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Seabrooks v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

September 3, 2019


          BENHAM, JUSTICE.

         Appellant DeAndre Demon Seabrooks was convicted of malice murder and related offenses arising out of the shooting death of Sariah Wilcoxson.[1] On appeal, Seabrooks claims only that trial counsel was ineffective. Finding no error, we affirm.

         Viewed in a light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence adduced at trial established as follows. On the evening of January 11, 2016, Chasity Brawner and Billy Malcolm, both of whom had known Seabrooks for years, witnessed him fire what was described as a "long gun" or "military-style firearm" into the entrance of a DeKalb County apartment complex where the victim was standing. Brawner made eye contact with Seabrooks immediately after the shooting and observed him mouth the phrase, "They gone quit f*****g with me." Malcolm spoke to Seabrooks after the shooting, asking him, "What the hell are you doing?" Seabrooks was captured on video surveillance in the area just minutes later dressed as described by Brawner and Malcolm. The jury learned that Seabrooks had a longstanding feud with the victim's brother and that, on the night of the murder, the victim was dressed in oversized clothing and resembled her brother.

         Ballistics evidence showed that the victim was killed with either an AK-47 or an SKS-style firearm - either of which, a firearms expert testified, fit the descriptions provided by Brawner and Malcolm - and ammunition associated with such a firearm was discovered in both an apartment and a vehicle connected to Seabrooks. When officers attempted to arrest Seabrooks, he led them on a high-speed chase that had to be called off by police because young children were in the vehicle with him. Finally, the State presented recorded jailhouse telephone calls in which Seabrooks can be heard making arrangements with his cousin to pay Brawner to change her story.

         1. Though not raised by Seabrooks as error, in accordance with this Court's standard practice in appeals of murder cases, we have reviewed the record and find that the evidence, as summarized above, was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find Seabrooks guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. On appeal, Seabrooks argues only that trial counsel was ineffective in a variety of ways. However, his one page of claims includes no meaningful argument or analysis and no citations of relevant authority; instead, Seabrooks has simply presented this Court with what amounts to a list of allegations that trial counsel was ineffective. These claims are deemed abandoned under Supreme Court Rule 22. See Henderson v. State, 304 Ga. 733, 739 (3) (f) (822 S.E.2d 228) (2018) (arguments pertaining to ineffective assistance of counsel deemed abandoned under Rule 22 where they were "each a single sentence long, provide[d] no citation to legal authority, and include[d] no legal analysis"). In any event, the claims are without merit.[2]

         To succeed on a claim of ineffective assistance, an appellant bears the heavy burden of showing "both that his counsel performed deficiently and that, but for the deficiency, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been more favorable." Slaton v. State, 303 Ga. 651, 652 (814 S.E.2d 344) (2018). See also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 694 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984).

To prove deficient performance, one must show that his attorney performed at trial in an objectively unreasonable way considering all the circumstances and in the light of prevailing professional norms. Courts reviewing ineffectiveness claims must apply a strong presumption that counsel's conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional performance. Thus, decisions regarding trial tactics and strategy may form the basis for an ineffectiveness claim only if they were so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have followed such a course. If the defendant fails to satisfy either the "deficient performance" or the "prejudice" prong of the Strickland test, this Court is not required to examine the other.

         (Citation omitted.) Slaton, 303 Ga. at 652-653. "In reviewing the trial court's decision, we accept the trial court's factual findings and credibility determinations unless clearly erroneous, but we independently apply the legal principles to the facts." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Wright v. State, 291 Ga. 869, 870 (734 S.E.2d 876) (2012).

         (a) Seabrooks argues that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to references of "gang activity" during trial. Though he fails to reference any specific testimony, it appears that he is concerned with the following testimony from Malcolm: "I don't get into this type of stuff, all this gang banging and all this that they have going on. I don't get into that. I'm in fear of being in here now because I don't know who out there might be in a gang with them." As trial counsel explained in his testimony at the hearing on the motion for new trial, this testimony was elicited on cross-examination and was non-responsive to trial counsel's actual question; trial counsel decided against objecting or moving to strike the testimony because it was not specific to Seabrooks and because he did not want to call attention to it. The trial court credited trial counsel's testimony in this respect and properly concluded that it was reasonable trial strategy. See Gomez v. State, 301 Ga. 445, 460 (801 S.E.2d 847) (2017) (recognizing that the "decision not to draw attention to [a] passing remark by making an objection is not so obviously unreasonable as to constitute deficient performance" (citation and punctuation omitted)).

         (b) Seabrooks next argues that the State failed to lay a proper foundation for the admission of recorded jailhouse telephone calls and that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the evidence. This claim is also without merit. Our new Evidence Code "allows the admission of computer controlled audio recordings, such as jail phone calls, 'when the court determines, based on competent evidence presented to the court, that such items tend to show reliably the fact or facts for which the items are offered.'" Smith v. State, 300 Ga. 538, 540 (796 S.E.2d 666) (2017) (quoting OCGA § 24-9-923 (c)).

         Here, the State presented testimony from one of its investigators concerning the telephone system in use at the DeKalb County Jail, how that system records telephone conversations, and how inmates are assigned a unique Personal Identification Number (PIN) to use the system. The investigator also testified that inmates attempt to circumvent the PIN system by using a PIN associated with another inmate but that the system tracks calls by outgoing numbers, too. The investigator testified that he located recorded telephone calls placed by Seabrooks using both Seabrooks' PIN and outgoing numbers; he also testified that, in some calls, Seabrooks would identify himself and that it was Seabrooks' voice in each recorded conversation. This testimony was sufficient for the trial court to properly admit this evidence, see Jones v. State, 299 Ga. 40, 44-45 (4) (785 S.E.2d 886) (2016), and, thus, trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to lodge a meritless objection, see Lupoe v. State, 300 Ga. 233, 245 (8) (794 S.E.2d 67) (2016).

         (c) Finally, Seabrooks contends that trial counsel "coerced [him] not to testify." As recognized by the trial court, however, the trial transcript reflects a lengthy and detailed colloquy concerning Seabrooks' decision against testifying, during which Seabrooks denied that his decision was coerced in any way, affirmed that his decision was voluntary, and affirmed that his decision was his own after consultation with trial counsel. Trial counsel testified at the hearing on the motion for new trial that, though he strongly counseled Seabrooks not to testify - explaining that he advised Seabrooks that he would be "eviscerated" on cross-examination and that his testimony would "guarantee us a loss" - he also squarely advised Seabrooks that the decision was ultimately Seabrooks' to make.

         The trial court credited Seabrooks' responses during the colloquy and trial counsel's testimony to conclude that Seabrooks' decision not to testify was his own. Based on these findings, the trial court was authorized to find that trial counsel did not coerce Seabrooks' decision, and we agree with the trial court that counsel was not ineffective in this regard. See Thornton v. State, 292 Ga. 796, 798-799 (2) (a) (741 S.E.2d 641) (2013). See also Clements v. State, 299 Ga.App. 561, 564 (683 S.E.2d 127) ...

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