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Hawkins v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

June 24, 2019

HAWKINS
v.
THE STATE

          MILLER, P. J., RICKMAN and GOSS, JJ.

          MILLER, PRESIDING JUDGE

         Following a two-week trial, a jury convicted Sheila Hawkins on 16 counts relating to Hawkins's role in the unlicensed operation of a care facility for disabled persons and the neglect and abuse endured by the residents of that facility. On appeal from her convictions, Hawkins raises numerous claims of error arising from her criminal proceedings and the denial of her motion for new trial. For the reasons provided below, we affirm in part, but we vacate three of Hawkins's convictions and remand for resentencing.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, [1] the evidence adduced at trial showed that Hawkins, a licensed professional counselor, was the manager and director of Serene Reflections for Holistic Behavior and Wellness ("Serene Reflections"), a licensed mental health day facility for disabled adults. Hawkins's mother, Helen Bell, lived in a home on Windy Hill Road in Marietta, Georgia ("Windy Hill Home").

         In late 2014, Charlene Walker, an employee of Serene Reflections, contacted law enforcement and informed them that Bell was operating an unlicensed facility for disabled adults out of the Windy Hill Home. When law enforcement arrived at the Windy Hill Home and knocked on the door, no one answered. The officers went to the back of the house and found three men locked in the basement. The men inside called out to the police and asked, "Are you here to help us?" Bell, who was still inside the house, eventually responded to law enforcement and unlocked the door to allow the officers to enter the basement.

         The officers found three men living in the basement in terrible condition. One man, Robert Bacon, "was very dirty, smelled really bad, [had] unkempt long fingernails, [and] his teeth were rotten." Bacon complained to law enforcement that he was hungry and cold and that he "had to fill up the water bottle in the bathtub," and he "kept saying cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, and he wanted to keep running upstairs." Another man, Joseph Wilson, "smelled really bad. He wasn't shaven," and his clothes were soiled and baggy. The third man, Travis McCargo, was wearing ripped clothing and kept saying to law enforcement the words "food" and "cold."

         The room where the three gentlemen lived was dark, and the floors consisted of uncarpeted hard cement. The basement had a window with bars over it. The room was very cold, with no operational heating, to the point that "[y]ou could see your breath." The refrigerator and cabinets were chained and locked with a padlock. The cabinets could only be opened by Bell and contained clean linens and washcloths. The refrigerator, which could be opened by Wilson, contained only bread, condiments, and sliced bologna. Wilson regularly made bologna sandwiches for the three men, which constituted most of their meals. The bathroom had no doors and no toiletries such as soap, shampoo, or towels. The toilet did not flush, requiring the men to take water from the bath to flush the contents. Occasionally, that system did not work, and the men had to use a bucket to remove the toilet's contents and pour them on the ground. The bath did not have hot water, and the tub and the bathroom walls were very dirty and covered with mold. The basement also contained a washing machine and a dryer, but neither was functional. The beds were too small for the men, and they each had just a blanket and a pillow to sleep on with no sheets. In the bedrooms, "there was a severe stench of body odor and urine . . . it was very prevalent. You could smell it when you came downstairs." A resident of Serene Reflections came to the basement on occasion to clean, but he testified that the basement was "not fit to live in."

         Bell and some of her family members lived in the upstairs portion of the Windy Hill Home, which was furnished just as any normal home. The stairs that connected the basement to the rest of the house consisted of bare wood with carpet tacks sticking up from strips on each stair. The door to the upstairs was kept locked, and the men were not allowed to use the door or gain access to the upstairs portion of the house to do things such as use the bathrooms. When Bell did have contact with the residents, she was often verbally abusive.

         Before residing at the Windy Hill Home, Travis McCargo lived with his adoptive mother, Katie McCargo, who also was taking care of Wilson and many other adults with mental health issues. Ms. McCargo eventually began taking Travis to Serene Reflections for day care. While Travis was at Serene Reflections, Hawkins discussed Travis's needs with Ms. McCargo. As recounted by Ms. McCargo's granddaughter, "Hawkins was very adamant that Travis needed residential care and referred Katie McCargo to a woman by the name of Helen Bell. Ms. Hawkins told Katie McCargo that Helen Bell ran a personal care home on Windy Hill Road in Marietta, Georgia, that the home was licensed, and that Helen Bell was fully qualified to take care of Travis McCargo's needs." Ms. McCargo agreed to move Travis into the Windy Hill Home. Following Ms. McCargo's death, someone from Serene Reflections came and picked up Wilson and took him to the Windy Hill Home. Bacon had lived with Bell at a previous home before he was moved to the Windy Hill Home. While living at the Windy Hill Home, Wilson and Bacon were regularly taken by staff to Serene Reflections for a few hours a day. Wilson sometimes saw Bell at Serene Reflections to talk "business." Eventually, however, the staff stopped bringing Wilson and Bacon to the Serene Reflections campus, but Serene Reflections's therapists would visit them on occasion.

         Charlene Walker began working for Serene Reflections after first being introduced to Bell. Bell informed Walker that Hawkins was looking for an employee to take care of two group homes (neither of which were the Windy Hill Home), and she then took Walker to meet with Hawkins, who hired Walker. According to Walker, Bell was not willing to take residents or clients for the Windy Hill Home from anywhere else other than Serene Reflections. During the operation of the Windy Hill Home, the staff of Serene Reflections had multiple discussions about the conditions of the Windy Hill Home. According to Walker, Hawkins "was aware of the circumstances . . . in the home."

         A grand jury indicted Hawkins on 16 counts relating to her role in the operation of the Windy Hill Home: one count of the unlicensed operation of a personal care home, in violation of OCGA § 31-7-12.1 (Count One); three counts of neglect of a disabled person, in violation of OCGA § 16-5-101 (Counts Two through Four); nine counts of the abuse of a disabled person, in violation of OCGA § 16-5-102 (Counts Five through Thirteen); and three counts of the exploitation of a disabled person, in violation of OCGA § 16-5-102 (Counts Fourteen through Sixteen).[2] The jury found Hawkins guilty on all counts. The trial court sentenced Hawkins to a total of 10 years' imprisonment and 20 years' probation. Hawkins filed a motion for a new trial, which she later amended after retaining new counsel. The trial court denied Hawkins's motion after a hearing, and this timely appeal followed.

         1. Hawkins argues that the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's guilty verdict on multiple counts. We are not convinced.

When we review challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, we neither weigh the evidence nor judge the credibility of witnesses, but determine only whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, a rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

(Citation and punctuation omitted). Moore v. State, 340 Ga.App. 151, 153-154 (2) (796 S.E.2d 754) (2017). In addition,

[a] conviction may be based upon circumstantial evidence if the proved facts are not only consistent with the hypothesis of guilt, but exclude every other reasonable hypothesis but the guilt of the accused. OCGA § 24-4-6. When the evidence meets this test, circumstantial evidence is as probative as direct evidence, and whether this burden has been met is a question for the jury. When the jury is authorized to find that the evidence, though circumstantial, excluded every reasonable hypothesis except the defendant's guilt, the verdict will not be disturbed unless the verdict is insupportable as a matter of law. Further, while circumstantial evidence must exclude every other reasonable hypothesis but the defendant's guilt, the evidence need not exclude every inference or hypothesis.

(Citation omitted.) Johnson v. State, 291 Ga.App. 253, 254 (661 S.E.2d 642) (2008).

         (a) Hawkins first argues that the evidence was insufficient to support her conviction for the unlicensed operation of a personal care home because the State did not present evidence that the victims were not related by blood or marriage to her or Bell. We disagree.

         "A facility shall be deemed to be an 'unlicensed personal care home' if it is unlicensed and not exempt from licensure and . . . [t]he facility is providing personal services and is operating as a personal care home as those terms are defined in OCGA § 31-7-12." OCGA § 31-7-12.1 (a) (1). OCGA § 31-7-12 defines a "personal care home" as "any dwelling, whether operated for profit or not, which undertakes through its ownership or management to provide or arrange for the provision of housing, food service, and one or more personal services for two or more adults who are not related to the owner or administrator by blood or marriage." (Emphasis added.) OCGA § 31-7-12 (a) (1).

         At trial, Wilson testified that he had no family related by blood living in Georgia and that he did not know Bell before he moved into the Windy Hill Home. Ms. McCargo's granddaughter also testified at trial that Travis McCargo and Ms. McCargo first encountered Hawkins and Bell when they were searching for day health care for Travis and that Ms. McCargo did not know Bell until after they moved to Atlanta in 2012. Ms. McCargo also met Bell through Hawkins and Serene Reflections.

         The evidence therefore demonstrates that at least two residents of the Windy Hill Home had no prior relationship with Hawkins or Bell before they either enrolled at Serene Reflections or resided at the Windy Hill Home. While this circumstantial evidence does not exclude every possible inference or hypothesis that the residents of the Windy Hill Home might have been related by blood or marriage to Hawkins or Bell (it is, after all, possible to be related to someone you have never met), we conclude that, in the absence of any evidence even hinting that Hawkins or Bell were related to any of the residents of the Windy Hill Home, the circumstantial evidence presented at trial was sufficient to exclude any other reasonable hypothesis but the conclusion that at least two of the residents of the Windy Hill Home were not related to Hawkins or Bell. See Johnson, supra, 291 Ga.App. at 254. We therefore conclude that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that the Windy Hill Home was a "personal care home" as defined in OCGA § 31-7-12 and convict Hawkins on this count.

         (b) Hawkins argues that the evidence was insufficient to support her convictions for the neglect of disabled adults (Counts Two through Four) because the statute of conviction does not apply to "long-term care facilities" or an "agent or employee thereof." For this argument, Hawkins relies on OCGA § 16-5-101 (b), which reads, "The provisions of this Code section shall not apply to a . . . long-term care facility, nor any agent or employee thereof who is in good faith acting within the scope of his or her employment or agency . . . ."

         This safe-harbor provision, however, is not part of the essential elements of the crime that the State needed to affirmatively prove at trial. The essential elements of the crime of neglect of disabled adults ...


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