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Williamson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 6, 2019


          Peterson, Justice.

         Stevie Dustin Williamson appeals his convictions for malice murder, burglary, and other charges stemming from the July 2006 shooting death of George Rutten at Rutten's Seminole County home.[1] Williamson challenges the sufficiency of the evidence as to burglary and a felony murder count predicated on burglary. Williamson also argues that the trial court erred when it did not grant his motion to suppress certain custodial statements and evidence flowing therefrom and erred in charging the jury that (1) the jury could consider any prior consistent statements by witnesses as "substantive evidence" and (2) it should consider any statement made by the defendant "with great care and caution." Williamson also has filed a motion with this Court asking that the case be remanded to the trial court so that he can raise possible claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. We conclude that the evidence was sufficient to find that Williamson committed the crimes of which he was convicted, the trial court did not err in finding that his custodial statements were admissible, and none of the cited jury instructions are a basis to reverse Williamson's convictions. We also conclude that Williamson is barred from raising in this direct appeal any claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel because he did not raise them at the earliest possible moment. We therefore deny the motion to remand and affirm Williamson's convictions.

         According to the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, Williamson had performed some odd jobs for Rutten, but was then fired. On July 26, 2006, Josh Heisler, who also did work for Rutten, arrived at Rutten's residence and found Rutten lying on the floor of his bedroom, unresponsive. Responding officers and emergency medical personnel found Rutten lying on the bedroom floor near a door that connected the bedroom to the garage that he used as a workshop. Rutten's body lay at one end of a trail of blood that led to the garage. Rutten had been shot three times - in the head, chest, and shoulder - and died of his wounds.

         Around the time of the victim's death, Williamson told a girlfriend, Lisa Finley, in a phone conversation that "he shot an older guy in the head over some marijuana in his walls." On August 25, 2006, Williamson told a GBI agent that he had ridden with Heisler to Rutten's house and waited in the truck while Heisler went to speak to Rutten. Williamson then heard arguing and gunshots, and Heisler returned and said that he thought he had killed Rutten.[2]In interviews the next day, Williamson changed his story, telling agents that he walked to Rutten's home, where he found Rutten sitting in his garage. Williamson said that he tried to discuss with Rutten returning to work, but the two men argued when Rutten wanted to talk about something else. Rutten grabbed Williamson and the two tussled, Williamson recounted, and Rutten reached for a rifle. Rutten was shot when the gun discharged multiple times during the fight, falling to the ground inside his bedroom near the door to the garage, Williamson recounted, consistent with how authorities found Rutten's body. Williamson told the officers that he then entered Rutten's bedroom, where Rutten was lying on the floor, and took Rutten's wallet before leaving. Williamson said that he threw the wallet, as well as Rutten's gun, into a wooded area nearby.

         Based on Williamson's direction, officers recovered Rutten's gun and wallet. The recovered firearm was a .22-caliber bolt-action rifle that had to be reloaded manually after each shot was fired. A firearms expert determined that the recovered rifle (1) fired bullets recovered from the victim's body, (2) fired shell casings recovered from the victim's bedroom, and (3) chambered unfired bullets recovered from the victim's garage (which included at least one found within a few feet of the garage's entrance).

         1. Williamson argues that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict on the burglary count, as well as the felony murder count predicated on burglary, because the State failed to prove that he did not have authority to enter Rutten's home. We disagree.[3]

         We review this claim for whether a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). "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." Hayes v. State, 292 Ga. 506, 506 (739 S.E.2d 313) (2013) (citation omitted). "[I]t is the role of the jury to resolve conflicts in the evidence and to determine the credibility of witnesses, and the resolution of such conflicts adversely to the defendant does not render the evidence insufficient." Graham v. State, 301 Ga. 675, 677 (1) (804 S.E.2d 113) (2017) (citation and punctuation omitted).

         At the time Williamson was alleged to have committed the offenses charged, the burglary statute provided:

A person commits the offense of burglary when, without authority and with the intent to commit a felony or theft therein, he enters or remains within the dwelling house of another or any building, vehicle, railroad car, watercraft, or other such structure designed for use as the dwelling of another or enters or remains within any other building, railroad car, aircraft, or any room or any part thereof.

OCGA § 16-7-1 (a) (1980).[4] Williamson argues that the evidence did not show that he entered Rutten's home without authority and thus was insufficient to support his burglary conviction. Entry without authority may be proven by circumstantial evidence alone. See Bryant v. State, 282 Ga. 631, 634 (2) (651 S.E.2d 718) (2007); Jones v. State, 258 Ga. 25, 27 (1) (365 S.E.2d 263) (1988). Although circumstantial evidence must exclude every reasonable hypothesis save the defendant's guilt in order to support a conviction by itself, this Court will not disturb a jury's finding in that regard unless it is unsupportable as a matter of law. See Akhimie v. State, 297 Ga. 801, 804 (1) (777 S.E.2d 683) (2015).

         Williamson argues that the State failed to prove that he lacked authority to enter Rutten's bedroom, if indeed he entered it at all.[5] Williamson points out that he and Rutten knew each other, and that notwithstanding that Rutten had fired him, there was no evidence of actual ill will between them. But that ignores that - by his own confession to law enforcement - Williamson acknowledged entering the bedroom after Rutten was shot. And given that the bolt-action rifle was required to be reloaded after each shot, his claim that the gun simply discharged during a scuffle - multiple times - could easily be disbelieved by the jury in favor of a conclusion that Williamson deliberately shot Rutten. And, of course, once Williamson shot Rutten, any notion that he was then permitted to enter Rutten's bedroom is simply nonsense. The evidence was sufficient to allow the jury to conclude that Williamson entered Rutten's bedroom (and therefore his "dwelling") without authority to steal Rutten's wallet, and thus to convict Williamson of burglary.

         Although Williamson does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence as to the other crimes of which he was convicted, we have independently reviewed the record per our practice in murder cases. We conclude that the trial evidence was legally sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Williamson was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319.

         2. Williamson next argues that the trial court erred when it did not grant his motion to suppress his statements. Williamson argues that the August 26 statement in which he first made inculpatory remarks should have been suppressed because interrogating officers made comments at odds with the warnings they gave pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694) (1966). We disagree.

         Williamson's claim focuses on remarks agents made to him during the August 26 interview in which he first changed his story from one in which he was waiting in the car when Rutten was shot, to a version in which Rutten was shot accidentally while Williamson and Rutten fought.[6] At the outset of the interview, agents read Williamson his rights pursuant to Miranda and obtained Williamson's written waiver. As the agents pressed Williamson to confess, one of the agents told him that the evidence against ...

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