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State v. Spratlin

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 11, 2019

THE STATE
v.
SPRATLIN

          NAHMIAS, Presiding Justice.

         Appellee DeJuan Spratlin was convicted of malice murder and a firearm offense in connection with the shooting death of Edward Cobb. The trial court granted Spratlin a new trial, however, on the ground that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to seek the exclusion of testimony and comments about his post-arrest silence. The State appeals that ruling. As explained below, we reverse the trial court's order.

         1. (a) In March 2012, a DeKalb County grand jury indicted Spratlin and Isaiah Blackmon on charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault on Cobb, aggravated assault on Stanton Gilliam, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Spratlin and Blackmon were tried together beginning on October 28, 2013.

         The evidence presented at trial showed the following.[1] According to Briana Abner, she called Blackmon on December 6, 2011, seeking to buy some marijuana. Blackmon told her to pick up Spratlin, who had no car, because Spratlin knew where to acquire the drugs. Spratlin called his former high school classmate Gilliam and arranged to purchase a pound of marijuana at Gilliam's house. Abner picked up Spratlin and drove to the house; on the way, Spratlin counted the $800 in cash that he was going to use to buy the drugs. When they arrived, Spratlin and Abner entered Gilliam's house and went with him to the kitchen. Abner saw the candy and snacks that Gilliam and his housemates kept there to sell to neighborhood children, and Spratlin bought Abner some candy. Spratlin then called Blackmon to give him directions to the house because Spratlin and Gilliam could not agree on a price for the marijuana. At this point, Abner left the house to go wait in her car.

         According to Gilliam, he called his friend and neighbor Cobb to come over when Blackmon arrived because Gilliam felt uncomfortable about having to deal with two people when he had been expecting to be dealing with Spratlin alone. The men continued to negotiate, and after Cobb arrived, Blackmon agreed to pay Gilliam $1, 025 and handed over the money. Blackmon then put the pound of marijuana in his coat, and the four men left the kitchen and headed toward the front door. They passed through a front room with a pool table in the middle; Gilliam was behind Cobb on one side of the pool table, and Spratlin was behind Blackmon on the other side. Blackmon and Cobb reached the front door at the same time, but as Cobb started to open the door, Blackmon turned, took a gun out of his pocket, and said, "F**k this s**t, you know what it is, go ahead and give me everything." Gilliam threw the money onto the pool table near Spratlin, and Cobb began to struggle with Blackmon over the gun. Gilliam rushed over to help Cobb, but he heard a gunshot and backed away. Blackmon then shot Gilliam in the upper leg; Gilliam fell against a wall, and Blackmon shot him again in the back of the leg. Gilliam ran to a bedroom and hid in a closet, where he heard several more gunshots followed by the alarm system's tone signaling that the front door had been opened. Gilliam did not see Spratlin get involved in the fight between Blackmon and Cobb, did not see Spratlin with a gun, and did not see Spratlin take any money off the table.

         Abner, who had been waiting in her car, testified that after she heard the gunshots, she started to drive away when she saw Spratlin run out of the house in a panic saying, "They're trying to rob me." Spratlin got into Abner's car and they drove away. Abner did not see Blackmon leave the house, and she never saw Spratlin with a gun.

         Gilliam's two housemates, Karalo Jackson and Rikeshia Andrews, had been asleep but woke at the sound of gunfire. Jackson found Cobb lying on the floor in the living room and called 911. Jackson and Andrews attempted to resuscitate Cobb, but he died from his gunshot wounds. Gilliam was taken to the hospital and recovered from his wounds. When the police searched the crime scene, they found a number of small bags of marijuana in a pair of Jackson's pants in his room. Gilliam later testified that Jackson took 22 bags of marijuana out of Cobb's pockets before the police arrived. Gilliam told the police that Spratlin and his associate had come over to purchase candy and then attempted to rob him. When shown a photographic lineup that included both Spratlin's photo and Blackmon's photo, Gilliam identified Spratlin (his former classmate) but was unable to identify Blackmon. Gilliam, Jackson, and Andrews did not tell the police that Spratlin and Blackmon had actually come over to buy marijuana, although they admitted it at trial.

          Experts testified that Cobb had a grazing gunshot wound to the back of the head. He was shot through his arm and into his side by a .40-caliber bullet fired from close range. The fatal wounds were caused by two .38-caliber bullets fired into his back; there was no evidence about the range from which those shots were fired. A bullet recovered from Gilliam's leg was .40-caliber. Five more bullets and eight cartridge cases - a mixture of .40-caliber and .38-caliber - were found at the house. A firearms expert determined that at least two guns had been fired during the incident, including a .40-caliber pistol and a .38 Special or .357 Magnum revolver; because some of the bullets and casings were fragments, it was possible that a 10mm pistol was also used. Gilliam, Jackson, and Andrews each testified that they had no guns in the house, and Gilliam testified that he and Cobb did not have any weapons and did not attempt to rob Spratlin and Blackmon. A few days after the shooting, Blackmon received text messages about two guns he was trying to sell - a .40-caliber and a .357.

         Spratlin was tracked to Alabama, where - 16 days after the shooting - detectives found him with Blackmon and an unidentified woman. Both suspects fled when the plainclothes detectives approached. Spratlin ran across the street but was quickly apprehended; Blackmon was later found hiding a mile away.

         A few days after the men were arrested, Gilliam saw Blackmon's photo on a mugshot website for DeKalb County, where Blackmon was listed as being charged with housing a fugitive. Gilliam called one of the detectives investigating the shooting and told him that "they had the shooter under the wrong charge." While in jail, Blackmon told his mother over the phone that he "gave the gun to someone to get rid of."

         Neither defendant testified. Spratlin's primary theory of defense was mere presence. Spratlin's counsel acknowledged that Spratlin set up the drug deal, but argued that he was surprised by Blackmon's spontaneous decision to rob and shoot Gilliam and Cobb.

         (b) During its case-in-chief, the State elicited testimony from three witnesses regarding Spratlin's pretrial silence. First, as mentioned above, Abner testified that after she heard the gunshots, Spratlin ran toward her car and said, "They're trying to rob me." The prosecutor then asked the following questions:

Q. Ms. Abner, when DeJuan Spratlin jumped back in the car, did he ever tell you to call 911?
A. No.
Q. Did he ever tell you to drive to a police station so he could tell them what happened to him?
A. No.
Second, a detective from the Birmingham Police Department ("the Alabama detective") testified that he located and arrested Spratlin in Alabama. The prosecutor then asked the following questions:
Q. Did you ask [Spratlin] if he wanted to make a statement? A. ...

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