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Oliver v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

April 29, 2019

OLIVER
v.
THE STATE.

          PETERSON, JUSTICE.

         Johnie Oliver appeals his convictions for malice murder and aggravated assault in connection with the June 26, 2014 shooting death of Rayonte Weems.[1] Oliver argues that he invoked his right to self-representation and that the trial court erred by failing to hold a hearing pursuant to Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 819 (95 S.Ct. 2525, 45 L.Ed.2d 562) (1975). We affirm because Oliver never unequivocally asserted his right to self-representation.

         The trial evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts showed that at around 11:00 p.m. on June 26, 2014, Weems, accompanied by his girlfriend Yani Conner and his friend Theodore Rollins, drove to a residence in DeKalb County to sell marijuana to Oliver. Weems was driving a black Plymouth Neon.

         Upon Weems's arrival, Oliver, who was with some friends, walked up to the driver's side window and gave Weems twelve or thirteen dollars for some marijuana. After Weems drove away, Oliver believed the marijuana did not smell right and became angry.

         Weems received a call a short time later to return to the same location as before because Oliver wanted his money back. Conner and Rollins were still with Weems, and Oliver and his friends were still at the residence. On arrival, Weems got out of the car, unarmed, grabbed Oliver by his shirt, and yelled at Oliver for insinuating that Weems had sold him low-grade marijuana. Rollins also got out of the car but remained uninvolved. After the brief argument, Weems turned around and walked back towards the car.

         Oliver pulled out a black 9 mm handgun and started firing. He shot Weems five times, Rollins five or six times, and Conner once. Weems died quickly, but Rollins and Conner survived their injuries. As Oliver began shooting, his friends fled; he followed after.

         Later, Oliver laughed and bragged to his friends that he had "burnt them n****s," "dumped on those n****s" or "shot them n****s." After his arrest, Oliver tried to solicit another inmate as an alibi witness, telling him about the shooting and explaining that he shot Weems's friends because he did not want any witnesses.

         1. Although Oliver does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, we have independently reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence presented at trial was legally sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Oliver argues that the trial court erred by failing to hold a Faretta hearing after he invoked his right to self-representation. We disagree.

         The right of a criminal defendant to self-representation is guaranteed by both the federal and state constitutions. Wiggins v. State, 298 Ga. 366, 368 (2) (782 S.E.2d 31) (2016); see also Faretta, 422 U.S. at 819 ("Although not stated in the [Sixth] Amendment in so many words, the right to self-representation -- to make one's own defense personally -- is . . . necessarily implied by the structure of the Amendment."); Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. I, Sec. I, Par. XII ("No person shall be deprived of the right to prosecute or defend, either in person or by an attorney, that person's own cause in any of the courts of this state."). To avail himself of this right, a defendant must clearly and unequivocally assert his desire to represent himself. Faretta, 422 U.S. at 835-836; Wiggins, 298 Ga. at 368 (2). If an unequivocal invocation is made, it must be followed by a hearing to ensure that the defendant "knowingly and intelligently waives the traditional benefits associated with the right to counsel and understands the disadvantages of self-representation so that the record will establish that he knows what he is doing and his choice is made with eyes open." Wiggins, 298 Ga. at 368 (2) (quoting Faretta, 422 U.S. at 835-836 (punctuation omitted)). The improper denial of the right to self-representation is a structural error not subject to a harmlessness analysis, and requires automatic reversal. McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 U.S. 168, 177 n. 8 (104 S.Ct. 944, 79 L.Ed.2d 122) (1984); Wiggins, 298 Ga. at 370 (2).

         The trial court did not err by failing to hold a Faretta hearing; Oliver never unequivocally asserted his right to self-representation. The only evidence Oliver points to as proof of his invocation is a June 26, 2015 pro se petition he filed while represented by counsel titled "Petition To: Dismiss and Reappoint Indigent Council." The petition expressed dissatisfaction with counsel and stated that:

. . . In light of my current petition please accept my request to act upon my own behalf (Pro-Se) until this matter is heard and resolved in your court. I hereby petition the court for new appointment of counsel.

         Contrary to Oliver's contentions, both the title and the content of this petition reflected a request for the appointment of new counsel; it was not an unequivocal invocation of the right of self-representation for trial. See, e.g., Danenberg v. State, 291 Ga. 439, 440-441 (2) (729 S.E.2d 315) (2012) (defendant's note to court asking to dismiss trial counsel and replace them with retained counsel, a public defender, or himself was not an unequivocal assertion of right to self-representation).

         Moreover, Oliver went to trial with counsel without any objection or even mention of it to the trial court and complained only after trial. Acquiescence to the "substantial participation by counsel" at trial "obliterates any claim that such participation in question deprived [Oliver] ...


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