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Johnson v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

June 14, 2019

JOHNSON
v.
THE STATE.

          DILLARD, C. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          Dillard, Chief Judge.

         Following trial, a jury convicted Isaac Johnson on three counts of voluntary manslaughter, one count of aggravated battery, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of possession of a knife during the commission of a crime. Johnson now appeals his convictions and the denial of his motion for new trial, arguing that the trial court erred in denying his claim that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to a jury instruction on the law of mutual combat. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict,[1] the evidence shows that in the early evening of April 22, 2016, Johnson-who resided in Athens but was homeless at the time-purchased some crack cocaine and then went to the apartment of an acquaintance, where he knew he could use drugs and party with other people. Upon arriving at the apartment, Johnson paid the owner $5 to use his place and then smoked crack with the owner and another acquaintance, whom he knew from a local church's homeless food-kitchen program. Approximately 30 minutes after Johnson's arrival, Wren Guerndt and his girlfriend, Andrea Harris, entered the apartment. Guerndt and Harris were also homeless and lived in a tent at a homeless campsite on the northwest outskirts of Athens. Upon their arrival, Guerndt and Harris did drugs with Johnson, whom they knew from some homeless shelters around town. Shortly thereafter, Johnson asked Harris if he could pay her to have sex with him. She agreed, claiming that Guerndt "let her do stuff for money." At that point, Johnson gave Guerndt $20, and he and Harris went into the apartment's bedroom while the others continued using drugs in the living room.

         After hanging out at the apartment for an hour or so, Guerndt and Harris decided to return to their campsite, and Johnson said he would buy more drugs if he could join them. They agreed, and the three then left the apartment on foot, stopping at a liquor store before setting off through the woods, using the flashlight application on Johnson's mobile phone to light their way. Then, upon reaching Guerndt and Harris's tent, another resident of the campsite asked if they wanted to go to his tent to smoke some marijuana. They accepted the invitation, and once there, Guerndt and Harris smoked marijuana and methamphetamine while Johnson smoked marijuana and crack cocaine. And while they were doing drugs, Harris asked their host if she could borrow a shovel to divert rainwater runoff from flooding their tent; but he declined the request. Johnson, Guerndt, and Harris then walked back to Guerndt and Harris's tent, and Guerndt and Harris suggested that they continue to smoke marijuana. But noting Guerndt's use of a knife to cut the rolling papers, as well as a few other knives on the ground inside the tent, Johnson expressed concern about staying with them. And in an apparent effort to ease Johnson's concern, Guerndt handed Johnson his knife, which had a blade of eight or nine inches.

         Shortly thereafter, Harris announced that she had "to pee," exited the tent, and walked toward a nearby tree. And as Guerndt began crawling on the ground inside the tent, looking for a lighter, Harris asked for someone to throw her toilet paper. Johnson ignored this request, but Guerndt complied, tossing Harris a roll of toilet paper outside the tent in her direction. A brief moment later, Johnson looked up and saw Harris approaching the tent-and him specifically-with what appeared to be a board or large stick raised above her head. Wielding the knife Guerndt had just given him only minutes earlier, Johnson rushed out of the tent toward Harris, stabbed her several times, and fled into the woods back toward the street. Guerndt began screaming and frantically searching the tent for something to stop Harris's bleeding before using his own cell phone to call 911. Another resident of the campsite, who was awakened by the screams, rushed to Guerndt's tent, took his phone, and walked through the woods to the street to help direct police and emergency medical services to the scene. Police arrived minutes later, but by that time, Harris had died from her wounds.

         Meanwhile, after stabbing Harris, Johnson ran through the woods until he reached the street, dropping the knife during his flight. And within a few minutes, one of the police officers encountered Johnson and asked him if he made a 911 call about a woman being stabbed. Johnson responded that he had not but added, "she's really bad off. She's back behind the power station in the woods." The officer then continued heading toward the scene but radioed a description of Johnson, whom he characterized as a person of interest, to dispatch. Shortly thereafter, a second officer, who heard the first officer's report, located Johnson. But before the officer could question him, Johnson immediately volunteered that a woman had been stabbed. Johnson then attempted to lead the officer to the trail-head but was unsuccessful. He also told the officer that another male at the campsite had a knife and that he took off running upon hearing a woman screaming. Additionally, Johnson admitted to the officer that he had been smoking crack. Subsequently, the officer transported Johnson to the police station, where two detectives questioned him regarding the incident. During this questioning, Johnson's account of the events continued evolving, and, eventually, he confessed to stabbing Harris, claiming that he panicked when he thought she was reaching for something. But based on the discrepancies in his account, the detectives placed Johnson under arrest.

         Thereafter, the State charged Johnson, via indictment, with one count of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, one count of aggravated battery, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of possession of a knife during the commission of a crime. The case then proceeded to trial, during which the State presented the evidence discussed supra, as well as the testimony of a GBI medical examiner, who performed the autopsy on Harris. The medical examiner testified that Harris suffered two incised wounds and five stab wounds.[2] Two of the stab wounds proved fatal, with one penetrating Harris's heart and the other also penetrating her heart and left lung.

         Johnson testified in his own defense, admitting that he stabbed Harris but claiming that he did so out of fear and to protect himself when Harris came at him with a stick. More explicitly, Johnson stated that while they were at the acquaintance's apartment and throughout the night, Guerndt and Harris were whispering to each other, which made him nervous. He then claimed that his anxiety increased when he found himself in the woods at Guerndt and Harris's campsite and observed several knives in their possession and lying on the ground within the tent. Johnson further testified that his fears were realized when Harris came at him with a raised stick or board, and that he ran toward her and stabbed her in an effort to protect himself.

         At the trial's conclusion, the jury convicted Johnson of three counts of voluntary manslaughter as a lesser-included offense to the counts of malice murder and felony murder. In addition, the jury also convicted Johnson on the counts of aggravated battery, aggravated assault, and possession of a knife during the commission of a crime. Johnson subsequently obtained new counsel and filed a motion for new trial, in which he argued, inter alia, that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. But after a hearing, during which his trial counsel testified, the trial court denied Johnson's motion for new trial. This appeal follows.

         In his sole enumeration of error, Johnson contends that the trial court erred in denying his claim that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to the court's jury charge on the law of mutual combat. We disagree.

         In order to evaluate claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, we apply the two-pronged test established by the Supreme Court of the United States in Strickland v. Washington,[3] which requires Johnson to show that his trial counsel's performance was "deficient and that the deficient performance so prejudiced [him] that there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the trial would have been different."[4] In doing so, there is a strong presumption that trial counsel's conduct falls within the broad range of reasonable professional conduct, and a criminal defendant must overcome this presumption.[5] In fact, the reasonableness of counsel's conduct is examined from his or her "perspective at the time of trial and under the particular circumstances of the case[.]"[6] And importantly, decisions regarding trial tactics and strategy "may form the basis for an ineffectiveness claim only if they were so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have followed such a course."[7] Furthermore, unless clearly erroneous, this Court will "uphold a trial court's factual determinations with respect to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel; however, a trial court's legal conclusions in this regard are reviewed de novo."[8] Bearing this analytical framework in mind, we turn now to Johnson's specific claim of error.

         The legal concept of mutual combat is essentially a codified exception to a defense of justification.[9] OCGA § 16-3-21 (a), the codification of a justification defense, provides:

A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that he or she reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person against such other's imminent use of unlawful force; however, except as provided in Code Section 16-3-23, a person is justified in using force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to ...

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