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Debelbot v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 13, 2019


          Peterson, Justice.

         Albert and Ashley Debelbot appeal their malice murder convictions for the death of their infant daughter, McKenzy Debelbot.[1] The Debelbots each argue that the evidence was insufficient to sustain their convictions, that their respective trial attorneys rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance, and that their convictions cannot stand for other reasons. We conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support the convictions of both Albert and Ashley. But while we are deeply troubled by at least two of the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, the nature of the order below prevents meaningful review of all of those claims. Therefore, we vacate and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury verdict, the trial evidence shows that Ashley gave birth to McKenzy on May 29, 2008, at Martin Army Community Hospital in Columbus, [2] and they were discharged from the hospital on May 31. There were no signs that the baby was unhealthy or in distress. The Debelbots took McKenzy home and provided the sole care for the infant for the next 13 hours, during which time - according to the Debelbots - they fed and played with McKenzy, changed her diaper, and gave her a bath. In the early morning hours of June 1, the Debelbots took McKenzy to the hospital after noticing a bump on her head. McKenzy died a few hours later.

         When police arrived, Albert appeared to be very distraught and cried several times, while Ashley did not appear to be nearly as upset as Albert and was never seen crying. During police interviews, however, Ashley got upset in explaining McKenzy's injuries and claimed not to know what happened to McKenzy. The police conducted a search of the Debelbots' apartment, but there is no indication that anything of evidentiary value was recovered.

         A GBI medical examiner, Dr. Lora Darrisaw, performed an autopsy on McKenzy on June 2, 2008. Dr. Darrisaw testified that McKenzy had a fracture on the left side of her head, extensive fractures on the right side of her head, and bleeding in the brain. Dr. Darrisaw noted that McKenzy's birth occurred without any apparent complications and that the infant had food in her stomach at the time of the autopsy. Dr. Darrisaw also examined 19 microscopic slides of McKenzy's brain, found that no inflammatory cells had formed in response to the trauma, and concluded that the injuries preceded McKenzy's death by no more than 12 hours, possibly as little as one or two hours. Dr. Darrisaw opined that McKenzy's birth was not the cause of the trauma, because the extent of the injuries would not have allowed the infant to eat or do anything else and would have caused a very rapid death. Instead, Dr. Darrisaw concluded that McKenzy's death was a homicide and the cause of death was blunt force trauma, either by a series of blows to the head or by a "crushing type of injury."

         Based on Dr. Darrisaw's conclusion, the police arrested the Debelbots, who both denied harming their child. Albert testified at trial, reiterating that neither he nor Ashley ever harmed McKenzy. In rebuttal, the State called Melvin Tarver, a felon with multiple convictions who shared a holding cell with Albert, who testified that Albert had confided in him on the first morning of the Debelbots' trial. According to Tarver, Albert said that, on the night McKenzy was brought home, he left the house to buy drugs and, when he returned, Ashley told him that she had spanked the infant and put her to bed.

         Ashley also testified at trial and denied that she or Albert had hurt McKenzy. She admitted that McKenzy appeared to be healthy after birth, and both Albert and Ashley admitted that McKenzy appeared to be fine prior to the time they found a bump on her head and took her to the emergency room. Neither Albert nor Ashley called any medical experts to testify in their defense.

         During its closing argument, the State made the following argument about reasonable doubt:

The Judge will charge you on reasonable doubt. Just keep in mind, and he will charge you, reasonable doubt does not mean beyond all doubt. It does not mean to a mathematical certainty. Which means we don't have to prove that ninety percent. You don't have to be ninety percent sure. You don't have to be eighty percent sure. You don't have to be fifty-one percent sure. It does not mean to a mathematical certainty.
And it does not mean beyond a shadow of a doubt. That's just something the TV made up. It's actually beyond a reasonable doubt. And that would be a doubt to which you can attach a reason. And I submit to you there is no reasonable doubt in this case.

(Emphasis added.) Neither of the Debelbots' trial counsel objected to this argument. The trial court later charged the jury on the burden of proof by stating:

The defendants are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. Each defendant enters upon the trial of the case with a presumption of innocence in his or her favor. This presumption remains with the defendant until it is overcome by the State with evidence that is sufficient to convince you beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the offense charged.
No person shall be convicted of any crime unless and until each element of the crime as charged is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The burden of proof rests upon the State to prove every material allegation of the indictment and every essential element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. There is no burden of proof upon the defendant whatsoever, and the burden never ...

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