Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Spell v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 20, 2019

SPELL
v.
THE STATE.

          BLACKWELL, JUSTICE.

         Appellant James Ralph Spell was tried and convicted of two murders, an aggravated battery, an aggravated assault, and two firearm offenses, all in connection with the fatal stabbing of his ex-wife and the fatal shootings of her parents. On appeal, he claims that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel at trial. We find no merit in this claim, but we note that the trial court erred when it failed to merge the aggravated battery and aggravated assault with one of the murders of which Appellant was convicted. Accordingly, we vacate the convictions for aggravated battery and aggravated assault, and we otherwise affirm.[1]

         1. Appellant and Amanda Harrison Spell married in 2004 and divorced in 2005. Even after their divorce, they sometimes would get together, and on the evening of July 30, 2007, Amanda visited Appellant at his home. Early the next morning, Appellant went to the Wayne County home that Amanda shared with her parents, Gary and Jeaney Harrison. Appellant confronted Amanda and accused her of having stolen $150 from his wallet. They argued, and at some point, Amanda drew a .22-caliber revolver. Appellant disarmed her, and he then fired a round into the sofa on which she was seated.

         Having heard a gunshot, Mr. Harrison then emerged from a bedroom, carrying a 12-gauge shotgun. He fired or attempted to fire the shotgun at Appellant, but Appellant was not wounded in either event. At that point, Appellant fatally shot Mr. Harrison with the revolver and retrieved the shotgun. As Ms. Harrison ran from the house, Appellant shot her in the back with the shotgun.[2] Appellant then grabbed a knife from the kitchen and found Amanda in a bedroom to which she had retreated. He said to her: "See what you made me do? All you had to do was give me my motherf***ing sh*t." He then fatally stabbed Amanda.

         Appellant left the scene, and he was apprehended the next day as he was preparing to flee to Mexico. At the time of his apprehension, Appellant urged the arresting officers to shoot him. Following his arrest, Appellant confessed that he had shot the Harrisons and that-just before he "ripped [Amanda] open" with the knife-he told her that "all this could've been avoided" if she had returned his money.

         (a) Appellant does not dispute that the evidence is legally sufficient to sustain his convictions, but consistent with our usual practice in murder cases, we nevertheless have reviewed the evidence and considered its sufficiency. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, we conclude that the evidence adduced at trial is sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find Appellant guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         (b) Appellant does not raise any merger error, but we have discretion to correct merger errors on direct appeal, see Nazario v. State, 293 Ga. 480, 486-487 (2) (b) (746 S.E.2d 109) (2013), and here, we note that the trial court erred when it failed to merge the aggravated battery of Ms. Harrison and the aggravated assault upon Ms. Harrison with her murder. The murder, aggravated battery, and aggravated assault all are based upon the same act-Appellant shooting Ms. Harrison in the back with a shotgun. Accordingly, we vacate the convictions for aggravated battery and aggravated assault. See Sullivan v. State, 301 Ga. 37, 43 (3) (799 S.E.2d 163) (2017).

         2. Appellant claims that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel when his lawyers failed to object to evidence that was, he says, inadmissible under Mallory v. State, 261 Ga. 625 (409 S.E.2d 839) (1991), and when they failed to object to the prosecuting attorney referencing the same evidence in his closing argument. In Mallory, this Court announced as a categorical rule that evidence that an accused failed to come forward to law enforcement prior to his arrest is "far more prejudicial than probative" and is, therefore, inadmissible. 261 Ga. at 630 (5).[3] In this case, the prosecution presented evidence that, after shooting the Harrisons and stabbing

         Amanda, Appellant went to the home of his best friend, Derrick Jones, and subsequently spoke again with Jones by telephone. Jones testified that, on both occasions, he urged Appellant to go to the police. Appellant responded that he "couldn't" go to the police, Jones said, because he was scared. The prosecuting attorney briefly referred to this evidence in closing argument:

[Appellant] is a man who [has] been told several times to turn himself in, but he's going to Mexico. I'm sorry, is that what a guilty man does? Of course. Is that what someone who's innocent, who has no-who has-I was just defending myself. I need to go talk to the police. No. You don't flee to Mexico if you've done nothing wrong.

         Appellant's lawyers objected to neither the evidence nor the argument.

         To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance, Appellant must prove both that the performance of his lawyers was deficient and that he was prejudiced by this deficient performance. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (III) (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984). To prove that the performance of his lawyers was deficient, Appellant must show that his lawyers performed their duties at trial in an objectively unreasonable way, considering all the circumstances and in the light of prevailing professional norms. See id. at 687-688 (III) (A). See also Kimmelman v. Morrison, 477 U.S. 365, 381 (II) (C) (106 S.Ct. 2574, 91 L.Ed.2d 305) (1986). And to prove that he was prejudiced by the performance of his lawyers, Appellant must show "a reasonable probability that, but for his lawyers' unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694 (III) (B). This burden is a heavy one, see Kimmelman, 477 U.S. at 382 (II) (C), and Appellant has failed to carry it.

         By the time Jones testified, the prosecution already had presented overwhelming evidence that Appellant had killed Amanda and both of her parents and that the killings of Amanda and her mother were unlawful homicides. Although the evidence presented by the prosecution to that point suggested that Appellant may have been justified in killing Mr. Harrison, the evidence made out a strong case that he was not justified in killing Amanda or Ms. Harrison. By that point, his lawyers had become convinced that he likely would be found guilty of unlawfully killing Amanda and her mother-either as murder or voluntary manslaughter-and to the extent that he was found guilty of one or more murders, his lawyers were worried about the death penalty.

         The testimony by Jones about which Appellant now complains-that Jones urged Appellant to go to the police but Appellant said he "couldn't" because he was scared-added little to the prosecution's strong case. To the extent that this testimony suggested consciousness of guilt, it did so no more strongly than evidence that Appellant was preparing to flee to Mexico when he was apprehended and that he urged the arresting officers to shoot him. For these reasons, the testimony had a limited downside for Appellant. Moreover, there was a potential upside to Jones's testimony. As one of the lawyers explained at the hearing on the motion for new trial, Jones's emotional testimony about his best friend-which linked Appellant's failure to go to the police with his statements that he was scared-was "very powerful" and would tend to humanize ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.