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Cochran v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 20, 2019

COCHRAN
v.
THE STATE.

          BENHAM, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Johnny Ray Cochran was convicted of murder and a related offense arising out of the shooting death of Melony Strickland.[1] On appeal, Cochran asserts that the evidence is insufficient to sustain his convictions and that trial counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance in various ways.

         Finding no error, we affirm.

         Viewed in a light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence adduced at trial showed as follows. Strickland earned a living by driving an escort vehicle for oversized trucks. During the course of her work, she met and began a relationship with Cochran, an over-the-road truck driver. Strickland subsequently abandoned her job in favor of accompanying Cochran while he drove, but, months later, returned to the truck-escort business. The jury learned that Strickland's decision to return to work was based on her dwindling finances, but was also the result of her being unhappy with Cochran, who had become controlling during their travels. By August 2007, the couple's relationship had deteriorated further, and Strickland reported to friends that Cochran had become "crazy." On the evening of August 15, 2007, Cochran borrowed his mother's silver, four-door Buick sedan and, according to cellular-telephone records, traveled along a route from his hometown in Alabama to Americus, Georgia, where Strickland resided. Those records also reflect that, while he drove, he made numerous calls to Strickland. Surveillance video from a shopping-center parking lot in Americus captured a silver vehicle - which was identified at trial as being like the one borrowed by Cochran - arriving at the location and parking next to Strickland, who had been shopping for vehicle supplies. The video further depicts Strickland working on her truck with the driver from the silver sedan and then shows the two individuals leaving the area in her truck. Strickland was neither seen alive nor heard from again.

         In the early morning hours of the following day, surveillance video captured Strickland's truck returning to the parking lot; the video shows an individual exiting the truck and then leaving the area in the silver sedan. Strickland's truck was left unlocked with the windows down, and Cochran's sunglasses were later discovered in the truck. Cellular telephone records document that, shortly after Strickland's truck was recorded returning to the parking lot, Cochran began his return trip home; he eventually arrived at the residence of his ex-wife, acting oddly and asking to "hide" his vehicle.

         Several days later, Strickland was discovered dead in her home. Strickland's residence had been locked, and the location bore no signs of forced entry, struggle, or theft. The jury heard testimony that Strickland's death was a homicide and was the result of a gunshot wound. The jury also learned that, at the time she was murdered, Strickland was wearing the same clothing as seen in the parking-lot surveillance video. Projectiles recovered from the victim's body were a rare type of bullet - last distributed in the late 1980s - that matched those later discovered in the home of Cochran's mother. Ballistics evidence also determined that the firearm used in the murder was like one that had been recently stolen from Cochran's former girlfriend and had been last seen at the home of Cochran's mother.

         1. Cochran first argues that the evidence against him is insufficient to sustain his convictions. Specifically, he contends that the evidence against him was purely circumstantial and that the State's case failed to exclude every other reasonable hypothesis except that of guilt. We disagree.

Under both former OCGA § 24-4-6, in effect at the time of [Cochran's] trial, and present OCGA § 24-14-6, in order to convict [Cochran] of the crimes based solely upon circumstantial evidence, the proven facts had to be consistent with the hypothesis of [his] guilt and exclude every reasonable hypothesis save that of [his] guilt. Not every hypothesis is reasonable, and the evidence does not have to exclude every conceivable inference or hypothesis; it need rule out only those that are reasonable. The reasonableness of an alternative hypothesis raised by a defendant is a question principally for the jury, and when the jury is authorized to find that the evidence, though circumstantial, is sufficient to exclude every reasonable hypothesis save that of the accused's guilt, this Court will not disturb that finding unless it is insupportable as a matter of law.

Akhimie v. State, 297 Ga. 801, 804 (1) (777 S.E.2d 683) (2015).

         Cochran contends that the State failed to resolve questions concerning the timing of Strickland's death. At the time Strickland was discovered - approximately three days after she was alleged to have been killed - she was in a state of rigor mortis. Cochran points out that, according to the State's own witnesses, rigor mortis generally resolves within 24 hours of death, and the presence of rigor mortis in this case suggests that Strickland could have been killed closer in time to when she was found. Thus, Cochran argues, there is a reasonable hypothesis that Strickland was murdered by someone else after Cochran left Americus.

         This "hypothesis" fails to account for the fact that the relevant ballistic evidence connects Cochran to the crime and, further, disregards the extensive trial testimony that numerous variables can affect rigor mortis and that, in this case, rigor mortis was unhelpful in determining time of death. The jury heard testimony that the thermostat in Strickland's residence was set to 64 degrees and that this cool temperature would have delayed the onset of rigor mortis. Accordingly, the jury was not required to conclude that the hypothesis that Strickland was murdered after Cochran left Americus to return home was reasonable. See Black v. State, 296 Ga. 658 (1) (769 S.E.2d 898) (2015).

         There is also no merit to Cochran's complaint that the State failed to adduce forensic or physical evidence connecting him to the crime, such as DNA evidence. "Although the State is required to prove its case with competent evidence, there is no requirement that it prove its case with any particular sort of evidence." Plez v. State, 300 Ga. 505, 506 (796 S.E.2d 704) (2017). Here, the State presented evidence tending to show that Cochran traveled to Americus on the evening Strickland was last known to be alive; that he met with her in a parking lot and left with her; that Strickland was murdered with a decades-old bullet that matched those later discovered in the home of Cochran's mother; that the firearm used in the murder was like one that had been recently stolen from Cochran's ex-girlfriend and stored in the residence of Cochran's mother; and that, after returning from Americus, Cochran appeared at his ex-wife's residence acting strangely and asking to hide his vehicle. This evidence, though circumstantial, was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Cochran was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Cochran also asserts that trial counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance in four different ways. There is no merit to his claims.

         Cochran can only succeed on his claims if he demonstrates both that counsel's performance was deficient and that counsel's deficient performance was prejudicial to the defense. SeeTerry v. State, 284 Ga. 119, 120 (2) (663 S.E.2d 704) (2008). Regarding deficient performance, a claimant must show that his attorney "performed at trial in an objectively unreasonable way considering all the circumstances and in the light of prevailing professional norms." Romer v. State, 293 Ga. 339, 344 (3) (745 S.E.2d 637) (2013). When reviewing counsel's performance, we "apply a 'strong presumption' that counsel's representation was within the 'wide range' of reasonable professional assistance." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 104 (131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624) (2011) (quoting Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 688, 689 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984)). As such, "a tactical decision will not form the basis ...


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