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Rowland v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

June 3, 2019



         Jesse Lynn Rowland was convicted of felony murder in connection with the shooting death of Mike Whittle.[1] On appeal, he contends that the trial court erred in admitting his custodial statements, in making certain evidentiary rulings, and in charging the jury. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence at trial showed the following. Rowland and Whittle were friends, and both belonged to a group of "dope buddies" who bought, sold, or used methamphetamine, opiates, or other drugs. Rowland described Whittle and himself as "pill heads." In the months before the shooting, members of the group suspected that one of them had become an informant and was "snitching" to the local police. In fact, Rowland's cousin, Dana Floyd, had been arrested on weapons charges and had become a confidential informant for the Bleckley County Sheriff's Department. Rowland feared that Whittle and others had assumed, given his relationship to Floyd, that he was also a snitch and that they intended to kill him. One of Rowland's friends testified that he and Rowland had heard rumors that Whittle and Floyd were conspiring to give Rowland a lethal injection of lidocaine and alcohol. In text messages exchanged between Whittle and Rowland shortly before the shooting, Whittle complained that Floyd was "singing like a canary." Whittle's texts imply that he also suspected Rowland of implicating him in criminal activity. Whittle warned Rowland to "be careful."

         Rowland testified that, at around 4:30 a.m. on September 19, 2013, he was awakened by a call from Whittle, who was looking "for a fix" of methamphetamine. Rowland left his girlfriend's parents' house and drove to Whittle's home to tell him "I don't sell drugs." When Rowland arrived, Whittle was standing in his doorway. Rowland believed that Whittle, whom he described as "fully dressed and waiting," was behaving strangely. He also thought he saw two other people hiding in the shadows. Rowland testified that Whittle, who was known to carry a knife, walked up to his driver's side window, angrily accused him of being "out to get" him, and then reached through the window and forcefully tried to pull him out of the truck. Rowland testified that he grabbed his pistol, pushed Whittle away from him, and then shot Whittle in an act of self-defense. Rowland said he was close enough to Whittle to see the muzzle fire from his pistol illuminate Whittle's face.

         Forensic evidence adduced by the State contradicted Rowland's account of the shooting. The State's experts testified that Whittle had been shot through the left cheek, at a slightly downward trajectory, and from an indeterminate range that left no stippling or gunpowder residue on his face. There was no blood on or near the driver's side door of the truck. They found Whittle's blood, however, on the truck's tailgate and on the bottom left leg of Rowland's jeans. Analysis of blood spatter on Rowland's truck indicated that Whittle had been near the tailgate of Rowland's truck and fairly low to the ground, possibly on his hands and knees, when he was shot. The police found a single shell casing consistent with Rowland's .380 pistol on the ground near the body. Whittle had been clothed only in his boxer shorts when he was shot. The police found no knife or other weapon on or near the body.

         After the shooting, Rowland returned to his girlfriend's house. On his way there, he discarded his pistol. He also sent text messages to his girlfriend using Whittle's phone. When Rowland arrived, the girlfriend's mother saw him and noticed that he had something red on his fingers. When she asked what it was, Rowland responded "Let's just say I took care of a problem I had and it won't be a problem anymore." Shortly thereafter, Rowland drove back to Whittle's home and tried to move the body, but he could not lift it. When Rowland learned from his girlfriend that the police were looking for him, he drove to his house. On the way there, he collided with a vehicle driven by Whittle's son.

         About an hour and a half after the collision, Brian Scarborough, an investigator with the Laurens County Sheriff's Office, went to the scene of the collision. He arrested Rowland for Whittle's murder and read him his rights under Miranda.[2] Rowland declined to speak with the investigator and invoked his right to counsel. At 10:47 a.m., Rowland filled out a jail "inmate request form," asking to speak with Scarborough. Minutes later, Rowland met with Scarborough and another investigator, Lance Padgett, and agreed to make a statement. In the audio-recorded statement, which was played for the jury, Rowland denied any involvement in Whittle's death, claiming at first that he had been at his girlfriend's house and then, later, that he had been in Macon. He said he had lost his cell phone two days earlier. He told the investigators that Whittle had made many enemies and that any one of them could have killed him. Rowland also insisted that he was not a "snitch."

         On September 23, Rowland again asked to speak with Scarborough about the case. The investigator read Rowland his rights and Rowland agreed to give a statement. Rowland told Scarborough that he suspected that, on the night of the shooting, Whittle had lured him to his home. He said that Whittle and two others menaced him when he arrived and that Whittle had either reached for his pocket or had something in his hand. When Whittle swung at him, Rowland shot him with his pistol. After that, "everything just went crazy," and he had no memory of what happened to his pistol or how he came to have Whittle's cell phone. Rowland then said he went back to Whittle's house after the shooting to try to help him, but that he could not find his phone to call 911. He also admitted trying to put Whittle's body in the truck, but that he could not lift it.

         1. Rowland does not dispute the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction. Nevertheless, as is this Court's practice in murder cases, we have reviewed the record and conclude that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence presented at trial and summarized above was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Rowland guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of felony murder. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). See also Vega v. State, 285 Ga. 32, 33 (1) (673 S.E.2d 223) (2009) ("It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence." (citation and punctuation omitted)).

         2. Rowland contends the trial court erred in admitting, following a Jackson-Denno[3] hearing, his September 19, 2013 custodial statement. He argues that the statement was not voluntary under the totality of the circumstances because he was not re-advised of his Miranda rights after he asked to speak with Scarborough and because he was under the influence of drugs. For the following reasons, we find no error.

         Rowland does not dispute that the investigator ceased his efforts to question him after he invoked his right to counsel and his right to remain silent while he was seated in the patrol car. He also does not dispute that he was the one to initiate contact after earlier invoking his rights. The record in this case clearly shows that Rowland filled out an inmate request form asking specifically for Scarborough; moreover, the transcript of the interview shows that Rowland wanted to talk about the charges against him and the circumstances of Whittle's death. Thus, the question before us is whether, after having initiated contact with Scarborough, Rowland's custodial statements were voluntary under the totality of the circumstances.

         If "a defendant is found to have initiated contact with authorities and then knowingly and intelligently waived his rights, his ensuing statements will be considered properly obtained." Mack v. State, 296 Ga. 239, 244 (2) (765 S.E.2d 896) (2014), citing Oregon v. Bradshaw, 462 U.S. 1039, 1045 (103 S.Ct. 2830, 77 L.Ed.2d 405) (1983) (plurality opinion). See also State v. Darby, 284 Ga. 271, 273 (2) (663 S.E.2d 160) (2008) ("[A]n analysis of whether a suspect who has invoked his right to counsel under Miranda . . . has later waived that right proceeds in two steps. First, a determination as to whether the defendant initiated further talks with the police, and second, if so, whether his waiver was shown to be voluntary under the totality of the circumstances." (citation omitted)).

         At the Jackson-Denno hearing, Scarborough testified that he advised Rowland of his Miranda rights at the scene of the collision between Rowland and Whittle's son, which was about two and a half hours before Rowland asked to speak with him at the jail. Rowland contends that he has little memory of the September 19 interview because he was high on clonazepam. Scarborough testified that he did not recall Rowland being intoxicated at the scene or at the jail, but that if Rowland had appeared impaired, he would have stopped the interview. Investigator Padgett, who sat in on the interview, also did not recall Rowland appearing impaired. The transcript of the interview shows that, when Scarborough accused Rowland of being "in fairy land," Rowland specifically asserted that he was "clear minded" and dared the investigator to prove that he was "on" anything. Scarborough responded: "I'm not saying you [are] on anything." The investigator testified that when he accused Rowland of being "in fairy land," he meant that he did not believe Rowland was telling him the truth.

         Further, Scarborough testified that he did not force, threaten, or make any promises to Rowland. He also testified that Rowland never asked to stop the interview, asked to speak to an attorney, or reasserted his right to remain silent. Although the investigator did not repeat Rowland's Miranda rights at the beginning of the interview, the ...

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