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Walker v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 19, 2019



         Following a jury trial, Rico Orlando Walker appeals his convictions for the murder of Steven Harley and related crimes, contending that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.[1] For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence shows that Tracey Harley, Steven's wife, met Walker in a Walmart parking lot in 2000 or 2001, exchanged numbers, and began a years-long affair. Eventually, as the relationship grew, Tracey and Walker discussed murdering Steven, though Walker did not tell Tracey the details of what he was planning in order to "protect" her. In the month before the murder, Tracey told Walker about Steven's daily routine and showed Walker where the home she shared with Steven was located. In addition, Tracey cashed a $1, 500 check and gave the money to Walker, who was going to use the cash to hire someone who would help him with the murder.[2]

         Walker originally planned to murder Steven on Friday, April 21, 2006. That day, Walker parked his truck outside Tracey's home, raised the truck's hood, and waited for Tracey to leave to take her child to school. After Tracey left, however, Walker called her and told her that he could not go through with the planned murder. After knocking on the door and telling Steven he was having car trouble, Walker decided that the murder would have to happen a different day.[3]

         On April 24, 2006, Walker told Tracey that he would murder Steven that day. Walker texted Tracey, "I'm just so ready, baby. Miss you. Will be over soon, count on it." That night around 9:00 p.m., Walker and Tracey met at Walker's cousin's house. Walker got into Tracey's car with something wrapped in a sweatshirt, and the two of them drove to Tracey's home. Walker waited inside the car and instructed Tracey to come and get him after Steven fell asleep. Around 11:30 p.m., Tracey signaled Walker, who came inside the house carrying his "bundle." Walker told Tracey to make sure her two young children stayed in their room, and then Walker entered the master bedroom where Steven was sleeping. Tracey waited outside and heard the sounds of beating. Afterwards, Walker exited the bedroom with an axe handle. He told Tracey that Steven was "as good as gone" and that he had slit Steven's throat. Walker then threw Tracey's jewelry on the floor, took Steven's wallet, and broke the back window with a hammer in order to make it seem like there had been a break-in. Walker told Tracey to "beat herself up," so she inflicted scratches on herself and cut her pajamas. Walker then took Steven's truck and left.

         Forty-five minutes later, Tracey called 911 and frantically reported a home invasion. She said that two men came into the master bedroom while she and her husband were sleeping, and that one of the men attacked Steven. When officers arrived, they observed superficial scratches on Tracey's chest and noticed that her pajamas were torn. Steven was found lying on the floor of the bedroom with his throat cut from ear to ear. He had also been struck in the head three to four times while he was still in the bed, and he displayed no defensive wounds. In addition, a knife was found in the bedroom that matched the knives from the knife block in the kitchen, and, at the scene, a GBI special agent noticed a card from a florist shop in Tracey's purse addressed to Tracey from "Ric."

         While being questioned by responding officers, Tracey received several calls from Walker. This prompted a GBI special agent to contact Walker, who agreed to meet with the agent. At that meeting, Walker said that he had come to Burke County on April 24th to buy some lumber. Walker said that he spent time with his friends, and also with Tracey, with whom he admitted he was having an affair. Walker said that on the night of April 24th, he met up with Tracey, they hung out at his cousin's house, and then she went home. Walker denied going to neighboring Jenkins County that day and said that he was not familiar with where Tracey lived in Jenkins County. He stated that, after Tracey left, he hung out at a friend's house, and then left around 12:30 to 1:00 a.m. to head back to his home in Hart County.

         Contrary to Walker's statements, however, police obtained phone records and cell-site location information ("CSLI") that placed Walker in Millen (where the Harleys lived) around the time Steven was killed. Phone records also showed that, on the night of the murder, Walker and Tracey talked at 12:07 a.m., Walker called Tracey at 12:26 a.m., and then Tracey called Walker at 12:51 a.m., just minutes before calling 911. Tracey also sent Walker a text message while on the phone with the 911 operator between 12:54 a.m. and 1:07 a.m. Walker told the police that Tracey seemed completely "normal" during the 12:51 a.m. phone call to him. In the ten days leading up to Steven's death, Walker had over 1, 300 calls and text messages, most of which were to or from Tracey. Walker was arrested on May 11, 2006, and Tracey was arrested shortly thereafter. Although Tracey initially denied knowing anything about the murder, she confessed following her arrest and described the murder plot in full detail. She also testified at Walker's trial.

         The record also shows that, while Walker was in jail awaiting trial, he became friends with Emory Bell, another inmate. The two men confided in each other about their respective cases. Walker told Bell that he had had a sexual relationship with a school teacher and that he had killed her husband because she wanted her husband "out of the picture." Walker told Bell that he had slit the husband's throat and driven the husband's truck somewhere.

         This evidence was sufficient to enable the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Walker was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).[4]

         2. Walker contends that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to: (a) move to suppress the CSLI used against him at trial; (b) object to certain evidence and statements allegedly commenting on his right to remain silent; and (c) impeach Bell with all of his former convictions.

In order to succeed on his claims of ineffective assistance, [Walker] must prove both that his trial counsel's performance was deficient and that there is a reasonable probability that the trial result would have been different if not for the deficient performance. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984). If an appellant fails to meet his or her burden of proving either prong of the Strickland test, the reviewing court does not have to examine the other prong. Id. at 697 (IV); Fuller v. State, 277 Ga. 505 (3) (591 S.E.2d 782) (2004). In reviewing the trial court's decision, "'[w]e accept the trial court's factual findings and credibility determinations unless clearly erroneous, but we independently apply the legal principles to the facts.'
[Cit.]" Robinson v. State, 277 Ga. 75, 76 (586 S.E.2d 313) (2003).

Wright v. State, 291 Ga. 869, 870 (2) (734 S.E.2d 876) (2012). Furthermore, "[t]rial tactics and strategy . . . are almost never adequate grounds for finding trial counsel ineffective unless they are so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have chosen them." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) McNair v. State, 296 Ga. 181, 184 (2) (b) (766 S.E.2d 45) (2014).

         (a) Walker first contends that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to the CSLI used to track his location at trial. Relying on Carpenter v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 2206 (201 L.Ed.2d 507) (2018), Walker argues that trial counsel should have moved to suppress the CSLI on the basis that it was obtained through a court order rather than a warrant. Carpenter holds that individuals maintain a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of physical movements captured by CSLI, and, ...

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