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Price v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 4, 2019


          BENHAM, JUSTICE.

         Appellant George Edward Price was convicted of malice murder in connection with the shooting death of his estranged wife, Jackie Price. Appellant now contends that his statement to law enforcement should have been excluded at trial, that the trial court failed to consider his motion for new trial on the "general grounds," and that trial counsel was ineffective. Finding no error, we affirm.[1]

         Viewing the record in a light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence adduced at trial established as follows. At the time of the murder, Appellant and the victim had been married for approximately fifteen years but were recently separated, with the victim living at the Morgan County residence of her friend Virginia Blanton. The jury learned that, though the couple had separated before, Jackie had become set on divorcing and had informed Appellant of her decision in a phone call on the evening before the murder. On the day of the murder, Blanton left the residence at approximately 11:20 a.m., while Jackie remained in bed because she reportedly felt unwell. Shortly thereafter, Appellant's conspicuously large, red van was observed in the area by neighbors who were familiar with both Appellant and his vehicle. Later that afternoon, a child stopped by the Blanton residence for a snack and discovered Jackie on the floor in a pool of blood. The jury heard testimony that, at the time her body was discovered, the victim had been dead for "quite some time" and, further, that the residence bore no signs of forced entry, burglary, or struggle. The medical examiner testified that the victim had died as a result of gunshot wounds and that the manner of death was homicide.

         Appellant was subsequently questioned by law enforcement. After initially giving various vague and inconsistent accounts of the day, he ultimately admitted that he had shot his estranged wife when he visited her to discuss their marriage. Appellant accurately described details of the murder scene - including the victim's clothing, her location in the residence, and the number of times she had been shot - and his hands tested positive for gunshot residue.

         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 summarized above, was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of murder. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Appellant first contends that his statement to law enforcement was involuntary under Georgia law and, consequently, inadmissible. Specifically, Appellant complains that an investigator suggested that she was going to personally discuss the case with "the judge," that Appellant would not see the "light of day," and, further, that Appellant's hands had tested positive for gunshot residue even though the results of that test were not yet available. These arguments are without merit.

         The relevant statutory provision concerning confessions, as it existed at the time of Appellant's trial, provided that, "[t]o make a confession admissible, it must have been made voluntarily, without being induced by another by the slightest hope of benefit or remotest fear of injury." See former OCGA § 24-3-50 (2011). This Court has consistently interpreted the phrase "slightest hope of benefit" not in the colloquial sense, but as it is understood in the context within the statute, focusing "on promises related to reduced criminal punishment - a shorter sentence, lesser charges, or no charges at all." Brown v. State, 290 Ga. 865, 868-869 (725 S.E.2d 320) (2012). See also State v. Chulpayev, 296 Ga. 764 (2) (770 S.E.2d 808) (2015). However, a statement by law enforcement "not relating to charges or sentences, including a promise regarding release after questioning, has been held to constitute only a 'collateral benefit,' as that phrase is used in OCGA § 24-3-51, and even if it induces a confession, it does not require the automatic exclusion of that evidence." Brown, 290 Ga. at 869. See also former OCGA § 24-3-51 (2011) ("The fact that a confession has been made under a spiritual exhortation, a promise of secrecy, or a promise of collateral benefit shall not exclude it.").[2]

         As for "remotest fear of injury," it is "[p]hysical or mental torture . . . that prevents a confession from being admissible[.]" See Browner v. State, 296 Ga. 138, 142 (765 S.E.2d 348) (2014). Further, the employment of trickery or deceit to obtain a confession does not render the resulting statement inadmissible so long as those tactics are not designed to procure an untrue statement and also do not amount to "a slightest hope of benefit or remotest fear of injury." State v. Ritter, 268 Ga. 108, 110 (485 S.E.2d 492) (1997); Moore v. State, 230 Ga. 839, 840 (199 S.E.2d 243) (1973).

         "Whether a statement was made voluntarily is to be determined by assessing the totality of the circumstances." Johnson v. State, 295 Ga. 421, 424 (761 S.E.2d 13) (2014). Though the trial court entered an order with findings of fact and conclusions of law following a Jackson-Denno[3] hearing, the relevant facts here arise solely from Appellant's video-recorded interview with investigators and, thus, are not in dispute. Accordingly, we review this claim de novo. See Brown, 290 Ga. at 865; Vergara v. State, 283 Ga. 175 (657 S.E.2d 863) (2008).

         As an initial matter, though Appellant had been advised of his Miranda[4] rights numerous times on the day in question (and had executed a written waiver), his interview was non-custodial; the video-recorded statement plainly reflects that both Appellant and law enforcement understood that Appellant was free to leave at anytime during the interview. See, e.g., Heckman v. State, 276 Ga. 141 (1) (576 S.E.2d 834) (2003). During the course of the interview, investigators implored Appellant to tell the truth and to help himself, which was not improper. See Stinksi v. State, 281 Ga. 783 (2) (a) (642 S.E.2d 1) (2007). Though an investigator intimated that she would go directly to "the judge" concerning Appellant's honesty and make a recommendation as to whether Appellant would "get out," it is permissible "for the police to tell a suspect that the trial judge may consider [his] truthful cooperation with the police." (Quotation marks and citations omitted.) Id.[5] These remarks, which were "framed . . . in terms of what [the investigator] wanted to be able to tell the judge," did not render the statement involuntary. Baughs v. State, 335 Ga.App. 600, 605 (782 S.E.2d 494) (2016). The investigator's vague references to Appellant "getting out" is, at most, a possible "collateral benefit" since "no one promised [A]ppellant that he would not be charged with a crime or that he would receive reduced charges, sentencing or punishment if he made incriminating statements." Woodall v. State, 294 Ga. 624 (4) (754 S.E.2d 335) (2014). Cf. Brown, 290 Ga. at 869 (no hope of benefit where investigators told defendant he could "go home" after questioning); In the Interest in D.T.. 294 Ga.App. 486 (2) (669 S.E.2d 471) (2008) (same).

         With respect to an investigator suggesting during the interview that Appellant would never "see the light of day" if he were not truthful, this, again, was an exhortation to tell the truth, not a promise of a lighter punishment. See Johnson v. State, 295 Ga. 421, 424-425 (761 S.E.2d 13) (2014) (no hope of benefit where defendant was warned not to lie because the investigator could, among other things, "get up and walk out this door and send [his] a** to the county jail"). Moreover, the remark "amounted to no more than an explanation of the seriousness of [Appellant]'s situation." Preston v. State, 282 Ga. 210, 212 (647 S.E.2d 260) (2007). Sosniak v. State, 287 Ga. 279 (1) (C) (695 S.E.2d 604) (2010) (investigator's remark that defendant could "get a needle" simply an expression of the seriousness of the situation). Regarding the deception concerning the gunshot residue on Appellant's hands, there is no indication that this ruse was intended to elicit an untrue confession or that it offered "a slightest hope of benefit or remotest fear of injury." As such, it, too, was permissible. See Drake v. State, 296 Ga. 286 (3) (766 S.E.2d 447) (2014) (exaggerations of incriminating evidence and false representations concerning the victim not impermissible during non-custodial interview); Johnson, 295 Ga. at 425 (interrogator's false claim concerning DNA evidence did not effect voluntariness of statement); Daniel v. State, 285 Ga. 406 (5) (677 S.E.2d 120) (2009) (deception in interview concerning whether defendant was suspect permissible tactic).

         Finally, though Appellant was interviewed over the course of approximately six hours, he was offered food and drink, and nothing in the video suggests "excessively lengthy interrogation, physical deprivation, brutality, or other such hallmarks of coercive police activity" that would result in the remotest fear of injury. (Quotation marks and citations omitted.) Drake, 296 Ga. at 290. Accordingly, after examining the totality of the circumstances, the trial court did not err in concluding that Appellant's statement was voluntary.

         3. Appellant next claims that the trial court erred by failing to consider his motion for new trial on the "general grounds." Specifically, he contends that the order denying his motion for new trial does not reflect that the trial court evaluated the credibility of the witnesses and weighed the evidence in deciding whether to exercise its discretion to grant a new trial in its role as the "thirteenth juror." See White v. State, 293 Ga. 523, 524 (753 S.E.2d 115) (2013) ("In exercising that discretion, the trial judge must consider some of the things that she cannot when assessing the legal sufficiency of the evidence, including any conflicts in the evidence, the credibility of witnesses, and the weight of the evidence."). We disagree.

         The order denying Appellant's motion for new trial states as follows: "The Defendant's Motion for New Trial, having regularly come on to be heard before me this day, argument of counsel for the State and the Defendant having been heard and considered, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Defendant's Motion for New Trial is DENIED." While the order does not specifically reflect that the trial judge exercised its broad discretion as the thirteenth juror, this Court "must presume that the trial judge knew the rule as to the necessity of exercising his discretion, and that he did exercise it." Martin & Sons v. Bank of Leesburg, 137 Ga. 285, 291 (73 S.E.2d 387) (1911). As we have explained before, when a trial court enters an order denying a motion for new trial and, "without more, recites that the new trial is refused or denied, this will be taken to mean that ...

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