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Jackson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

June 3, 2019



         Appellant Jaramus Jackson was convicted of felony murder and a firearm offense in connection with the fatal shooting of Carlos Wallace in 2015. Appellant contends that the evidence presented at his trial was insufficient to support his convictions; the trial court erred by allowing the State to present evidence under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) that Appellant had shot at someone else in 2005 and the trial court improperly instructed the jury on how to consider this evidence; the trial court erred in failing to give various jury instructions and his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to ask for them; the trial court erred by preventing the defense from cross-examining accomplice witness Ronney Jackson about his 1997 arrest for murder, the State committed a Brady violation by failing to timely disclose the 1997 arrest, and trial counsel was ineffective in failing to question Ronney about the arrest and to object to the Brady violation; trial counsel failed to convey the State's proposed sentence recommendation if Appellant pled guilty; and trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to certain questions asked during his cross-examination. Although it takes many pages to work through all these claims, we find no reversible error. Accordingly, we affirm.[1]

          1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at Appellant's trial showed the following. Appellant and his cousin Ronney worked together at Brenntag Mid-South, an industrial chemical distributor in East Point. Ronney had a 15-year-old son who had a tense relationship with Wallace, the victim. In early 2015, Ronney's son and daughter lived with their mother, Candice Lowery, and Wallace. Lowery and Wallace also had a child together. In mid-2015, Wallace refused to let Ronney's son continue living in their home, and the son then moved in with Ronney. On November 24, 2015, Ronney's son and Wallace had an altercation that involved "hand to hand combat." Ronney and Wallace exchanged verbal threats after the fight. On the morning of November 25, while Appellant and Ronney were both at work, Ronney's son called Ronney and said that Wallace and four other guys were at the car wash where the son was working.

         According to Ronney's trial testimony and a statement he made to the police after his arrest, he then asked Appellant to tell his supervisor that he was taking an early lunch, but he and Appellant did not clock out. Appellant drove Ronney in Appellant's black Mustang to the car wash to confront Wallace. As they arrived, Ronney saw Wallace get into a gold Malibu and drive away. Ronney told Appellant, "don't worry about it, I'll see him another time," but Appellant said, "[I] didn't drive all the way out here for nothing." The two men then followed Wallace's car for about two minutes until Wallace parked in the driveway in front of his house.

         According to Ronney, Appellant parked his Mustang on the street, blocking half of the driveway, and Ronney got out of the car. Ronney walked up to the driver's side door of Wallace's car and banged on the car doors and windows. Ronney also tried to open Wallace's car door, but it was locked. Wallace, who was unarmed, started slowly backing his car out of the driveway while laughing. Appellant, who was standing behind the parked Mustang, then started shooting at Wallace. Wallace accelerated, backing over his mailbox and into a neighbor's yard across the street. Appellant took a few steps toward Wallace's car and continued shooting as Wallace drove away. Appellant and Ronney then got into the Mustang, and Appellant drove them in the opposite direction to return to Brenntag.

         Through the open blinds on his roommate's bedroom window, Ashton Holman saw Wallace's gold Malibu parked in the driveway in front of Wallace's house and a black Mustang parked near the street end of the driveway. Holman saw two black men who were outside the Malibu and one man sitting in the driver's seat. The first man outside the Malibu, a heavyset man wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans, attempted to pull the driver out of his open car door while the second man stood next to the driver's door of the Mustang. The second man was slimmer and taller than the heavyset man. The second man also "appeared to have dredlocks [sic] or cornrows, or it might have been like a do-rag but he had something on his head," and he was wearing "some reflective pants and a dark shirt." Holman explained that the pants looked like mechanics overalls with a reflective stripe down the side.[2] When the Malibu began backing out of the driveway, the man standing near the Mustang started shooting at the car, and he continued shooting while the driver backed the Malibu over a mailbox and into another neighbor's yard. The shooter then stepped toward the Malibu and continued shooting as the car moved forward, turned right onto a nearby street, and drove away.[3] The two men then got into the Mustang, turned left on the same nearby street and drove away.[4] Brenntag was about a 20-minute drive from Wallace's home. Records from a thumbprint scanner at Brenntag showed that Appellant and Ronney clocked out together for their lunch breaks at 11:52 a.m.

         One .40-caliber bullet had struck Wallace in the torso. He drove about two miles before crashing his car into a light pole. Someone nearby called 911 at 11:31 a.m., and police arrived at the scene of the crash a few minutes later. An officer asked Wallace who shot him, and Wallace said it was his "baby's mother's other baby daddy" and spelled out the name "Q-U-A-N-Z-E-E Jackson." (Ronney, whose full name was Ronney LaQuanzee Jackson, was often referred to as "Quanzee.") Wallace was taken to a hospital, where he was put into a medically induced coma from which he did not awaken. In the ensuing weeks, Wallace underwent numerous surgeries, and doctors had to amputate both of his legs above the knees. He died of complications related to the gunshot wound on December 19, 2015.

         Soon after the shooting, Appellant began driving his girlfriend's car to work instead of his Mustang. According to Ronney, he and Appellant talked about the shooting almost every day, and Appellant always took responsibility for the shooting. At some point, Charles Thompson, Appellant's supervisor at Brenntag, overheard Ronney tell Appellant, "I didn't know that you was going to start shooting," and Appellant respond, "cuz, I'm not going to let you go down for something I done."

         Two weeks after the shooting, on December 9, the police questioned Ronney; he claimed that he was not at the scene of the shooting. On the morning of December 18, the police searched Appellant's residence. They found one live .40-caliber bullet inside a plastic tub and several items of reflective clothing. During the search, Appellant claimed that he did not own a gun or a black Mustang. That same day, Appellant made a phone call to Ronney, who put the call on speakerphone; the call was overheard by their co-worker Donald Jaffee. Appellant told Ronney that "folks had just left his house" and that Ronney needed to remove a box from the boiler room at Brenntag; Jaffee testified that he understood "folks" to mean the police. Appellant also called his supervisor Thompson to ask if he would be "willing to remove a weapon," but Thompson refused. That afternoon, Appellant went to the police station and admitted that he owned a black Mustang; he claimed that a mechanic had been looking at it during the search, but he refused to provide the mechanic's name. When the police arrested Ronney the next day, he told them that he was at the crime scene but Appellant was the shooter.

         On December 21, Jaffee reported the telephone conversation he had overheard to Arthur Welch, his supervisor. Jaffee and Welch then went to the boiler room and found a box that contained a .40-caliber Ruger handgun and .40-caliber bullets. Ballistics testing showed that this gun fired the bullet found in Wallace's body. The box had on it three fingerprints from Jaffee and one fingerprint each from Appellant, Welch, and the police officer who opened it. Appellant admitted that the gun was his.

         At trial, Appellant testified as follows. He did not go with Ronney to confront Wallace and was not at Wallace's house at the time of the shooting. Although Appellant, who took pride in his Mustang, had never let Ronney or anyone else at Brenntag drive the car before, on the day of the shooting, he let Ronney borrow it to confront Wallace. Appellant was persuaded to do so because Ronney said his own car was almost out of gas and he wanted to take a car that Wallace would not recognize. Appellant kept his .40-caliber Ruger in the Mustang's glove compartment. Before Ronney left that morning, Appellant briefly got into the Mustang with Ronney to ensure that Ronney could drive a stick-shift, but he got out at Brenntag's back entrance before Ronney drove away.[5] Appellant knew when Ronney returned to work because he heard the Mustang's distinctive sound; Appellant then met Ronney in front of Brenntag and they clocked out for lunch together.

         According to Appellant, several days later, Ronney called and told Appellant that he had shot Wallace. Appellant later saw Ronney remove the gun from the Mustang, wipe it down, and put it in a box, but Appellant did not know what Ronney did with the gun after that. Appellant handled many boxes during his work at Brenntag like the one bearing his fingerprint that contained the gun. At some point after Ronney removed the gun from the Mustang, Appellant called Jaffee's phone to speak with Ronney. Jaffee put the call on speakerphone, and Appellant told Ronney to get rid of the gun, which Appellant believed Ronney had hidden somewhere at Brenntag. During this conversation, Jaffee offered to melt the gun with a welding torch. Appellant denied making the incriminating statement to Ronney that his supervisor Thompson overheard, although he could offer no reason why Thompson would lie about that, other than vague speculation that Thompson thought Appellant played some role in getting him demoted.

         Appellant argues that the evidence presented at trial and summarized above was legally insufficient to support his convictions. When properly viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, however, the evidence was sufficient for a rational jury to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of felony murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). The jury was entitled to disbelieve Appellant's account of the events leading to Wallace's fatal shooting and to rely instead on, among other things, Ronney's testimony, the presence of Appellant's car and gun at the scene of the shooting along with a man matching his description, and his incriminating statements and actions after the shooting. See McKinney v. State, 300 Ga. 562, 567 (797 S.E.2d 484) (2017). See also Vega v. State, 285 Ga. 32, 32 (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 omitted)).

         2. Appellant contends that the trial court erred by allowing the State to present evidence under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) that he shot at someone else a decade before the shooting in this case. Under § 24-4-404 (b), "[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts shall not be admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith," but such evidence may be admissible for other purposes, including to prove intent. We hold that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the 2005 shooting evidence, but we also conclude that this error was harmless in light of the other evidence of Appellant's guilt.

         (a) Before trial, the State proffered police reports that showed the following. In January 2005, Appellant saw Jeffrey Swans leave the apartment of Appellant's ex-girlfriend Chandre Sorrells, and Appellant then confronted Sorrells inside her apartment. Swans returned to the apartment when he saw Appellant go inside, and the two men argued. Swans then left the apartment, and Appellant followed him outside. After Swans got into his truck, Appellant shot at him as he drove away. Swans was not hit, although one bullet hit his rear fender and another hit his back tire. Appellant pled guilty to aggravated assault under the First Offender Act, and received a 10-year probated sentence, which he completed before the shooting in this case.

         At a hearing to determine the admissibility of the 2005 shooting evidence, the State argued:

[The 2005 incident] involves the exact same intent to assault somebody that is leaving a crime scene in a vehicle, firing at a vehicle. This also happened at a location that was not [Appellant's] residence. And, he again transported a handgun - firearm to an area away from his residence where he used that handgun to fire at this man, Jeffrey Swans. The nature of the domestic dispute is a little bit different in that situation because it was more of a jealousy thing. . . . And, that intent being to commit an aggravated assault by firing a weapon at an occupied vehicle. In both incidents, occupied by men who were unarmed and posed no threat whatsoever to [Appellant] and his willingness to assault individuals in that type of situation.

         Over Appellant's objection, the trial court admitted evidence of the 2005 shooting solely for the purpose of proving Appellant's intent to commit the shooting in this case. The court ruled, however, that no one should refer to Appellant's "conviction" related to the shooting, because he received first-offender treatment so there was no conviction. Before the State called witnesses to testify about the 2005 shooting, the court gave the jury a limiting instruction, explaining that the evidence about to be presented was to be considered only "for a limited purpose." The court neglected to inform the jury what that purpose was, although the court told the jury that it would give more instructions later.[6] Swans then testified about the 2005 incident, giving an account consistent with the State's proffer, and Appellant stipulated to a responding officer's written testimony, which was read to the jury, about finding two bullet casings in the parking lot.

         When Appellant testified later in the trial, his counsel did not ask him about the 2005 shooting. On cross-examination, the prosecutor began his questions about the 2005 shooting by saying, "And I suppose it's just a coincidence that ten years earlier . . . Jeffrey Swans accused you of shooting into the vehicle while he was fleeing in a vehicle," to which Appellant responded, "Can you let me explain that situation, too?" Appellant said that he shot at Swans because he "was in love and made a bad decision," and he thought he saw Swans reaching for a weapon. The prosecutor asked Appellant to "demonstrate . . . how you pulled your gun out of your pocket and shot [at Swans]," and Appellant complied. The prosecutor then asked where Appellant was standing with the gun, and Appellant described the positions of the cars and demonstrated his position behind Swans's truck. The prosecutor continued to ask Appellant questions about the 2005 shooting, including asking again whether it was a "coincidence" that Appellant shot at a retreating vehicle before and was now charged with killing someone by shooting at a retreating vehicle, and whether Appellant was mad at Wallace and "just lost his temper like [he] did back in 2005 with Jeffrey Swans."

         As part of the jury charge given before deliberations began, the trial court instructed the jury on the admission of other-act evidence for a limited purpose, this time explaining that the limited purpose was to show Appellant's intent with regard to the crimes alleged in this case.[7] Closing arguments were not transcribed.

(b) We review the trial court's decision to admit evidence under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) for clear abuse of discretion. See Kirby v. State, 304 Ga. 472, 479 (819 S.E.2d 468) (2018). Evidence of an act extrinsic to the charged crimes is admissible if
(1) the evidence is relevant to an issue in the case other than the defendant's character; (2) the probative value of the evidence is not substantially outweighed by its undue prejudice; and (3) there is sufficient proof for a jury to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant committed the other act.

Id. at 480. Appellant does not dispute that the State satisfied the third part of this test, so we will address only the first and second parts.

         (i) Whether the evidence offered is relevant to an issue in the case other than the defendant's character is governed in large part by OCGA § 24-4-401, which defines "relevant evidence" as evidence that "ha[s] any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Appellant put his intent at issue by pleading not guilty, and he did not take any affirmative steps to relieve the State of its burden to prove intent. See Olds v. State, 299 Ga. 65, 72-75 (786 S.E.2d 633) (2016). Because the 2005 shooting and the aggravated assault (and resulting felony murder) charged in this case involved an assault with a deadly weapon, the 2005 shooting evidence was relevant to show intent. See Olds, 299 Ga. at 72 ("[E]vidence that an accused committed an intentional act generally is relevant to show . . . that the same defendant committed a similar act with the same sort of intent."). See also Parks v. State, 300 Ga. 303, 307 (794 S.E.2d 623) (2016).[8]

         (ii) The second part of the admissibility test under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) invokes OCGA § 24-4-403, which says:

Relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

         The major function of § 24-4-403 is to "exclud[e] matter of scant or cumulative probative force, dragged in by its heels for the sake of its prejudicial effect," and exclusion of evidence under the statute is "an extraordinary remedy which should be used only sparingly." Hood v. State, 299 Ga. 95, 102-103 (786 S.E.2d 648) (2016) (citations and punctuation omitted).

         Factors to be considered in determining the probative value of other-act evidence offered to prove intent include its overall similarity to the charged crime, its temporal remoteness, and the prosecutorial need for it. See Kirby, 304 Ga. at 481. As to similarity, the State addressed that factor at a general level, pointing out that both the 2005 shooting and the 2015 shooting at issue in this case involved ...

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