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Esprit v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 11, 2019

ESPRIT
v.
THE STATE. JONES
v.
THE STATE.

          NAHMIAS, PRESIDING JUSTICE.

         Appellant Brisean Esprit was convicted of felony murder, appellant Mark Jones was convicted of malice murder, and both were convicted of a firearm offense in connection with the shooting death of Maximillion Stevenson. Esprit's sole contention on appeal is that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to properly seek admission of statements favorable to Esprit that Jones made during Jones's truncated attempt to enter a guilty plea just before trial. Jones's sole contention is that the trial court erred by overruling his objection to similar transaction evidence. We conclude that both appellants' contentions are meritless, so we affirm the convictions in both cases.[1]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. On September 10, 2008, Stevenson and his friend Esprit were involved in the shooting of a 14-year-old boy at Stevenson's apartment complex. After Esprit told Stevenson that he would turn himself in to the police to take responsibility for the shooting, Stevenson, who was a drug dealer, offered to pay for a lawyer for Esprit and gathered $3, 000 in cash. On September 15, Stevenson was driving Esprit to the lawyer's office when Stevenson stopped to pick up Esprit's cousin Jones, who was staying with his friend Terrance Robateau.

         Robateau testified at trial that when Esprit and Stevenson arrived at his house in College Park, Esprit got out of the front passenger's seat and Stevenson remained in the driver's seat. Robateau, Esprit, and Jones went to the backyard, where Esprit proposed that he and Jones steal the $3, 000 Stevenson was carrying. Jones was wearing a striped shirt, a red bandana, and a red baseball cap. Jones did not have a gun, so Esprit gave him a pistol and then asked if he was scared. Jones answered, "You must don't know about me, 'cause you ain't been to the city in a minute." Jones took the gun from Esprit, removed the clip, wiped the bullets clean, and inserted the clip back into the gun. When Esprit walked back to the front of the house, Robateau tried to convince Jones to abandon the planned robbery, telling him that he was "tripping" and asking him not to rob Stevenson near Robateau's house, but Jones told Robateau to "chill." Robateau then saw Esprit and Jones get into Stevenson's car, with Esprit sitting in the front passenger's seat and Jones sitting behind Stevenson. Shortly after Stevenson drove away, Robateau, who had walked to the front of his house and was talking to his neighbor Larry Richardson, heard two gunshots and a car crash.

         According to Robateau, moments later, Jones ran alone back to Robateau's house and into the backyard, but when Robateau looked in the backyard, Jones was gone. About 15 minutes after the shooting, Jones used Esprit's cell phone to call Robateau from a nearby Taco Bell. Jones was recorded on surveillance video from the restaurant, but Esprit was not seen. Jones asked Robateau to pick him up, saying, "[I] done did something with [my] cousin" and "I killed a n**ger, dog." Reiterating that it was Esprit's plan to rob Stevenson of the $3, 000, Jones told Robateau that he and Esprit tried to rob Stevenson, that he shot Stevenson after Stevenson refused to give them the money, and that he thought Esprit had fled with the $3, 000. Robateau went to pick up Jones, who was now wearing only his pants and a sleeveless undershirt, and drove him to a relative's house.

         Robateau's neighbor Richardson testified that he was talking to Robateau in their driveways when he saw a man he identified at trial as Esprit and another man pull up in Stevenson's car near Robateau's house. While Richardson continued to talk to Robateau, Esprit got out of the car, went into the house, came out with a man Richardson identified at trial as Jones, and got into the car with Jones. Esprit, Jones, and the other man then drove away. Moments later, after hearing gunshots, Robateau said to Richardson, "No, they didn't do that." Richardson then saw Esprit, who was wearing a striped shirt, and Jones, who was wearing red, run back toward Robateau's house; Esprit went into Robateau's backyard.

         Police officers responding to a call about a car accident and possible gunfire arrived at the scene and found Stevenson alone and unconscious in the driver's seat of the car, which had crashed into a tree. He had been shot twice in the back of the head from close range, and he died from his gunshot wounds after being taken to a hospital. The police found two .45-caliber shell casings and a bullet in the car, and ballistics testing later showed that the casings and bullet were fired from a pistol. The police did not find the pistol or any money at the crime scene. Two witnesses who heard the gunshots and saw Stevenson's car crash reported that they saw two men running away from the car together; one of the witnesses added that the two men split up after they ran up the street. During a search of Robateau's house the next day, investigators found a striped shirt, a white t-shirt, a red hat, and a red bandana in a wooded area behind the house; DNA testing later showed that both shirts were stained with Stevenson's blood.

         At trial, the State presented similar transaction evidence that Jones and an accomplice committed an armed robbery in Houston, Texas three days after Stevenson was killed. Jones was arrested after that robbery.

         Esprit was arrested about six weeks later, on October 29, 2008. During an interview with the police, Esprit initially denied being in Stevenson's car during the shooting, but he eventually admitted that he had been in the car and that Stevenson was carrying $3, 000 in his lap. Esprit claimed that when he heard the gunshots, he jumped out of the car and ran back toward Robateau's house.

         Esprit's primary defense theory at trial was that Jones was solely responsible for Stevenson's murder and Esprit was merely present at the scene. Jones's primary defense theory was that no forensic evidence connected him to the crimes. Robateau, who had been arrested shortly before trial on a material witness warrant, testified as the State's main witness.

         Esprit and Jones both sought to impeach Robateau's credibility by pointing to inconsistencies in his accounts of the events and between his testimony and other evidence. First, in his initial statement to the police, Robateau denied any knowledge of the events surrounding the shooting. In a subsequent interview at the police station, Robateau did not mention Esprit and Jones's encounter in Robateau's backyard during which they planned to rob Stevenson and Esprit gave Jones a pistol; Robateau provided that information only after he was arrested. Instead, Robateau told the police that Jones said as he and Esprit were leaving Robateau's house that Jones and Esprit planned to "get some weed" from Stevenson, and that Jones mentioned a plan to rob Stevenson only in the call after the shooting. Second, Richardson testified that he did not see Esprit and Jones go into the backyard with Robateau, with whom Richardson claimed he talked in their driveways throughout the events. Third, Robateau identified all of the clothes the police found behind his house as those worn by Jones on the day of the shooting, but Richardson testified that Esprit wore the striped shirt. Finally, Robateau testified that Esprit called him to ask for directions before Esprit and Stevenson arrived at the house, and phone records showed that a call from Esprit to Robateau occurred less than two minutes before the 911 call reporting the shooting. Esprit argued that this left insufficient time for the backyard encounter. A detective testified, however, that the cell phone company's clock may not have been synchronized to the clock at the 911 call center, so there could have been a variation in time of a few minutes, potentially making the calls up to five minutes apart.

         Neither appellant contends that the evidence was legally insufficient to support his convictions. Nevertheless, in accordance with this Court's practice in murder cases, we have reviewed the record and conclude that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial and summarized above was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Esprit and Jones guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which they were convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979); Vega v. State, 285 Ga. 32, 33 (673 S.E.2d 223) (2009) ("'It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence.'" (citation omitted)). See also OCGA § 16-2-20 (defining parties to a crime); Butts v. State, 297 Ga. 766, 770 (778 S.E.2d 205) (2015) (explaining that under § 16-2-20, a jury may infer a common criminal intent from the defendant's presence, companionship, and conduct with another perpetrator before, during, and after the crimes).

         Contention Raised by Esprit

         2. Esprit contends only that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to properly seek admission of statements that Jones made when he attempted to plead guilty on the first day of the joint trial. Because Esprit has failed to show that his trial counsel performed deficiently, we reject his claim.

         (a) Before jury selection on the first day of trial, Jones and the State agreed to a plea deal: in exchange for Jones's truthful testimony against Esprit, he would be allowed to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, armed robbery, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and he would be sentenced to a total of 40 years to serve 35 in prison, with the possibility of parole in 10 to 15 years. After the plea colloquy with Jones, the trial court asked the prosecutor what the evidence would show if the case went to trial. The prosecutor said that the evidence would show that Esprit knew Stevenson had $3, 000 with him in the car, that Esprit enlisted Jones to commit an armed robbery of Stevenson, that Esprit handed Jones the gun used to ...


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