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Crouch v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 4, 2019

CROUCH
v.
THE STATE.

          ELLINGTON, JUSTICE.

         A Houston County jury found Coleman Lawrence Crouch guilty of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, and concealing the death of another person in connection with the fatal shooting of Ruben Miranda and Shaland McConnell.[1] On appeal, Crouch contends that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding evidence of the mental health problems of his co-defendant, Thomas Andrew Kelly, and Kelly's mental state at the time of the shootings. Crouch also contends that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to develop and adduce such evidence. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. In January 2013, Crouch lost a package containing a half kilogram of cocaine that he was transporting for Miranda, when he jettisoned the package because he was approaching a police roadblock. Miranda demanded $15, 000 in compensation for the lost cocaine. Miranda repeatedly pressured Crouch to satisfy the debt, ultimately threatening to rape Crouch's mother and kill Crouch, his parents, and his girlfriend. In August 2013, Crouch told his roommate and Kelly that he wanted to kill Miranda. Kelly suggested that they dispose of Miranda's body at Kelly's family's property in Vinson Valley, which is in Houston County. Miranda was scheduled to meet with Crouch on August 18, 2013; Miranda told Crouch he expected to collect $5, 000 from him then. Crouch told Kelly and Kristin Ann Beuthin, Kelly's fiancée, that he planned to "get rid of" Miranda that day so he would not have to pay his debt to Miranda. Crouch planned that, when Miranda arrived at his house, Kelly would follow Miranda into the house, Crouch would then walk upstairs under the pretext of retrieving a firearm to offer Miranda to settle his debt, and then Kelly would shoot Miranda in the back of the head to kill him. Crouch and Kelly would then dispose of the body.

         Before Miranda arrived on the evening of August 18, Crouch asked Kelly and Beuthin to go to WalMart to purchase a tarp to dispose of Miranda's body, which they did. After returning to Crouch's house, Beuthin told Crouch that she did not want Kelly and herself to be a part of the killing; Crouch slammed his fist on the table and told her that it had to be done that day. Crouch and Kelly then discussed the plan in greater detail. Crouch called another friend, Evans, and told him that he wanted to see him. Evans and his girlfriend, Amy Patricia Walker, met Crouch, Kelly, and Beuthin at a gas station and followed them to Crouch's house. Crouch then discussed the plan to kill Miranda with Evans.

         Early in the evening, Crouch and Kelly left the house to pick up Miranda from a Groome Transportation shuttle stop and returned with Miranda and McConnell, who was traveling with Miranda. Crouch told Miranda he only had $800, and he proposed trading firearms to settle part of his debt. When the four men arrived and walked inside the house, the tarp was spread out in the living room. Crouch told Beuthin and Walker to stay outside. While Kelly and Evans remained in the living room with Miranda and McConnell, Crouch went upstairs to his bedroom and brought an assault rifle for Miranda to consider. Miranda rejected the first weapon, and Crouch went back up to his room ostensibly to retrieve more firearms. When Crouch started coming back down the stairs, Kelly shot Miranda and then McConnell. After Kelly checked to be sure the victims were dead, Crouch checked the victims' pockets and took their cell phones and identification. With a "nonchalant" demeanor, as described at trial by Evans, Crouch organized the clean up process. Crouch, Kelly, and Evans dragged the victims' bodies downstairs to the garage. The three put the victims in the back of Kelly's truck and put the tarp over the bodies. Kelly left in his truck with the bodies in the truck bed.

         Beuthin and Walker entered the house and saw blood on the walls and floor, a bullet hole in the wall, and furniture askew. The women helped Crouch and Evans start cleaning the room. At Crouch's instruction, they went to Kroger to purchase bleach, returned, and continued cleaning. Crouch destroyed the screens of the victims' cell phones, removed the phone batteries, and attempted to destroy the victims' identification. Crouch and Evans left with a garbage can that included items used to clean the murder scene and met Kelly at his family's property in Vinson Valley. The three rode in Kelly's truck farther back into the woods on the property and together they dragged the bodies off the truck and into the woods, leaving the bodies and the trash can that contained the cleaning materials covered by the tarp.

         Around midnight, Crouch's roommate, who had been out of town the previous day, returned home. He noticed bullet holes in the living room and the overwhelming smell of bleach. Crouch told him that a gun deal had gone wrong, Kelly shot Miranda and another person in the living room, and the bodies were moved to Vinson Valley. At around 5:30 a.m., Crouch's roommate informed law enforcement of Crouch's disclosure about the shooting deaths and reported that Crouch had talked about killing Miranda during the previous week and that Kelly had suggested his family property in Vinson Valley for disposing of the body.

         Officers quickly responded to Crouch's house and arrested him. During a custodial interrogation, investigators convinced Crouch to take them to the location of the bodies of the victims. Crouch rode with officers and led them to the location of the victims' bodies. Near the bodies, which were covered by a tarp, investigators found a trash can containing towels and other cleaning items, all stained with bleach and blood, as well as two .45 caliber casings and a cell phone battery. A warranted search of Crouch's house revealed bullets on the floor and in the wall, a package for a large tarp, a bag containing cell phones with smashed screens and no batteries, and the victims' identification, among other evidence. Security camera video recordings showed Kelly and Beuthin buying a tarp at WalMart on the evening of August 18 and showed Beuthin and Walker buying bleach at Kroger that night. Kelly and Beuthin gave statements, admitting that Crouch had sent them to WalMart to obtain the tarp and disclosing that the weapon used to kill the victims was in Beuthin's bedroom. Kelly informed officers that Crouch told him to kill Miranda. A subsequent ballistics report matched the shell casings found near the bodies with Kelly's gun. An autopsy revealed that Miranda suffered a fatal gunshot to the back of his head as well as a shot to the left side of his chest and that McConnell suffered a fatal gunshot to the right side of his forehead, as well as five additional gunshot wounds.

         At trial, Kelly, who had entered guilty pleas to malice murder and concealing the death of the victims, testified as the State's final witness. During the State's direct examination, Kelly testified that, on the day of the killings, Crouch called him and he went to Crouch's house. Kelly testified that he had little memory of conversations he had with Crouch before Miranda and McConnell arrived. He admitted shooting Miranda and McConnell. The prosecutor did not question Kelly about his motive for killing the victims, but he did ask Kelly whether, during an interview after the shooting, he told law enforcement, among other versions of events, that Crouch told him to kill Miranda, and Kelly agreed that he had said that in the interview.[2] During cross-examination, Kelly testified that he did not recall much about his state of mind during that time period and that the shooting was "a blur" that he remembered "vaguely," without "a lot of details about that time," but he claimed sole responsibility for shooting the victims. Asked whether he knew what he was doing at the time of the shooting, Kelly answered, "I knew I was killing them." Counsel asked Kelly whether he knew before he went in Crouch's house that he was going to kill the victims - whether there was a plan to kill them - and Kelly answered, "There was something about a plan that I didn't act on." Asked whether he did the shooting "on [his] own" and whether Crouch made him pull the trigger, Kelly responded, "I'm the one who pulled the trigger. . . . Nobody made me pull the trigger." Asked whether McConnell was sitting near Evans, Kelly responded, "I honestly don't remember a whole lot about what happened. I remember I'm in there. All of a sudden start shooting.[sic]" Defense counsel asked, "Did Cole Crouch tell you or holler at you or give you a signal or a sign or anything saying, 'shoot the guys?'" Kelly answered, "No." Counsel again asked whether Kelly committed the acts on his own, and he repeated, "I pulled the trigger on my own." Kelly did not agree that he wanted to kill the victims, but when asked, "why shoot seven or eight or nine or ten times if you didn't want to kill them?" Kelly answered, "It seems to me that at the time I felt like I had to." Defense counsel asked Kelly whether he was lying in his statement to the police the day after the shooting that Crouch asked him to kill Miranda. Kelly answered that he could not remember making the statement and that he was not certain whether he told the truth, but he agreed that he lied to the police more than once.

         1. Crouch does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence. Nevertheless, as is our customary practice in murder cases, we have independently reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence was legally sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Crouch was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Crouch contends that evidence of "Kelly's psychotic mental state and delusional thinking at the time of the shootings" was pivotal to his sole defense and that the trial court's exclusion of such evidence deprived him of his rights to due process and a fair trial.

         The record shows the following relating to the trial court's evidentiary ruling. During the opening statement for the defense, counsel argued that Crouch did not plan the murders; rather, Kelly took it upon himself to shoot and kill Miranda and McConnell. Counsel posited, "It all gets back to Thomas Kelly as to what possessed him to shoot these two." During cross-examination, after questions regarding the terms of Kelly's guilty plea, defense counsel asked, "At that time [the time of the killings] were you being treated for . . . being a bipolar?" The prosecutor objected, based on relevance. During a bench conference, the following discussion occurred:

DEFENSE COUNSEL: I would hope that the Court would let me get into the fact that Kelly has made statements to people that the reason why he basically killed these folks was that he didn't like Mexicans, or his grandfather didn't like Mexicans, that he was concerned that the country of Sweden was being taken over by Turks, and that he thought that the Turks were coming in and defiling the culture of Sweden, and that was one of the reasons why he was upset and decided to kill these people. COURT: Well, I'm not sure what that has to do with bipolar. DEFENSE COUNSEL: Well, I mean he was being treated for being bipolar, ADHD and also depression.
PROSECUTOR: That has nothing to do with why he shot somebody. DEFENSE COUNSEL: And it has ...

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