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Bell v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

April 29, 2019


          BENHAM, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Bennie Lorenzo Bell appeals his convictions for crimes related to the death of Henry Stokes and the aggravated assault of Tony Collier.[1]

         1. Appellant alleges the trial court erred when it denied his motion for a directed verdict. This Court has held:

The standard of review for the denial of a motion for a directed verdict of acquittal is the same as for determining the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction. When reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, the proper standard for review is whether a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This Court does not reweigh evidence or resolve conflicts in testimony; instead, evidence is reviewed in a light most favorable to the verdict, with deference to the jury's assessment of the weight and credibility of the evidence.

(Citations and punctuation omitted). Smith v. State, 304 Ga. 752, 754 (822 S.E.2d 220) (2018). See also Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         Here, the record viewed in a light most favorable to upholding the jury's verdicts shows as follows. On the night in question, Collier and Stokes were inside Stokes' boarding house room where they sold drugs. The main entryway door to the boarding house was always locked. That night, someone knocked on the entryway door and Stokes answered it. A neighbor testified he heard the knock, heard someone say, "You straight, you got any," and heard Stokes reply, "Yes." The neighbor testified he heard two different people in the hallway with Stokes. The neighbor also stated he heard someone say, "Let me get it all," and heard scuffling, followed by gunshots.

         Collier testified he heard a disturbance in the hallway, and then saw Stokes run into the room, spin around, and try to shut the room door. According to Collier, someone slipped his arm through the doorway before Stokes could close it, and fired a gun at Stokes, causing him to collapse. Collier said he grabbed a .22 caliber pistol that was inside the room and opened fire. Collier testified that the arm holding a gun twice came through the doorway and he shot at it each time. After the gunmen left, Collier ran out of the room and outside of the building where he shot at a vehicle that appeared to be driving away from the boarding house. Collier testified he gave the .22 caliber pistol to the maintenance man to hide, told the maintenance man to call an ambulance for Stokes, and then left the scene. Collier went to the police a day later when he learned that police were looking for him.

         Investigators recovered several bullets and shell casings from the scene. A ballistics expert testified many of the shell casings and projectiles were fired from at least two different 9mm handguns (a Hi-Point and a Smith & Wesson).[2] He also testified that .22 caliber shell casings recovered from the scene were fired from the .22 caliber pistol Collier testified he used that night. The medical examiner testified Stokes died of a gunshot wound to the head. The bullet the medical examiner recovered from Stokes' body was fired from the same gun that produced the shell casings from the 9mm Smith & Wesson.

         The lead detective testified that authorities learned of appellant's possible involvement in the crime from an incarcerated informant, who said he saw appellant on the night of the shooting. The informant said appellant had a gunshot wound to his right arm. The informant identified appellant out of a photographic lineup and advised authorities of appellant's whereabouts. Authorities arrested appellant on January 12, 2010. Appellant admitted to police that he was at the boarding house to buy drugs, that he entered the boarding house with another person, that he was armed with a firearm, and that he was shot in the arm during the incident.[3] Appellant denied firing his gun, blaming his confederate for firing upon the victims.

         Appellant alleges the evidence was insufficient to convict him because, he argues, the State failed to show that he shot at either of the victims. We disagree. This Court has held that

a person may be found guilty of a crime if [he] directly commits the crime or intentionally aids or abets in the commission of the crime. Whether a person is a party to a crime may be inferred from that person's presence, companionship, and conduct before, during, and after the crime . . . .

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Virger v. State, Ga. (3) (824 S.E.2d 346) (2019). Based on the evidence summarized above, the jury was authorized to conclude appellant was guilty, either directly or as a party to a crime, for the death of Stokes and the aggravated assault of Collier. See id.; Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. at 319.

         2. While appellant was sitting in a patrol car, Investigator Brandon Beckman read appellant his Miranda[4] rights, and appellant invoked his right to a lawyer. Investigator Beckman testified he ceased any questioning of appellant. A few minutes later, Lieutenant Scott Peebles informed appellant that he was going to be charged with murder. At that point, appellant told authorities he wanted to speak with them without a lawyer. The police drove appellant to the police station where he signed a waiver of rights form and submitted to an interview, which was partially recorded. During the interview, appellant made inculpatory statements. On appeal, appellant alleges his statements to police should not have been admitted because he invoked his right to counsel. Inasmuch as appellant did not object to the admission of his custodial statements at trial, [5] and, furthermore, was tried before the effective date of the new Evidence Code, he is not entitled to plain error review, or to any other review of this claim. See Durham v. State, 292 Ga. 239 (2) (734 S.E.2d 377) (2012); Thompson v. State, 258 Ga. 816 (2) (375 S.E.2d 219) (1989).

         3. Appellant alleges trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance when he failed to object to the admission of his custodial statements on the ground that police were barred from interrogating appellant once he invoked his right to counsel. See Div. 2, supra. In ...

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