Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

State v. Johnson

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 18, 2019

STATE
v.
JOHNSON.

          BETHEL, JUSTICE.

         Following a trial resulting in a guilty verdict on charges arising out of the death of Brandon Scott and the trial court's grant of Appellee John Johnson's motion for new trial, [1] the State appeals.[2] At issue in this appeal is whether the trial court should have given an unrequested jury instruction on accomplice corroboration and whether a new trial should have been ordered. The State argues that a new trial should not have been granted because an instruction on accomplice corroboration is not clearly required where a witness other than the accomplice introduces an accomplice's statement implicating a defendant's guilt. In response, Johnson argues that a new trial is warranted because the testimony of his alleged accomplice was the only evidence establishing Johnson's participation in the crime, and, thus, the trial court plainly erred in failing to instruct the jury that accomplice testimony requires corroboration. We agree that the trial court should have instructed the jury on accomplice corroboration and affirm the trial court's grant of a new trial.

         The record shows that on New Year's Eve 2005, Brandon Scott was riding in a car with Johnson and two other friends, Albert Reaux and Michael Williams. During the car ride, Johnson and Scott began arguing. During the course of the argument, Johnson pulled out a gun and shot Scott multiple times. The following morning, January 1, 2006, Scott was found on a porch dead from multiple gunshot wounds.[3]

         Reaux's girlfriend testified that in the early morning hours following the shooting, Reaux knocked on her bedroom window and came inside. Reaux told her that he and Johnson had killed Scott, that Johnson had "turned around and shot [Scott]," and that they had pushed him from the car following the shooting.

         Johnson was ultimately convicted of felony murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Thereafter, Johnson moved for a new trial, arguing, among other things, that the trial court erred in not instructing the jury on corroboration of accomplice testimony as required by OCGA § 24-14-8. The trial court granted Johnson's motion for new trial on this ground, concluding that "the holding in Stanbury[4] required the Court to grant Defendant's Motion for New Trial on discretionary grounds[5] for failing to give the accomplice corroboration charge under OCGA § 24-14-8." On October 25, 2017, the trial court vacated the previously imposed sentences. This appeal followed.

         1. In reviewing the trial court's grant of a new trial under the specific circumstances of this case, we consider whether the trial court correctly held that the omission in the jury charge here constituted plain error.[6] The test for plain error is comprised of four prongs.

First, there must be an error or defect-some sort of deviation from a legal rule-that has not been intentionally relinquished or abandoned, i.e., affirmatively waived, by the appellant. Second, the legal error must be clear or obvious, rather than subject to reasonable dispute. Third, the error must have affected the appellant's substantial rights, which in the ordinary case means he must demonstrate that it affected the outcome of the trial court proceedings. Fourth and finally, if the above three prongs are satisfied, the appellate court has the discretion to remedy the error-discretion which ought to be exercised only if the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

State v. Kelly, 290 Ga. 29, 33 (1) (718 S.E.2d 232) (2011). Johnson did not affirmatively waive this issue at trial, so the first prong is met.

         As to the second prong of the plain-error test, the trial court's failure to provide a jury charge regarding accomplice corroboration was clear error not subject to reasonable dispute. "For an error to be obvious for purposes of plain error review, it must be plain under controlling precedent or in view of the unequivocally clear words of a statute or rule." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Stanbury v. State, 299 Ga. 125, 129-130 (2) (786 S.E.2d 672) (2016).

         OCGA § 24-14-8 provides that in "felony cases where the only witness is an accomplice, the testimony of a single witness shall not be sufficient" to establish a fact. "Nevertheless, corroborating circumstances may dispense with the necessity for the testimony of a second witness[.]" Id.

Under this rule, where an accomplice testifies at trial, a jury may not rely solely on that testimony to find any fact necessary to sustain the defendant's felony conviction. Instead, the existence of any such fact must also be supported either by the testimony of an additional witness or by other, independent evidence that corroborates the accomplice's testimony.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Burns v. State, 342 Ga.App. 379, 383 (1) (803 S.E.2d 79) (2017).

         The trial court's instructions deviated from a legal rule, OCGA § 24-14-8, which "unequivocally" required corroboration of accomplice testimony in felony cases. Instead, the trial court charged the jury that "the testimony of a single witness, if believed, is generally sufficient to establish a fact. Generally, there is no legal requirement of corroboration of a witness provided that you find the evidence to be sufficient." By failing to give the required accomplice corroboration charge, the trial court did not provide the jury with proper guidelines for determining Johnson's guilt or innocence. This was clearly erroneous. "Furthermore, when, as here, the instructions the jury receives are infirm, the expected result is not enlightenment, but confusion." (Punctuation omitted.) Stanbury, 299 Ga. at 130 (2). Therefore, the second prong of the plain error test has been met.

         The third prong of the plain error test requires that the error must have affected the appellant's substantial rights, which in the ordinary case means he must demonstrate that it likely affected the outcome of the trial court proceedings. See id. By failing to give the required accomplice corroboration charge, the trial court impermissibly empowered the jury to find Johnson guilty based solely on Reaux's accomplice testimony. See id. The jury, as the sole arbiter of credibility, was not properly instructed on the manner in which they needed to judge the evidence. See Hamm v. State, 294 Ga. 791, 798 (2) (756 S.E.2d 507) (2014). As a consequence, because virtually all of the incriminating evidence flowed from Reaux, the outcome of the trial court proceedings was "likely affected" by ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.