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Martin v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 19, 2019



         Following a jury trial, Hajja Kenyatta Martin was convicted of felony murder, arson in the first degree, concealing the death of another, and eight firearms charges in connection with the shooting death of Ralph McGhee.[1] Martin appeals pro se, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence and contending that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of a prior conviction, in allowing the prosecutor to argue that Martin's claim of self-defense was based on lies, and in instructing the jury. He also contends he received ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm Martin's convictions for felony murder, arson, concealing the death of another, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. We vacate in part and remand, however, for the correction of sentencing errors regarding his convictions for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

         1. Martin contends that the evidence is insufficient to sustain his convictions. Specifically, he argues that the State failed to disprove his defense of justification, because he was the only eyewitness to the shooting and therefore his "plausible account of the events that occurred" - that he shot McGhee in self-defense after McGhee attacked him and tried to kill him - was undisputed.

         When we consider the legal sufficiency of the evidence, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdicts and inquire only whether any rational trier of fact might find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979); Dorsey v. State, 303 Ga. 597, 600 (1) (814 S.E.2d 378) (2018). "Under this review, we must put aside any questions about conflicting evidence, the credibility of witnesses, or the weight of the evidence, leaving the resolution of such things to the discretion of the trier of fact." Dorsey, 303 Ga. at 600 (1) (citation and punctuation omitted).

         As detailed below, Martin admitted at trial that he shot McGhee, secretly disposed of his body, and tried to destroy evidence of the shooting, but testified that he shot McGhee in self-defense. In terms of evidence relied upon by the State to show that Martin did not shoot McGhee in self-defense, the record shows that the two men, who had been housemates for a few months, had a dispute about car repairs in the weeks before the shooting. McGhee's mother testified that, one evening in early July 2012, she was speaking to her son on the telephone when she overheard Martin angrily say, "Man, I will kill you before I give you $1500," referring to the bill for the car repairs. On July 31, Martin borrowed a van from a family member, purchased new carpet, rented carpet installation equipment, and returned the van, smelling of deodorizer, to its owner. On August 1, two fishermen found McGhee's body floating in the Chattahoochee River in Cobb County. McGhee's fingertips had been burned, and his body was wrapped in bedclothes and a plastic shower curtain, secured with duct tape.

         On August 2, after the body pulled from the Chattahoochee River had been identified as McGhee, police officers obtained a warrant to search his residence, where Martin also lived. While the officers were knocking on the front door to execute the search warrant, Martin was going out the back door; he removed three shotguns and three rifles from the house and hid them in an overgrown area behind the house. Then Martin ran away and, one street over, asked a neighbor who was driving by for a ride. He told the neighbor that his "brother," as he always referred to McGhee, was supposed to go out of town but someone had killed him.

         In searching the house, the officers found that the carpet had been ripped up and the sub-flooring painted. McGhee's bedroom had also been freshly painted, and there were rolls of new carpet lying nearby. The six long guns were found in the backyard. That night, Martin tried to set the house on fire, but succeeded only in burning the back door.

         On August 4, a federal marshal arrested Martin and turned him over to Cobb County police officers. Martin waived his Miranda[2] rights and spoke to investigators.[3] He first claimed that armed intruders had killed McGhee. He changed his story and claimed that he killed McGhee in self-defense, although he had no defensive wounds or other injuries when he was arrested a few days after the shooting. He admitted throwing McGhee's body in the river and attempting to set the house on fire.

         At trial, Martin testified that he and McGhee had been close friends since childhood and, in the summer of 2012, they were sharing a house that McGhee had rented in DeKalb County. On July 29, 2012, according to Martin, McGhee returned to the house around 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., after a long night of partying and imbibing alcohol and synthetic marijuana. In a rage, McGhee accused Martin of being involved with his (McGhee's) girlfriend. Martin went into the bathroom to de-escalate the situation, and, when he came out, McGhee came up behind him, put a pillow case or towel around his neck, threatened to kill him, and choked him until he blacked out. When Martin regained consciousness, lying on the floor in the hall, he saw McGhee lying on his bed, holding a knife. A pistol was within McGhee's reach on the floor by the bed, and a rifle was on the bed. Martin testified that McGhee was a long-time member of the Bloods gang, with the rank of "general," and had a reputation for violence. Thinking that McGhee had "snapped" and tried to kill him with the towel, and thinking about McGhee's violence toward other people, Martin wanted to flee but believed that McGhee would not allow him to leave. Martin testified that he reached for the pistol to protect himself, McGhee reached for the rifle, and Martin fired a shot that struck McGhee in the head. Martin testified, "It was self-defense and I did not have a choice," and, "it wasn't about anger. I had no choice but to defend myself." Martin decided to conceal McGhee's death, because he was afraid of retaliation by the Bloods gang.

         Evidence that, in the days before the shooting, Martin threatened to kill McGhee in connection with a financial dispute they were having about car repairs, that he took extreme measures to destroy and conceal evidence of the shooting and to evade the police, that he had no defensive wounds when he was arrested a few days after the shooting, and that he tried to shift the blame to unknown intruders undermined Martin's claim of self-defense. The jury, as the sole arbiter of witness credibility, was entitled to discredit Martin's testimony that he shot McGhee in self-defense after McGhee choked him and to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of felony murder, predicated on aggravated assault. Ferguson v. State, 297 Ga. 342, 344 (1) (773 S.E.2d 749) (2015) (the jury was authorized to disbelieve the unrebutted testimony of the defendant that he stabbed two victims in self-defense); Sapp v. State, 273 Ga. 472, 473 (543 S.E.2d 27) (2001) (the jury was authorized to discredit the defendant's testimony and find, based on his behavior before the shooting, an obscene comment he made about the victim, and his actions afterwards, that he possessed the requisite malice when he shot and killed the victim). Martin's sufficiency argument as to felony murder fails, and the evidence was sufficient as to the other crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319.

         2. Martin contends that the trial court erred in allowing the State to impeach him with evidence that he had a prior conviction for theft by receiving a firearm. He argues that, because the indictment contained eight counts of possession of a firearm, the prior-conviction evidence made it appear that he "was prone to carry firearms."

         The record shows that, during cross-examination, the prosecutor asked Martin whether he had been convicted in 1997 of theft by receiving a stolen firearm. He answered, "seventeen years ago, that was true." The prosecutor asked no additional questions about that conviction and made only a glancing reference to the conviction during closing argument. Assuming without deciding that the trial court improperly admitted the conviction at issue over objection, that error was harmless and does not require reversal. "A nonconstitutional error is harmless if it is highly probable that the error did not contribute to the verdict." Jones v. State, 305 Ga. 653, 657 (3) (827 S.E.2d 254) (2019). Here, Martin admitted that he shot McGhee; there was no evidence that corroborated his testimony that McGhee had a history of gang violence or his testimony that McGhee choked him and tried to kill him; there was evidence of a recent dispute between the men and evidence that Martin stated that he would kill McGhee; and there was substantial evidence of Martin's consciousness of guilt. In light of the evidence, we conclude that it is highly probable that the outcome of the trial would have been no different if Martin had not admitted on cross-examination that he was convicted in 1997 of theft by receiving a stolen firearm. See Jones, 305 Ga. at 657 (3) (any error in admitting evidence of the defendant's prior conviction for making false statements to police was harmless in light of evidence that the defendant admitted that he shot the murder victim, no witness substantiated his self-serving claim of self-defense, and there was no evidence that the victim had a gun or that a second gun was fired); Dennard v. State, 305 Ga. 463, 466-467 (2) (826 S.E.2d 61) (2019) (any error in admitting felony convictions for possession of cocaine, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony was harmless in light of evidence that the defendant had previously been violent with the murder victim, was angry with her because he had been unable to see his children on the day of the murder, had accused her of visiting other men and followed her as she tried to leave, and shot her numerous times at close range after a brief exchange of words).

         3. Martin contends that the trial court erred in failing sua sponte to give curative instructions after the prosecutor in her closing argument repeatedly characterized Martin's eyewitness account of the events surrounding the victim's death as "lies" and Martin as a "liar." He argues that the prosecutor improperly urged her personal beliefs as to his guilt and truthfulness. He contends he was harmed by these statements because his sole defense was justification and the issue of his guilt or innocence hinged on his credibility.

         "In the appeal of a non-capital case, the defendant's failure to object to the State's closing argument waives his right to rely on the alleged impropriety of that argument as a basis for reversal." Scott v. State, 290 Ga. 883, 885 (2) (725 S.E.2d 305) (2012) (citations and punctuation omitted). Because, as Martin concedes, the defense did not object at the trial to the comments by the prosecutor that he now ...

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