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Worthen v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

August 19, 2019

WORTHEN
v.
THE STATE.

          BOGGS, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Jacquez Laquan Worthen appeals his 2014 conviction for felony murder in connection with the shooting death of Robert Lee Parrish, Jr. He contends that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction as a party to the shooting and that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting gang evidence over his objection. We affirm.[1]

         1. (a) Viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the evidence at trial showed the following. Appellant, Jhakeem Armstrong ("Armstrong"), Armstrong's older brother Jeremy Armstrong ("Armstrong's brother"), and Reginald Young, Jr. were all members of the "Circle of Ten" sub-group of the Crips street gang. On April 5, 2012, which was the Thursday before Easter, Armstrong's brother attended a house party across the street from East Georgia State College with a man nicknamed "Big Man." Parrish's son and his friends Darshan Habersham and Jakolby Williams were students at the college and attended the same party. "Big Man" twice deliberately bumped into Parrish's son, prompting Habersham to intervene. Habersham ended up in an argument with Armstrong's brother, which escalated into a fist fight outside the house in front of other people. Habersham won the fight decisively, with Parrish's son and Williams eventually having to pull Habersham off Armstrong's brother.

         On the evening of Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012, Parrish's son went to a park for a cookout with friends. Numerous people were in the park, including Appellant, who was there with Armstrong, Armstrong's brother, and Young. At some point, Appellant approached Parrish's son and accused him of "jumping" Armstrong's brother with Habersham at the house party in an unfair two-on-one fight; Parrish's son denied the charge. Appellant said that he had "some boys coming" to the park, and "we're going to find out what really happened" at the party. Parrish's son viewed Appellant's statements as a threat and called his father for help.

         Parrish rushed to the park, found his son, and told him to step aside while he discussed the problem with Appellant. Appellant said to Parrish, "[Y]o, your son jumped my homeboy," meaning Armstrong's brother. Parrish invoked his and his son's family ties with Appellant and told Appellant that he therefore should not be fighting with Parrish's son. Appellant replied that he knew they were related but that he still would fight Parrish.[2]

         By that point, a crowd of 20 to 30 people had gathered around. Armstrong, who had a blue bandanna hanging out of his back pocket, twice said to Appellant, "let's just go on and do this n**ger," referring to Parrish. As the argument continued and Parrish turned away, Appellant loudly asked Armstrong, "you got that heat cuz[?]" Armstrong immediately pulled out a gun and shot Parrish in the back of the head. Parrish fell to the ground, and Armstrong stood over him and shot him twice more, once in the upper chest and once in the face, killing him. Appellant and Armstrong then fled in the same direction as the crowd scattered.

         Although Parrish brought his loaded nine-millimeter handgun with him to the park, he kept it holstered with the safety on. At no point did Parrish threaten to hurt anyone or point his gun at anyone.

         In addition to testimony about what happened at the house party and in the park, the State presented testimony by Charles Whitaker, an expert in gang investigations. Whitaker testified that the Crips street gang has a presence in Georgia; that gangs are associated with certain colors; that the color blue is predominantly associated with the Crips; and that he has seen Crips members in Georgia wearing blue bandannas, or sometimes black. He identified certain hand signs associated with the Crips, including two that Appellant and Armstrong regularly made, as well as gang-affiliated tattoos in a photograph of Armstrong. Whitaker also testified that respect is an important aspect of gang culture; that throughout the course of his long career, nine times out of ten, an incident of gang violence started "over somebody being disrespected"; that in gang culture, disrespect triggers a disproportionate response; and that disrespect "could be anything," including beating a gang member in a fight or standing up to a gang. He added that gangs have no problem reacting to perceived disrespect with violence, particularly when disrespect is shown in a public place, and that the violence functions both as payback for the disrespect and as a warning to the community of what they can expect if they cross the gang.[3]

         (b) Appellant contends that the evidence was legally insufficient to prove that he committed the aggravated assault predicate for his felony murder conviction, noting that all the testimony was that it was Armstrong, and not Appellant, who actually shot Parrish. It does not follow, however, that Appellant could not properly be found guilty as a party to felony murder based on the aggravated assault that Armstrong directly committed. See Herrington v. State, 300 Ga. 149, 150 (794 S.E.2d 145) (2016) ("[A] defendant need not personally possess a weapon or fire a shot to be found guilty as a party to an aggravated assault . . . .").[4] As Appellant acknowledges, the jury could find him guilty as a party to the shooting, and thus to aggravated assault and felony murder, if the evidence showed either that he intentionally aided or abetted Armstrong in the commission of the shooting of Parrish or that he intentionally advised, encouraged, hired, counseled, or procured Armstrong to shoot Parrish. See OCGA § 16-2-20 (b) (3), (4). But Appellant asserts that the evidence was insufficient to prove that he did any of those things. We disagree.

         Appellant points first to the testimony of prosecution witness Allyson Byrd. According to Appellant, Byrd "correctly summarized what happened on Easter Sunday in the park," and she testified that, in her opinion, Armstrong was acting independently of Appellant when he shot Parrish. But a rational jury could draw a contrary inference from other evidence presented at trial, and "it was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence." Davis v. State, 305 Ga. 869, 871 (828 S.E.2d 313) (2019) (citation and punctuation omitted).

         Appellant argues next that the evidence showed at most that he asked Armstrong if Armstrong was armed before Armstrong shot Parrish, which is insufficient to show that he either intentionally aided or abetted in the commission of the shooting or intentionally advised, encouraged, or counseled Armstrong to shoot Parrish. This argument overlooks the evidence recited in footnote 3 above showing that Appellant and Armstrong were members of the same gang; that the argument in the park between Appellant and Parrish's son, and the later argument between Appellant and Parrish, stemmed from an incident several days before in which a friend of Parrish's son had beaten Armstrong's brother - another member of Appellant's gang - in a fight at a house party; that Appellant told Parrish's son in the park that he had "some boys coming," and "we're going to find out what really happened"; that a crowd gathered around Appellant and Parrish as they argued in the park; that Armstrong twice said to Appellant during that argument, "let's just go on and do this n**ger," meaning Parrish; that Armstrong did not open fire on Parrish until Appellant loudly asked Armstrong, "you got that heat cuz[?]"; and that Appellant and Armstrong fled in the same direction after the shooting. Appellant's argument also ignores the testimony of the State's gang investigations expert that gangs consider standing up to them, as Parrish did, to be an act of disrespect, and that gangs have no problem reacting to disrespect with disproportionate violence, even in a public place like a crowded park.

         As we have repeatedly explained, "[w]hether a person was a party to a crime can be inferred from his presence, companionship, and conduct before and after the crime was committed." Herrington, 300 Ga. at 150 (citation and punctuation omitted). See also Butts v. State, 297 Ga. 766, 770 (778 S.E.2d 205) (2015) (explaining that under OCGA § 16-2-20, a jury may infer a common criminal intent from the defendant's presence, companionship, and conduct with another perpetrator before, during, and after the crime). A rational jury could infer from Appellant's conduct on the day of the shooting that he intentionally advised, encouraged, and counseled Armstrong to shoot Parrish. See Simpson v. State, 265 Ga. 665, 665-666 (461 S.E.2d 210) (1995). Thus, when properly viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the evidence presented at trial and summarized above was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of felony murder predicated on aggravated assault. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). Accordingly, we reject Appellant's challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence to support his felony murder conviction.

         2. Appellant also contends that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) the other acts evidence showing gang membership recited in footnote 3 above over his objection. We disagree.[5]

         Other acts evidence is admissible under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) ("Rule 404 (b)") only if: (1) the evidence is relevant to an issue in the case other than the defendant's character; (2) the probative value of the evidence is not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice; and (3) there is sufficient proof for a jury to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant committed the other act. See Brewner v. State, 302 Ga. 6, 13 (804 S.E.2d 94) (2017). See also Hood v. State, 299 Ga. 95, 101-105 (786 S.E.2d 648) (2016) (discussing the proper application of ...


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