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Brooks v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 11, 2019


          NAHMIAS, Presiding Justice.

         Appellant Nicholas Brooks was convicted of felony murder and other crimes in connection with the shooting death of Jason Blount. Appellant contends that the evidence presented at his trial was legally insufficient to overcome his defense of coercion; that the prosecutor committed misconduct by introducing into evidence an edited version of Appellant's video-recorded police interview; and that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the admission of the recording and by inadequately informing him of his right to testify. Appellant's claims are meritless, so we affirm.[1]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. On the afternoon of April 5, 2010, Appellant did some flooring work at a trailer owned by David Colleps. After leaving Colleps's trailer, Appellant hung out and smoked methamphetamine with his acquaintance Kelly Williamson and her friend Michael Cossette, whom Appellant had met earlier that day, at a nearby trailer that belonged to a mutual friend identified only as "Carlos." Around 2:00 a.m., Appellant left briefly to get his pickup truck, returning to Carlos's with Williamson's sister Carrie. At some point, Appellant, Williamson, and Cossette went into a bedroom and began talking about how they needed money.

         When Appellant and Williamson told Cossette that Colleps kept a lot of money and meth in his trailer, Cossette suggested that they rob Colleps, and Appellant told Cossette that he had just gotten out of prison and could be trusted. Appellant and Williamson, who also had been in Colleps's trailer, drew a diagram of the trailer on a piece of cardboard.[2] The three planned that Williamson would be the getaway driver and Appellant would make sure that everyone in the trailer stayed on the floor while Cossette searched for money and meth. Appellant, Cossette, and Williamson then went to Williamson's house, where Cossette made a mask out of a pair of green sweatpants and Appellant made his own mask out of a black shirt.

         Around 4:30 a.m., Williamson drove Appellant and Cossette to Colleps's trailer in Appellant's truck. Appellant and Cossette put on their masks, and after Cossette knocked loudly on the door of the trailer, Appellant kicked in the door, entered, and stood in the living room as Cossette followed him in brandishing a 9mm pistol. Colleps and his cousin fled through a bedroom window when they heard the assailants. His friend Jason Blount and Blount's fiancée were also staying in the trailer that night. Cossette ordered them to get down on the floor, and Blount's fiancée, who was in a hallway, complied. When Blount remained standing in the kitchen, Cossette hit him on the head with the pistol and began searching the trailer for money and meth. Blount then threw some tools that were strewn around the kitchen at Appellant, who was still standing in the living room. Cossette fired several rounds toward Blount, who was hit once in the chest. Cossette and Appellant then fled from the trailer.

         Blount died moments later from his gunshot wound. His autopsy later showed that he had been shot by a 9mm pistol from a distance of several feet. Blount's fiancée was not injured; she could not identify the two intruders, but said that both were men wearing masks, one of which was green, and both men were armed with handguns.[3]

         As Williamson drove Appellant and Cossette back to Carlos's trailer, Cossette took the two remaining bullets out of his pistol and threw them into the woods. Appellant and Williamson discussed parking Appellant's truck behind Carlos's trailer so no one would see it. Once in the trailer, Appellant told Cossette that he would burn both of the masks, and he ripped up the diagram of Colleps's trailer and put the pieces of the diagram and the two masks in a plastic bag. Cossette and Williamson then went to sleep while Appellant hung out in the living room with Carrie and Carlos.

         Later that day, Williamson met with investigators, and she eventually gave them Appellant's and Cossette's names. Cossette was then arrested at a friend's house, where investigators found two firearms, one of which was Cossette's empty 9mm pistol. That evening, the investigators spotted Appellant driving his truck, but moments later, they found the truck abandoned. The next day, Appellant called an investigator and said that he was scared and hiding out in the Atlanta area with his stepmother; after he failed to turn himself in as requested, officers located and arrested him and his stepmother as they were leaving a motel in Locust Grove.

         After his arrest, Appellant was interviewed; the State played a redacted version of the video recording of the interview for the jury. Appellant told the following story. In the bedroom of Carlos's trailer, Cossette pulled out a 9mm pistol and told Appellant and Williamson that "they [were] going to go rob somebody." When Appellant said he did not want to get involved, Cossette pointed his pistol at Appellant and told him that he "was going to f**king do it or [Cossette] was going to f**king kill [him]" and that Cossette knew where Appellant's kids lived. Appellant "didn't say nothing" because he "didn't know what to do; [he] was scared." Cossette wanted him to wear a green mask, but he decided to make a black mask for himself. When they arrived at Colleps's trailer, Cossette kicked in the door and hit Blount with his pistol, and Appellant, who was standing in the living room, told Blount, "I'm not going to do anything." Blount then threw a drill at Cossette, and Cossette fired a few rounds and shot Blount. Back at Carlos's, Cossette examined his pistol, which still had two bullets left in it, and told Appellant to get rid of the masks. Appellant put them in a plastic bag, along with a diagram of Colleps's trailer that Cossette and

          Williamson had drawn. When everyone fell asleep, Appellant left Carlos's and threw the plastic bag in a trash can outside of a friend's house. (Investigators later found the bag containing the green mask, the black mask, and the torn diagram in the trash can.) Appellant then hid from law enforcement because he was scared of what Cossette would do to him or his family.

         Appellant did not testify at trial. Relying primarily on his interview, the defense theory was that Cossette had coerced Appellant into participating in the crimes. Cossette and Williamson both testified, however, that Cossette never threatened Appellant and never pointed his pistol at Appellant. Williamson testified that Appellant initially said that he did not want to get involved with the burglary, but after Cossette said he needed Appellant's help, Appellant "just went along with it." Williamson's sister Carrie testified that she overheard Appellant, Cossette, and Williamson planning the burglary and that Appellant acted "like he was up for it." In addition, Appellant's friend testified that several hours after the murder, Appellant told her that he had been in a house while it was robbed but never mentioned that he had been forced at gunpoint to participate in the crimes.

         2. Appellant contends that the evidence presented at trial was legally insufficient to overcome his affirmative defense of coercion. As discussed above, when viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the evidence showed that Appellant, who had been in Colleps's trailer on the afternoon before the shooting, told Cossette that there was money and meth in the trailer; he then planned the burglary of the trailer with Cossette and Williamson, telling them that he could be trusted, drew a diagram of the trailer with Williamson, and as Appellant later admitted in his statement to investigators, made his own mask so that no one in the trailer would recognize him. After the co-defendants arrived at the trailer in Appellant's truck, he kicked in the door and entered the trailer, armed with a handgun; and when Cossette shot Blount after Blount threw tools at Appellant, Appellant fled the trailer with Cossette and Williamson. Appellant then stayed to hang out at Carlos's trailer after Cossette and Williamson went to sleep; as he later admitted, he voluntarily disposed of the diagram and two masks. He also fled from investigators after they spotted him driving his truck on the evening after the shooting.

         At trial, Cossette, Williamson, and Carrie testified that Appellant was a willing participant in the crimes, and Appellant's friend testified that he had told her about being in a house during a robbery but never mentioned that he had been forced at gunpoint to commit the crimes. This evidence was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to reject Appellant's coercion defense and find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which he was 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)); Conaway v. State, 277 Ga. 422, 423 (589 S.E.2d 108) (2003) (concluding that the evidence supporting the appellant's convictions was legally sufficient, notwithstanding his testimony that he was coerced to commit the crimes, which "at most created a conflict with other evidence that showed his participation in the crimes was voluntary"). 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).[4]

         3. During direct examination of one of the police investigators who interviewed Appellant, the State tendered the original, over-two-hour-long video recording of the interview, which was admitted into evidence without objection. When the prosecutor asked the trial court's permission to play the recording for the jury, the court called the attorneys to the bench, and the prosecutor explained that he planned to play an edited version of the video that was about an hour and 15 minutes long. The prosecutor told the court that the State had redacted parts of the recording that referenced Appellant's prior criminal record, probation status, and other "objectionable" content. When Appellant's counsel told the court that she had not seen the redacted video, the prosecutor explained that the State was not able to get the recording redacted and to the defense before the trial began. Appellant's counsel agreed to watch the edited recording over ...

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