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Welch v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 5, 2019


          BETHEL, JUSTICE.

         In October 2012, a jury found Dennis Welch guilty of malice murder and other crimes in connection with the shooting death of Jamie Wright.[1] Welch appeals, contending that the trial court erred by failing to give a jury instruction on involuntary manslaughter and that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for malice murder. For the reasons stated below, we affirm.

         1. Viewed in a light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence presented at trial showed that, on the evening of September 22, 2011, Welch entered the home of his landlord, 85-year-old Jamie Wright, through an unlocked window in a guest bedroom with the intent to burglarize her home while she was away.[2] After searching the guest bedroom, Welch moved on to search the master bedroom. There, he found a loaded Smith & Wesson .38 Special pistol in the nightstand drawer, which he placed in the waistband of his pants. Before Welch could vacate the residence, Wright returned home. Upon seeing her headlights in the driveway, Welch hid in the master bedroom closet. While in the closet, Welch cocked the pistol and pulled it out of his waistband.

         According to Welch, after several minutes he emerged from the bedroom, entered the hallway, and saw Wright sitting in a chair in the living room. He then walked away from where Wright was sitting and toward the kitchen, pistol in hand. Welch later testified that he planned to use the pistol as a "threatening tool" if necessary. When Welch stepped into the kitchen, he stepped on a cat food dish, alerting Wright to his presence. From her seat in the living room, Wright turned his way and called out, "You're not supposed to be in here." Welch, with his finger on the pistol's trigger, turned toward Wright and fired the pistol, killing Wright.

         Two days later, on September 24, 2011, Wright's body was found sitting upright in an armchair in her living room. She died from a gunshot to the upper-left portion of her chest. At that time, it was also discovered that Wright's truck was missing. Law enforcement processed the scene, uncovering evidence of a burglary, including a raised window, damage to the blinds in the guest bedroom, and a ransacked master bedroom. While investigators were unable to develop any identifiable latent prints at the crime scene, "linear fabric impressions" were developed that were consistent with those made by a person wearing gloves.

         On September 25, law enforcement located Wright's truck at an apartment complex in Gainesville, Florida. The next day, deputies from the Alachua County Sheriff's Department were dispatched to the truck's location, where Welch and his girlfriend, Michelle Ziegenfuss, were arrested without incident. Law enforcement seized the couple's belongings from the apartment in which they were staying, recovering Wright's birth certificate, driver's license, military identification card, social security card, and credit card. Investigators also found receipts dated September 23 for electronics bought from Best Buy and Walmart, as well as a handwritten check register and a deposit ticket bearing Wright's signature. A pair of gloves was also found with Welch's belongings, and a Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver was found in the center console of Wright's truck.[3]

         When Welch was arrested, he was read the Miranda warning s and questioned at the scene of arrest. Welch waived his rights and confessed to a deputy that he was burglarizing Wright's residence when she came home and confronted him. He admitted to shooting Wright, but claimed that the shooting was accidental and that "the gun just went off." In a later interview, Welch told investigators where he disposed of the spent shell casing. Investigators went to the location identified by Welch and recovered the shell casing.

         At trial, Ziegenfuss testified on behalf of the State and confirmed that she and Welch used Wright's credit card extensively from the time Welch took the card until the two were arrested. She also testified that Welch used one of Wright's blank checks to make a check payable to Ziegenfuss and that Ziegenfuss deposited that check into her account. According to Ziegenfuss, Welch confessed to her that he shot Wright.

         The State's firearms expert testified that the pistol recovered from the center console of Wright's truck fired the shot that killed Wright.[4] Testing indicated that the weapon was in good working condition, and the firearms expert testified that she would not consider the pistol to have a hair trigger. Furthermore, she explained that the gun had a safety to prevent it from discharging if the trigger was merely bumped or if the operator's finger slipped off of the pistol's hammer while thumbing it back.

         Welch argues that the evidence against him in regard to his conviction for malice murder was insufficient.[5] We disagree.

         A person commits malice murder when he "unlawfully and with malice aforethought, either express or implied, causes the death of another human being." OCGA § 16-5-1 (a).

This meaning of malice murder is consistent with the general rule that crimes which are defined so as to require that the defendant intentionally cause a forbidden bad result are usually interpreted to cover one who knows that his conduct is substantially certain to cause the result, whether or not he desires the result to occur. Thus, a malice murder can be shown not only by evidence that the defendant acted with the deliberate intention unlawfully to take the life of another human being which is manifested by external circumstances capable of proof, but also by evidence that the defendant acted where no considerable provocation appears and where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart. In other words, evidence that the defendant acted with implied malice is, for purposes of demonstrating [his] guilt of the crime of malice murder, no less probative than proof that [he] acted with a specific intent to kill.

Moran v. State, 302 Ga. 162, 164 (1) (b) (805 S.E.2d 856) (2017) (evidence that appellant shot victim in the back of the head from close range as victim begged for his life was sufficient to support conviction of malice murder). Evidence at trial authorized the jury to conclude that Welch put his finger on the pistol's trigger, pointed the pistol at Wright, and shot her in order to complete the burglary that Welch admitted he intended to commit. Under these circumstances, the evidence was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Welch was guilty of malice murder. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. In a separate enumeration, Welch argues that the trial court erred by refusing his written request for an instruction on involuntary manslaughter based on reckless conduct. Welch requested the instruction prior to trial, objected when the trial court refused it, and renewed his objection when the trial court did not give the instruction. For the ...

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