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Coley v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

April 15, 2019

COLEY
v.
THE STATE.

          WARREN, JUSTICE

         Christopher Lee Coley was convicted of malice murder in the shooting death of John Adams. On appeal, Coley contends that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction; that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial, in charging the jury on party to a crime, and in allowing the alternate juror to sit in the jury room during deliberations; and that his trial counsel was ineffective. Finding no error, we affirm.[1]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. On September 21, 2006, Coley and Marcus Lawson, who are cousins, spent much of the day together. At one point that night, Coley showed Lawson a loaded chrome and black gun. Shortly after that, Coley and Lawson bought some marijuana and walked to a store to buy a cigar to use for smoking the marijuana. The two were wearing dark clothing- Lawson in a black and silver shirt, black pants, and black shoes, and Coley in a black shirt and blue jeans-and bandanas, and Coley also had a black t-shirt on his head. Lawson later testified that as they were walking to the store around midnight, Coley saw someone coming toward them, so Coley and Lawson got off the street and hid in some bushes as they waited for the person to pass. The person approaching was Adams.

         Lawson testified that Adams turned around and started walking in the opposite direction, and that Coley then ran up behind him, prompting Adams to turn back around. According to Lawson, Coley then pulled a gun. Lawson testified that he looked away, then heard a gun cock and a shot. Lawson testified that he started to walk away, but that Coley ran up to him telling him to run; as they ran, Coley said that he had shot Adams.

         After Coley and Lawson fled the scene, they first hid behind a nearby house for about 20 minutes. They left the gun there, along with the bandanas each of them wore and the black t-shirt that had been on Coley's head. From there, the two went to an abandoned house and hid until the next morning.

         Lawson was arrested around noon the next day. He promptly began helping the police, voluntarily telling them that Coley was the shooter and leading them to the gun and clothes. He also helped them locate Coley, who was arrested later that same day. Coley initially told the police that he had no knowledge of the shooting, but later stated that Lawson had been the shooter.[2]

         In addition to Lawson's testimony, other evidence was adduced at trial. Near the house that Coley and Lawson first hid behind, which Lawson led police to, investigators found two bandanas, a black t-shirt, and a handgun. The handgun was a match for the bullet that killed Adams. And the black t-shirt, which Lawson said Coley had on his head, had Coley's DNA on it. Coley also had a bloodstain on the jeans that he was wearing at the time of his arrest and which he admitted that he had been wearing at the time Adams was shot, though there was not enough blood on the jeans to generate a DNA profile. Additionally, in Coley's statement to police, he was able to describe details like what Adams had in his hands and the positioning of Adams's body as he fell, indicating to the agent interviewing Coley "that he was pretty close to the victim" at the time of the shooting. At trial, the medical examiner testified that Adams died from a contact gunshot to the head, which entered just below his left temple. And two witnesses who lived near the scene testified that they saw two people "wearing dark clothing" running through their yard around the time of the shooting, prompting them to call 911.

         2. Coley asserts that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction. Specifically, he asserts that the evidence was vague and conflicting and that the testimony of Lawson-who was Coley's accomplice-was uncorroborated. Because there was at least slight evidence corroborating Lawson's accomplice testimony, and because the evidence was otherwise sufficient to support Coley's conviction of malice murder, this enumeration fails.

         In "felony cases where the only witness is an accomplice," the testimony of that single accomplice must be corroborated to sustain a conviction. Former OCGA § 24-4-8; Bradshaw v. State, 296 Ga. 650, 653 (769 S.E.2d 892) (2015).[3] "'[S]ufficient corroborating evidence may be circumstantial, it may be slight, and it need not of itself be sufficient to warrant a conviction of the crime charged.'" Bradshaw, 296 Ga. at 654 (quoting Threatt v. State, 293 Ga. 549, 551 (748 S.E.2d 400) (2013)). That said, the corroborating evidence must be "'independent of the accomplice testimony and must directly connect the defendant with the crime, or lead to the inference that he is guilty. Slight evidence from an extraneous source identifying the accused as a participant in the criminal act is sufficient corroboration of the accomplice to support a verdict.'" Id. at 655 (quoting Threatt, 293 Ga. at 551).

         Coley argues that he was merely present when the crime occurred. But there was more than slight, independent evidence corroborating Lawson's testimony that Coley was a participant in Adams's shooting. As an initial matter, Coley himself admitted to being at the murder scene, after first lying about his presence there. In addition, testing confirmed that the black t-shirt Lawson said that Coley wore on his head during the shooting had Coley's DNA on it, and officers found that t-shirt in close proximity to the murder weapon. Moreover, two neighbors who lived near the location of the shooting called 911 after they saw two people in dark clothing running through their yard around the time of Adams's murder. Finally, the jeans that Coley was wearing when officers arrested him, and which he admitted that he was wearing at the time Adams was shot, had a bloodstain on them. This evidence corroborated Lawson's testimony that Coley was a participant in Adams's murder. See, e.g., Raines v. State, 304 Ga. 582, 588-589 (820 S.E.2d 679) (2018) (independent evidence-including defendant's own statement placing him at the scene and his description of the murder, despite claiming he was a mere bystander-sufficiently corroborated accomplice's testimony). Because there is sufficient evidence corroborating Lawson's accomplice testimony, Coley's enumeration of error fails in this regard.

         Coley's argument about the general sufficiency of the evidence also fails. When evaluating a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, we view the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to the verdict and ask whether any rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crime of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). "'As long as there is some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State's case, the jury's verdict will be upheld.'" Williams v. State, 287 Ga. 199, 200 (695 S.E.2d 246) (2010) (citation omitted).

         Coley asserts that the evidence, which included Lawson's testimony that he witnessed Coley murder Adams and that he heard Coley admit to shooting Adams, was vague and conflicting. But our review "leaves to the jury the resolution of conflicts in the testimony, the weight of the evidence, the credibility of witnesses, and reasonable inferences" to be made from the evidence. See Menzies v. State, 304 Ga. 156, 160 (816 S.E.2d 638) (2018). There was sufficient evidence to support Coley's conviction, so this enumeration of error fails.

         3. Coley contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial after the State elicited testimony about Coley's arrest for sale of cocaine and a probation violation, which Coley argues was inappropriate character evidence. As explained below, because Coley did not move for a mistrial at the time of the complained-of statement, he did not preserve this issue for appellate review.

         Where a motion for mistrial is based on alleged bad-character evidence and is denied, that denial is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Brewer v. State, 301 Ga 819, 820 (804 S.E.2d 410) (2017) (citation omitted). But if the defendant "did not make a contemporaneous motion for mistrial" at the time the defendant became aware of the matter giving rise to the motion, then the defendant "has waived review of this issue on appeal." Moore v. State, 294 ...


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