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Lewis v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 5, 2019

LEWIS
v.
THE STATE.

          PETERSON, JUSTICE.

         Freddie Lewis was convicted of malice murder, rape, and burglary in connection with the death of Evelyn Wise.[1] On appeal, Lewis argues that the trial court erred in (1) denying his motion for a directed verdict, (2) denying his motion in limine to exclude DNA evidence based on inadequate chain of custody, (3) failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine the admissibility of DNA evidence, (4) admitting the statements of a deceased witness, and (5) sentencing him on the aggravated assault, burglary, and rape counts because the statutes of limitations for those counts had expired prior to trial. The trial court committed no error, because the evidence was sufficient to support convictions on the crimes charged, and the DNA evidence, as well as the out-of-court statements by the deceased witness, were properly admitted. Finally, the statute of limitations period was tolled while Lewis's identity was unknown, and so the trial court properly sentenced Lewis. We affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence shows that Mary Wise and her daughter, Evelyn, lived in a townhouse-style apartment near the Vine City MARTA station; Mary slept downstairs, and Evelyn had a room upstairs. On the morning of March 3, 1991, an Atlanta Police Department (APD) officer went to the apartment in response to a 911 call regarding a robbery with an injured person. Mary reported that an unidentified male tried to strangle her in the middle of the night. She said that she had gone to bed sometime around 11:30 p.m. after talking to Evelyn, and was awoken around 1:00 a.m. by noises coming from the upstairs area. After hearing the noises, Mary saw a man run down the stairs. The man jumped on her, wrapped a string around her neck, and began to pull on it. Mary fought off the man, but he then choked her with his hands and smothered her with a pillow, causing her to lose consciousness. When Mary regained consciousness, she noticed that some of her money had been taken. Mary did not get a good look at the assailant because it was dark inside the apartment at the time of the attack. The responding officer observed that Mary had a small bruise on her cheek, dried blood on one side of her face, and some slight discoloration around her neck.

         After talking to Mary, the responding officer went upstairs. The officer found Evelyn's dead body lying face-up on the floor in her bedroom. Evelyn had a shoestring wrapped around her neck, her pants had been pulled down, her legs were spread so that her genitals were exposed, and she had one shoe on. The officer also saw that a flower pot had been placed on an air conditioning unit outside so that someone could access a ledge leading to the open bedroom window. All other entries to the apartment were locked.

         An APD detective canvassed the apartment complex, but all potential suspects were ruled out after further investigation. A medical examiner performed an autopsy on Evelyn on March 3, the same day her body was found. The medical examiner observed a ligature mark on the victim's neck, abrasions on her face consistent with an attempt to move the ligature away from her neck, and hemorrhaging around her eyes. He concluded that Evelyn's cause of death was ligature strangulation. Because the medical examiner also suspected that Evelyn was sexually assaulted, he swabbed Evelyn's breasts, vagina, and rectum, and this evidence was sent to the GBI.

         A GBI examination revealed the presence of intact and partially intact sperm from the vaginal swabs and partially intact sperm from the rectal swabs. A GBI DNA analyst testified that the presence of intact sperm indicated that the semen was deposited 24 to 36 hours before the swabs were collected, and, based on this evidence, the APD detective concluded that the sexual contact occurred at or near the time of Evelyn's death.

         The GBI sent the swabs to the FBI, which had been investigating the murders of four elderly women in the Vine City area. An FBI analyst analyzed the sperm cells from the vaginal swabs of Evelyn, determined that the sperm came from only one person, and concluded that the DNA profile was not a match for any known individuals and was not linked to the crimes being investigated by the FBI. After completing his exams, the FBI analyst returned the swabs to the GBI in September 1991. Because there were no leads to pursue, the APD investigation into Evelyn's murder went into an inactive status.

         In 2004, the APD created a Cold Case Squad to investigate homicides having a sexual component by reexamining the rape kits in those cases. The Cold Case Squad made repeated requests to the APD's property section to obtain Evelyn's rape kit, but the kit was not located until January 2008. A detective then sent the swabs to a private lab for DNA analysis, leading to the creation of a DNA profile. The GBI reviewed the private lab's work, uploaded the profile into a national database of DNA profiles known as CODIS, and issued a report in April 2008 concluding that the DNA profile was a match for Lewis.

         Police began investigating Lewis and learned that he had lived in the same apartment complex as Evelyn at the time of her death; Lewis's building was located about 75 yards from Evelyn's. An APD detective interviewed Lewis, who after being read his Miranda rights and waiving them, admitted that he knew the victim but did not say that he was in a relationship with her or that he ever had sexual intercourse with her. When the detective asked Lewis for a DNA sample, Lewis grew visibly shaken, became extremely nervous, and began stumbling over his words. The detective took two buccal swabs from Lewis and sent them to the GBI for testing. The DNA from Lewis's swabs matched the DNA from the vaginal swab taken from Evelyn in 1991, thus confirming the CODIS match. During his investigation, the detective found no evidence that Lewis had a consensual sexual relationship with Evelyn. The evidence showed that Mary never let any men inside the apartment and was very protective of Evelyn because she had an intellectual disability.

         1. Lewis argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a directed verdict because the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions. In particular, he argues that there is no direct evidence that he committed the crimes, the evidence showing the presence of his sperm inside the victim's vagina did not rule out the possibility that he and the victim had consensual sex and someone else committed the crimes, and the DNA identification evidence was suspect because the rape kit went missing for a few years and items within it were not clearly identified. We conclude that there was sufficient evidence to authorize his convictions.

         The standard of review for the denial of a motion for a directed verdict of acquittal is the same as for determining the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction under Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). See Green v. State, 304 Ga. 385, 387 (1) (818 S.E.2d 535) (2018). Under this standard, we review whether a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but we do not "reweigh evidence or resolve conflicts in testimony; instead, evidence is reviewed in a light most favorable to the verdict, with deference to the jury's assessment of the weight and credibility of the evidence." Thomas v. State, 300 Ga. 433, 436 (1) (796 S.E.2d 242) (2017).

         To sustain a conviction based on circumstantial evidence, former OCGA § 24-4-6, in effect at the time of Lewis's trial, provided that "the proved facts shall not only be consistent with the hypothesis of guilt, but shall exclude every other reasonable hypothesis save that of the guilt of the accused."[2] The evidence need not exclude every hypothesis save that of guilt, only those that are reasonable, and it is for the jury to determine whether an alternative hypothesis is reasonable. See Brown v. State, 304 Ga. 435, 437 (1) (819 S.E.2d 14) (2018). We will not disturb the jury's finding in this respect unless the evidence is insupportable as a matter of law. Id.

         (a) The evidence was sufficient to sustain Lewis's convictions. The state in which Evelyn's body was discovered (partially undressed with her genitals exposed), her defensive wounds, and her manner of death supported a finding that Evelyn succumbed to strangulation after attempting to fight off an assailant who was raping and strangling her. The evidence also shows that sperm collected from Evelyn came from only one male, Lewis, and the condition of the sperm showed that her death occurred at or near the time of the sexual contact.

         Notwithstanding this evidence, Lewis argues that there was a reasonable hypothesis that he had consensual sex with Evelyn and left the apartment before an unknown assailant entered the victim's apartment and committed the crimes charged. But the jury could ⸺ and did ⸺ reject this hypothesis as unreasonable. There was no evidence that Evelyn had a relationship with any man, much less Lewis, as Mary was very protective of Evelyn. And despite admitting to police that he knew Evelyn, Lewis never said that he had a relationship with Evelyn or had consensual sex with her. The jury was therefore authorized to reject Lewis's hypothesis. See Daniels v. State, 298 Ga. 120, 123 (1) (779 S.E.2d 640) (2015) (jury authorized to reject theoretical possibility that the defendant had consensual sexual intercourse with the victim ...


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