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Tyner v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 4, 2019


          BETHEL, JUSTICE.

         This case marks Appellant Curtis Tyner's second appearance before this Court. In 2011, we reversed Tyner's 1984 conviction pursuant to a guilty plea for malice murder in connection with the death of Martha Mickel. See Tyner v. State, 289 Ga. 592 (714 S.E.2d 577) (2011) (overruled on other grounds by Lejeune v. McLaughlin, 296 Ga. 291 (766 S.E.2d 803) (2014)). Following a trial, Tyner was again convicted of malice murder and sentenced to life in prison.[1] On appeal, Tyner contends that the trial court erred in allowing certain statements made by Mickel to be admitted at trial under the residual hearsay exception contained in OCGA § 24-8-807; that the trial court erred in allowing certain out-of-court statements of investigating officers to be admitted at trial; that the trial court erred in admitting evidence related to the robbery-by-force charge; and that the trial court erred in merging the felony murder count with the malice murder count rather than vacating the felony murder count. We note that the felony murder counts were vacated as a matter of law. Finding the remaining challenges to be without merit, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the trial evidence showed the following. On April 15, 1984, the body of Martha Mickel was found in Bear Creek in southwest Fulton County; Mickel was reported missing the day prior. The buttons on Mickel's blouse were either missing or unfastened, and her bra was torn open with the fastener broken. Her pants were unbuttoned and unzipped, and her belt was unbuckled. The investigation of Mickel's Smyrna home uncovered no signs of forced entry: no broken glass was observed, and the front door was closed and locked. Police recovered five Belair-brand cigarette butts[2] and a length of rope from Mickel's front porch. While searching the interior of Mickel's home, police found Tyner's business card, as well as a contract signed by both Mickel and Tyner concerning painting work Mickel hired Tyner to perform. During a police canvas of Mickel's condominium complex, Mickel's neighbor Charlene Capilouto told police that she saw Tyner's truck parked outside Mickel's home around 11:00 p.m. on April 12 and saw a person standing next to the truck smoking cigarettes, although she could not clearly see the person.

         Thereafter, police attempted to make contact with Tyner, visiting his home several times; when no one answered the door, police set up surveillance of his home. During the surveillance period, police knocked on the door on multiple occasions, and, while they observed movement within the home, no one answered the door. On the morning of April 18, one of Tyner's roommates answered the door and permitted police to glance around the home to ensure Tyner was not there. Later that day, police obtained a search warrant for the residence and an arrest warrant for Tyner; Tyner was arrested the same day.

         On April 18, 1984, police conducted an approximately three-hour interview with Tyner, following which Tyner signed a typed statement. Tyner stated that, sometime after midnight on April 15, 1984, he drove from his home in south Fulton County to Smyrna. There, he went to a gas station down the street from Mickel's home for a cup of coffee and then returned to his car to smoke cigarettes.[3] He next recalled driving south on Interstate 285 and looking over to see Mickel sitting in the passenger seat, her hands bound with a rope around her neck securing her to the passenger-seat headrest. Tyner then exited the interstate and made several turns, at which point he came to a bridge from which he threw Mickel's purse. A couple of miles later, he came to another bridge from which he threw Mickel. During a subsequent interview, Tyner again stated that he did not recall how Mickel got in his car. He recalled only that he "came to or became aware of her presence in his car." Tyner also told police that, somewhere along Interstate 285, he threw out the pieces of rope with which Mickel had been bound.

         At trial, the trial court allowed Mickel's close friend Crystal Haberkorn to testify about statements Mickel made to her in the weeks before her death. Haberkorn and Mickel attended the same church, saw each other every week, spoke during the week, and confided their personal feelings to one another. Haberkorn testified that, while Tyner was in the process of painting Mickel's home, Mickel expressed concern that Tyner had taken a spare key from a desk drawer in her home. Some time later, Mickel told Haberkorn that the key had been replaced or returned.

         The jury also heard the testimony of retired Fulton County Police Detective John Lines. Lines testified that, on April 16, 1984, he and Sergeant Edwin Clack traveled together to Mickel's residence where Lines went inside while Clack searched the residence's curtilage. After their search, Clack presented Lines with items "found on the front porch," including a piece of rope and five Belair-brand cigarettes. Lines also testified that he and Sergeant W. R. Killian, who is now deceased, were dispatched to the bridge from which Tyner threw Mickel's purse. There, Killian recovered the purse several hundred yards downstream from the bridge where the current had taken it. Retired Fulton County Police Officer Detective J. D. Shirley testified that he was assigned to canvas several miles of Interstate 285 Southbound, where he recovered a piece of rope, similar in composition to that which Tyner described Mickel as being bound with.

         The medical examiner testified that burst capillaries on Mickel's face found during her autopsy indicated she was strangled by a ligature. His autopsy also showed that Mickel was alive and breathing when she was thrown into the water and that her cause of death was drowning in combination with ligature strangulation.

         1. Tyner does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence recounted above to support his convictions. Nevertheless, as is our practice in murder cases, we have independently reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence adduced at trial was legally sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Tyner committed the crimes of which he was found guilty. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Tyner contends that the trial court erred by admitting into evidence the statements Mickel made to Haberkorn regarding the missing key. We disagree.

         The trial court admitted Haberkorn's statements, over Tyner's objection, pursuant to Georgia's residual hearsay exception set forth in OCGA § 24-8-807 ("Rule 807"), which states in relevant part:

A statement not specifically covered by any law but having equivalent circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness shall not be excluded by the hearsay rule, if the court determines that: (1) The statement is offered as evidence of a material fact; (2) The statement is more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence which the proponent can procure through reasonable efforts; and (3) The general purposes of the rules of evidence and the interests of justice will best be served by admission of the statement into evidence.

         The State offered the statements at issue as an explanation for the lack of evidence of forced entry to Mickel's home. Tyner does not argue that the statements were not offered as evidence of a material fact or that the State, through reasonable efforts, could have procured more probative evidence on this point. Instead, Tyner limits his argument to attacking the statements' factual value and their "guarantees of trustworthiness." Specifically, Tyner cites this Court's recent decision in Jacobs v. State, 303 Ga. 245 (2) (811 S.E.2d 372) (2018), and argues that the trial court erroneously relied on Haberkorn and Mickel's "close relationship" as evidence of Haberkorn's credibility.

         We review the trial court's admission of this evidence for abuse of discretion. Jacobs, 303 Ga. at 250. In Jacobs, we explained that statements admitted pursuant to the residual hearsay exception are "considered sufficiently trustworthy not because of the credibility of the witness reporting them in court, but because of the circumstances under which they were originally made." (Emphasis supplied.) Id. at 249 (2) (citing Smart v. State, 299 Ga. 414, 421-422 (3) (788 S.E.2d 44) (2016)). In that case, we considered statements made by the victim concerning acts of domestic violence committed against the victim by her husband. The record established that the victim shared a relationship of trust and confidence with each of the persons to whom ...

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