State showed that an empty tube of antibiotic ointment was found at the murder scene, which implied that the attacker may have been injured, and Young purchased antibiotic ointment from a Walmart the day after Sylvester's death. Young's girlfriend testified that she noticed a scratch on Young's neck on August 11 that she had not seen on August 9. We cannot say as a matter of law that the 19-day interval makes evidence of scratches irrelevant; it is not certain that scratches inflicted at the time of Sylvester's death would have completely healed in less than three weeks. And, the lack of DNA evidence tying the scratches to Sylvester goes only to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility. See Chapel v. State, 270 Ga. 151, 154 (3) (B) (510 S.E.2d 802) (1998).

         4. Young also argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it told the jurors during deliberations that they could vote their "conscience." After the jury had reached an impasse on the second day of deliberations, the judge polled the jury and concluded that further deliberations might allow the jury to reach a unanimous verdict. However, prior to sending the jury back to deliberate, the judge made the following statement:

I want to caution you that at no point in the deliberations should your conversation become abusive to any member of the jury and you have indicated that as to two of the counts the vote is 11 to 1. What I don't want to happen is for the one to be abused in the jury deliberations. Each of you has an independent and individual duty to decide this case for yourself, and each of you have to do that based on your opinion of the evidence and your own conscience, and you have to reach that decision for yourself. I don't want anybody to surrender an honestly held opinion of the evidence simply to terminate these proceedings. I don't want the jury discussions to become abusive toward one person or to the smaller group, the minority in the vote.

         Young argues that the trial court was wrong to tell the jurors to vote their conscience because it allowed the jurors to consider their own biases and prejudices (rather than the evidence) in making a decision. Upon review of a trial court's instruction, we must review the jury charges as a whole. Scott v. State, 302 Ga. 29, 31 (2) (805 S.E.2d 40) (2017). In this case, we find no error in the instruction given. Taken as a whole, it is unlikely the jury would have understood that its verdict could be based on something other than the evidence. After polling the jury, the trial court attempted to convey that each juror had to assess the evidence for herself, and no juror should surrender her honest appraisal of the evidence merely for the sake of compromise. It was in this attempt that the trial court made reference to "conscience," and that is how a reasonable juror would have understood it. This Court has stated that a trial court may advise the jury of the importance of reaching a unanimous verdict that is consistent with the consciences of the jury members. See Ponder v. State, 229 Ga. 720, 721 (2) (194 S.E.2d 78) (1972); Yancy v. State, 173 Ga. 685, 691 (5) (160 SE 867) (1931) ("The trial judge may properly . . . urge [the jury] to make every effort to harmonize ...

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