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Jones v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 6, 2019


          Benham, Justice.

         Appellant Michael Donnta Jones was convicted of two counts of malice murder in connection with the shooting deaths of Forrest Ison and Alice Stevens.[1] On appeal, Appellant challenges the trial court's ruling on the admissibility of certain testimony, contends that the trial court erred when it did not declare a mistrial, and asserts that trial counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. During the late evening hours of November 3, 2013, Appellant and Nathaniel Wilkins were riding in a car driven by Tracy Burgess - Appellant's girlfriend and Wilkins's sister - looking for Ison. The trio had plotted to rob Ison, and once they spotted his vehicle, they followed it to Ison's house. Burgess parked across the street from the residence, and Appellant and Wilkins, both armed, went to hide in nearby bushes. When Ison and Stevens got out of the vehicle, Appellant and Wilkins approached the couple with guns drawn. Stevens screamed, and both Appellant and Wilkins fired at the pair and then fled on foot; Burgess drove away.

         Ison was declared dead at the scene, and Stevens died en route to the hospital. A forensic pathologist determined that the cause of death for both victims was multiple gunshot wounds. Both victims were shot once in the chin by a .45-caliber bullet and once in the head with a .22-caliber bullet. The murder weapons were never recovered.

         Over the next several days, Appellant told several people that he and Wilkins had killed two people in a robbery. Appellant told a friend that Wilkins shot first and that Appellant had to "finish it off" so there would be no witnesses. Appellant also showed his friend a .40- or .45-caliber pistol that he said he had used during the shooting.

         1.Although Appellant does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence with respect to his convictions, in accordance with this Court's standard practice in appeals of murder cases, we have reviewed the record and find that the evidence, as stated above, was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of those offenses. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Appellant argues that the trial court made five errors regarding the admissibility of testimony. "[T]he trial court's decision whether to admit or exclude evidence will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion." Anglin v. State, 302 Ga. 333 (2) (806 S.E.2d 573) (2017).

         (a) Appellant first contends that the trial court erroneously permitted the State to elicit inadmissible hearsay from an acquaintance of Wilkins, Joris Cooper. Cooper testified that Wilkins had threatened him several months after the murders but before anyone had been arrested, insinuating that he would be killed if he cooperated with the murder investigation. Appellant argues that Cooper's testimony concerning Wilkins's comment was inadmissible hearsay because the threat did not fit under the coconspirator exception to the hearsay rule pursuant to OCGA § 24-8-801 (d) (2) (E).[2] According to Appellant, the conspiracy had ended at the time of the threat because both co-defendants had already made several incriminating statements to other people before the alleged threat was made. We disagree.

         A statement in furtherance of a conspiracy made during the concealment phase of the conspiracy is admissible when the State establishes, before the close of evidence at trial, a prima facie case of conspiracy independent of the coconspirator's statement. See Davis v. State, 302 Ga. 576 (4) (805 S.E.2d 859) (2017). In this case, the State presented evidence that Burgess, Wilkins, and Appellant had formed a conspiracy to rob Ison on the night of the murders. See Hassel v. State, 294 Ga. 834 (3) (755 S.E.2d 134) (2014) (stating that a conspiracy consists of an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime); see also Kemp v. State, 303 Ga. 385 (2) (b) (810 S.E.2d 515) (2018) (noting that the new Evidence Code "also carries forward aspects of the coconspirator rule that existed under our old Evidence Code - principally, that a conspiracy does not necessarily end upon the achievement of its object"). Although Appellant and Wilkins had made several incriminating statements to other individuals before Wilkins threatened Cooper, Wilkins's threat towards Cooper was made in furtherance of the conspiracy because it was designed to keep law enforcement from uncovering the conspiracy resulting in the murder. Kemp, 303 Ga. 385 (2) (stating "[w]e apply a liberal standard in determining whether a statement is made in furtherance of a conspiracy, and statements that further the interests of the conspiracy in some way meet this standard"). Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying Appellant's objection. See id.

         (b) Next, Appellant argues that the trial court erred by preventing Appellant from cross-examining Cooper about his prior grand jury testimony. On direct examination, Cooper testified that the gun Wilkins possessed while threatening him was a black revolver. On cross-examination however, Appellant elicited testimony from Cooper that he had previously testified before the grand jury that the firearm was a "black automatic." Defense counsel then asked Cooper "[a]nd obviously that's in direct conflict of what your testimony is here today; is that correct?" The State objected to that question on the basis that it invaded the province of the jury, and the trial court sustained the objection.

         Appellant contends he had a right to ask Cooper whether his trial testimony was in direct conflict with his prior grand jury testimony. However, even if we assume the trial court's ruling was erroneous, it was harmless because Cooper's prior answer plainly identified the conflict Appellant sought to highlight in his subsequent question. See Duckworth v. State, 268 Ga. 566 (2) (492 S.E.2d 201) (1997) (finding error in limiting cross-examination harmless when the inconsistencies trial counsel sought to highlight were known to the jury).

         (c) Appellant next argues that the trial court erroneously prohibited the admission of a photograph depicting Wilkins and an individual known as "Peanut" together on the beach.

         During direct examination, Burgess testified that the car she drove to Ison's house belonged to her cousin "Peanut." She said that Peanut, Wilkins, and Appellant were talking outside of her friend's house before she picked up Appellant and Wilkins and drove them to the crime scene. Burgess did not make any claims during her trial testimony that Peanut committed the crimes. On cross- examination, Burgess admitted that she had previously told her sister that Peanut drove the car to the scene and that Wilkins and Peanut committed the crimes while Appellant remained in the car with Burgess. Burgess was impeached on this discrepancy, and Appellant attempted to have a photo admitted that depicts Wilkins and Peanut standing together on the beach. The trial court disallowed the photo for lack of relevance.

         Questions of relevance are within the sound discretion of the trial court, and absent a clear abuse of discretion, a court's decision to exclude evidence on the grounds of a lack of relevance will not be disturbed on appeal. SeeTaylor v. State, 297 Ga. 132 (3) (772 S.E.2d 630) (2015). Here, the photograph only established, at most, that Wilkins and Peanut were acquainted, a fact that was not in dispute. The photograph did not help determine whether Peanut or Appellant committed the murders with Wilkins. See OCGA ยง 4-4-401 (providing that "relevant evidence" is evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less ...

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