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Lee v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

September 3, 2019



         Anthony Lee was tried by a Columbia County jury and convicted of the murder of Dexter Butts and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. Lee appeals, contending that the State failed to present evidence legally sufficient to sustain his convictions, that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel at trial, that the trial court erred when it admitted a statement that he gave to investigators, and that the trial court erred when it allowed the prosecution to impeach a defense witness with a pending indictment. Upon our review of the record and briefs, we find no merit in these claims of error, and we affirm.[1]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence shows that on January 3, 2005, Butts was visiting the home of Keisha Davis in Harlem, Georgia. There, Butts received a phone call from Lee, and in the course of their conversation, Lee claimed that Butts owed him money. Butts denied owing Lee anything but told him that, if he thought Butts had his money, he should "come and get it." A short time later, Lee and Carlos Lewis arrived at and entered Davis's home. Lee confronted Butts as he sat at the kitchen table with Davis, her four-month-old child, and her mother. Lewis stood in the living room. Lee and Butts briefly argued, and Butts then asked Lee something along these lines: "What are you going to do, shoot me?"[2] Butts started to get up from the table and move towards Lee when Lee pulled a handgun and shot Butts in the lower abdomen. According to Lee and Lewis, Lee shot Butts as he was moving toward him from behind the table. According to Davis and her mother, Lee shot Butts before he completely stood up. Butts died as a result of the gunshot wound. Lee and Lewis fled the house.

         Lee argues that the evidence is insufficient to sustain his convictions because the State failed to present adequate evidence that he was not acting in self-defense. But as we have explained time and again, "it is the role of the jury to resolve conflicts in the evidence and to determine the credibility of witnesses, and the resolution of such conflicts adversely to the defendant does not render the evidence insufficient." Graham v. State, 301 Ga. 675, 677 (1) (804 S.E.2d 113) (2017) (citation and punctuation omitted). Here, the State's evidence showed that Lee shot Butts as he was standing up from a table. Although Lee presented contrary evidence of self-defense, the jury was free to disbelieve his evidence and to credit the State's evidence instead. See id.; Wright v. State, 296 Ga. 276, 284 (3) (766 S.E.2d 439) (2014) ("It is for the jury to resolve conflicts in the evidence and questions of witness credibility, not this Court."). Thus, the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Lee was guilty of felony murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Next, Lee contends that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel when his trial lawyer failed to object or request curative instructions after a witness testified inaccurately about the law of self-defense. On cross examination, the lawyer asked Investigator Brian Jones, the lead investigator on the case, "And you believe that if you're armed and I come at you, that you just have to sit there and get your . . . a** kicked?" The following exchange then took place:

INVESTIGATOR JONES: And this was alluded to yesterday about police officer versus civilian. As a police officer, no I don't believe I have the - - or would want to just stand there and get my a** whipped. But then again as a police officer I am mandated by the State of Georgia and mandated by the sheriff of this county to go into certain situations and I don't have control over them because I took an oath to protect the citizens of the county of Columbia and anybody inside that county to the best of my abilities. I'm mandated to do that. That is, I am supposed to do that. Mr. Lee, on the other hand, as a civilian, yes, he does have the lawful authority if he doesn't have anything preventing him from carrying a firearm he can carry a firearm. But he is not mandated to go anywhere. He is not made to go in any situation where he feels like he could get his a** whipped or get the gun taken away from him. So the correlation between the police officer and civilian is kind of like comparing apples and oranges when you think about it in that respect. So if that is an answer to your question, then that would be the answer that I could give you.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Are we the oranges and you're the apple? We don't have the same rights to self-defense that you have?
INVESTIGATOR JONES: No sir, I didn't say that. You have the right to self-defense but you have a duty to first look out for yourself and not put yourself in a position to have to use self-defense.

         Trial counsel did not object to this testimony. Lee now argues that Investigator Jones misstated the law of self-defense and that his lawyer's failure to object or request a curative instruction prejudiced him because the jury was presented with an incorrect statement of applicable law.

         At the motion for a new trial hearing, trial counsel said that he understood Investigator Jones to have given less than a complete and accurate explanation of the law of self-defense.[3] He added, however, that he made a strategic decision to not challenge the testimony at that time because the misstatement of law was only "one or two lines," a contemporaneous objection might draw more attention to it, and he would have an opportunity in closing argument to rebut it. Trial counsel thought that closing argument and the jury charge on self-defense would be enough to cure any misperception about the law of self-defense that the jury might have had as a result of Investigator Jones's testimony.

         To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance, Lee must prove both that the performance of his lawyer was deficient and that he was prejudiced by this deficient performance. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (III) (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984). To prove that the performance of his lawyer was deficient, Lee must show that his lawyer performed his duties at trial in an objectively unreasonable way, considering all the circumstances and in the light of prevailing professional norms. See id. at 687-688 (III) (A). See also Kimmelman v. Morrison, 477 U.S. 365, 381 (II) (C) (106 S.Ct. 2574, 91 L.Ed.2d 305) (1986). And to prove that he was prejudiced by the performance of his lawyer, Lee must show "a reasonable probability that, but for his lawyer's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694 (III) (B). This burden is a heavy one, see Kimmelman, 477 U.S. at 382 (II) (C), and Lee has failed to carry it.

         Assuming without deciding that Lee's counsel was deficient for failing to object to Investigator Jones's testimony about self-defense, Lee has not shown that he was prejudiced as a result. To the extent that the testimony was an incomplete or inaccurate statement of the law of self-defense, any error was cured by trial counsel addressing the law of self-defense in his closing argument and even more so by the trial court correctly charging the jury on self-defense.[4] Moreover, at the beginning of its jury instructions, the trial court clarified that the court had the "duty and responsibility to determine the law that applies to this case and to instruct you on that law," clearly signaling to the jury that it was not to take the applicable law from witnesses. Having been accurately and fully charged on the law of self-defense, the jury was free to accept or reject the evidence that the attack was not done in self-defense. As no prejudice has been shown, Lee has failed to prove that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel in connection with the testimony of Investigator Jones.

         3. Lee argues that the trial court erred when it admitted his custodial statement based on its finding that his request for counsel was ambiguous. The day after the shooting, Lee turned himself into law enforcement officers. After he was arrested, Lee was interviewed by two officers. At the beginning of the interview, one officer read Lee his Miranda[5] ...

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