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Morton v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 5, 2019

MORTON
v.
THE STATE.

          MELTON, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Following a jury trial, Quindarius Keshun Morton was convicted of murder and related offenses in connection with the shooting death of Reginald Bien-Amin.[1] Morton appeals, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions, that the trial court erred in failing to charge the jury on voluntary manslaughter and erred in admitting certain expert testimony, and that he was denied effective assistance of counsel. Finding no error, we affirm.

         1. Morton claims that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions because it was based upon the uncorroborated and "discredited" testimony of two alleged accomplices - Levi Brockman and Morgan Myers - and further alleges that the trial court erred by failing to exercise its discretion to grant a new trial pursuant to the general grounds set forth in OCGA §§ 5-5-20 and 5-5-21. We disagree.

         When evaluating the sufficiency of evidence, "the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime[s] beyond a reasonable doubt." Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         Viewing the evidence in this light, the record shows that, on January 1, 2015, Morton was contacted by his friend, Brockman, in order to arrange a drug transaction at the Ivy Reserve Apartments in Gwinnett County. Brockman and his girlfriend, Myers, picked Morton up in Myers' silver Nissan and then stopped at a gas station before heading to the apartment complex. After exiting the car at the gas station, Myers saw Morton carrying a fish food bottle. When Morton returned to the car, he sat in the back seat by himself. When the group arrived at the apartment complex, Myers drove to the back and parked in a spot near some tennis courts. At this time, Morton took out a handgun and cocked it "for just in case." Brockman later told officers that he had known Morton to carry a 9mm handgun.

         Myers' two friends, "Kreg" and Bien-Amin, walked from the apartments toward the car. Myers exited the vehicle and hugged the two men. She remained outside of the vehicle to talk to Kreg while Bien-Amin continued toward the car. Brockman shouted out of the window for Bien-Amin to sit in the back seat so he could buy drugs from Morton; instead, Bien-Amin, who was armed, took Myer's place in the driver's seat. Shortly thereafter, witnesses fled the scene as they heard gunshots and saw gunpowder smoke coming from the car.

         When officers responded, they found Myers' car backed into a spot in the parking lot; the driver's side door and the rear passenger door of the car were both ajar. Bien-Amin was slumped over in the driver's seat; he had a single-action revolver laying in his lap, he was covered in blood, and he did not have a pulse. The revolver had six rounds in the chamber and the hammer was not cocked. Officers processed the weapon and found no prints on the gun. The medical examiner later determined that the victim had died from multiple gunshot wounds to the head and torso, and further noted that one of the gunshot wounds had evidence of stippling, indicating that the victim was shot at close range.

         During their search of the car, officers located, among other things, several projectiles as well as six 9mm shell casings. In the rear passenger's side door pocket, officers found an empty fish food bottle; residue inside the bottle tested positive for cocaine. A digital scale was located in the seat-back pocket of the front passenger's seat and a brown leather gun holster was found on the rear driver's side seat. Based upon the trajectory of the bullets, the crime scene investigator concluded that all of the shots had come from the back seat of the car "from a top down angle."

         Officers canvassed the scene and located Brockman and Myers on the other side of a chain-link fence that surrounded the parking lot. They were taken to the police department where, at some point, officers placed the pair together in a room and left them alone. During this time, Brockman told Myers, "I don't know why the hell it happened, like why it went down like it did." He also told Myers that, prior to the shooting, there was no physical confrontation between himself and Bien-Amin. Officers returned to the scene the next day and traced Brockman's flight path. Near the chain-link fence they discovered a small bag of cocaine and a winter cap. Officers spoke with Brockman a second time, during which he identified Morton as the shooter.

         During his interview with investigators, Morton admitted that he was in the back seat of the car at the time of the shooting, that he had drugs in the car, and that, when Bien-Amin entered the vehicle, Morton did not make himself known to the victim. Morton testified at trial, however, that he fired his weapon in self-defense after Bien-Amin pulled a gun and demanded that "[n]obody move."

         Turning to Morton's claim of uncorroborated accomplice testimony, even if we were to assume that Brockman and Myers were accomplices to Morton's crimes, their testimony was sufficiently corroborated by the physical evidence collected at the crime scene, by Morton's own testimony, and by the fact that each accomplice corroborated the testimony of the other. See Yarn v. State, 305 Ga. 421 (2) (826 S.E.2d 1) (2019) (discussing corroboration of accomplice testimony under the new Evidence Code); Huff v. State, 300 Ga. 807, 809 (1) (796 S.E.2d 688) (2017) ("The testimony of one accomplice may corroborate that of another." (Citation omitted)).

         Regarding Morton's claims that Brockman and Myers were not credible witnesses, it is well settled that "[t]his Court does 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." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Hayes v. State, 292 Ga. 506, 506 (739 S.E.2d 313) (2013). "Likewise, the issues of witness credibility and justification are for the jury to decide, and the jury is free to reject a defendant's claim that he acted in self-defense." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Shaw v. State, 292 Ga. 871, 872 (1) (742 S.E.2d 707) (2013).

         Based on the foregoing, we conclude that the evidence was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Morton was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted.

         Morton also contends that the trial court failed to exercise its discretion to grant a new trial pursuant to the general grounds set forth in OCGA §§ 5-5-20 and 5-5-21, and asserts that this Court should grant a new trial for those reasons. "A motion for new trial on these grounds, however, is not properly addressed to this Court as such a decision is one that is solely within the discretion of the trial court." (Citation omitted.) Smith v. State, 300 Ga. 532, 534 (796 S.E.2d 671) (2017). See also Henderson v. State, 304 Ga. 733 (2) (822 S.E.2d 228) (2018). We further disagree with Morton's claim that the trial court failed to properly exercise its discretion as the thirteenth juror. Here, the trial court found that Morton was not entitled to a new trial on the general grounds, expressly stating that "[t]he Court has exercised its jurisdiction to sit as the thirteenth juror and finds that the weight of the evidence does not preponderate against the verdict," and that "the verdict was not contrary to the principles of justice and equity." "The ...


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