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Bryant v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

September 3, 2019

BRYANT
v.
THE STATE.

          Ellington, Justice.

         Following a jury trial, Jason Bryant ("the appellant") was convicted of the malice murder of his wife, Angelina Bryant ("Bryant"), the aggravated assault of Trina Nwoke, and making a terroristic threat.[1] He appeals, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence as to the offense of making a terroristic threat and contending that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the appellant's conviction of making a terroristic threat and affirm his remaining convictions.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. In early 2012, Angelina Bryant was separated from her husband, the appellant, and staying with a friend, Fallion Simmons. Throughout the day on March 6, 2012, the appellant repeatedly called Bryant and sent her text messages that made her feel unsafe. That night, Bryant's close friend, Trina Nwoke, also spent the night at Simmons's apartment, and the calls and text messages from the appellant continued late into the night; Bryant decided to seek a temporary protective order the next day. On the morning of March 7, Bryant told Simmons and Nwoke that she was "really scared," and the women discussed ways Bryant could protect herself. Nwoke gave Bryant a Taser device to carry for self-protection. The appellant called Bryant several times that morning. As Bryant and Nwoke were preparing to leave to go together to a restaurant, where they were seeking employment, and then to the police station, Bryant received another call. Bryant told Nwoke and Simmons it was the appellant and put the call on speaker-phone mode so her friends were able to listen. Bryant asked, "what do you want?" The appellant said, "you will regret this," and ended the call.

         Approximately ten minutes after that phone call, Bryant and Nwoke were walking down the stairs outside Simmons's apartment when the appellant ran up to them from the direction of the balcony next door and started firing a gun. After the first or second shot, Bryant dropped to the ground, face first. The appellant moved past Bryant toward Nwoke and shot her in the abdomen; she fell back on the stairs. The appellant kneeled on Nwoke's body and shot her again multiple times. The appellant turned back to Bryant's prone body and shot her again in the back of the head. The appellant then walked to his car and drove away. When officers responded to the scene, Bryant was already dead. An officer asked Nwoke, who was still lying injured on the stairs, who had shot her, and she responded, "Jason Bryant." The Bryants' three-year-old daughter, who had been standing with Simmons at the top of the stairs when the shooting started, told a detective, "Daddy shot Mommy." The appellant was arrested later that day, while he was waiting to pick up the Bryants' five-year-old son from kindergarten.

         At trial, Bryant's mother testified that Bryant and the appellant had been married for about five years at the time of her death and had been separated for several months. She testified that approximately two to three months before the shooting, the appellant had beaten Bryant, seriously bruising her face. The night before the shooting, Bryant told her mother that she was upset about receiving a large number of text messages from the appellant that day and that she planned to get a restraining order as soon as possible; her mother described Bryant's demeanor as "shaken, nervous, uncomfortable." Later that night, Bryant's mother called the appellant, who seemed "upset and angry," and she counseled him that he needed to calm down if he wanted to reconcile with Bryant.

         1. (a) The appellant contends that the State presented no evidence that he committed the offense of making a terroristic threat as charged in Count 6 of the indictment, which alleged that he "did threaten to commit Murder, a crime of violence, with the purpose of terrorizing [Bryant]." Specifically, the appellant contends that the only evidence of any threat offered by the State was testimony that, during his final phone call to Bryant, he told her "you will regret this," which, he argues, "is not an explicit threat to murder." The appellant argues further that the jury was not authorized to consider his violent conduct after the final phone call as retroactively imbuing "you will regret this" with the requisite threatening meaning. He contends that the evidence failed to establish an implicit threat to murder Bryant because the circumstances surrounding the making of the threat included neither any mention of violence nor any acts of violence at the time the words were spoken.

         When the sufficiency of the evidence is challenged on direct appeal, the proper standard of review is the test established in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979), which requires that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, must be sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Dupree v. State, 303 Ga. 885, 886 (1) (815 S.E.2d 899) (2018); 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).

         At the relevant time, former OCGA § 16-11-37 (a) (2010) provided in pertinent part: "A person commits the offense of a terroristic threat when he or she threatens to commit any crime of violence . . . with the purpose of terrorizing another[.]"[2] As the Court of Appeals has explained, under this Code section: "the State must establish two elements to sustain a conviction for making terroristic threats: (a) that the defendant threatened to commit a crime of violence against the victim, and (b) that the defendant did so with the purpose of terrorizing the victim." Clement v. State, 309 Ga.App. 376, 379 (1) (710 S.E.2d 590) (2011) (citations and punctuation omitted). With regard to the first element, the plain and ordinary meaning of the word "threat" refers to "a communication, declaration, or expression of an intention to inflict harm or damage." Edwards v. State, 330 Ga.App. 732, 735 (2) (a) (769 S.E.2d 150) (2015) (citation and punctuation omitted). "The crime of making terroristic threats focuses solely on the conduct of the accused and is completed when the threat is communicated to the victim with the intent to terrorize." Clement, 309 Ga.App. at 379 (1) (citations and punctuation omitted).

         In this case, the indictment specified that the crime of violence that the appellant allegedly threatened to commit was murder. And the record shows that the communication, declaration, or expression of an intention to commit the crime of murder identified by the State at trial was the appellant's statement in his final phone call to Bryant "you will regret this."[3] During the jury charge, the trial court instructed the jury that the State had the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt every material allegation of the indictment and every essential element of the offenses as alleged in the indictment and sent the indictment out with the jury during deliberations. [4]

         Patently, "you will regret this," without more, is not an explicit declaration of an intention to commit murder. But

the specific form of a terroristic threat is not important. It need not take any particular form or be expressed in any particular words, and may be made by innuendo or suggestion. A communication is sufficient to constitute a threat if a reasonable person could conclude that it was a threat under the circumstances.

Clement, 309 Ga.App. at 379 (1) (a) (citations and punctuation omitted). Courts look therefore to the circumstances surrounding the utterance at issue.

         In Cook v. State, 198 Ga.App. 886 (403 S.E.2d 872) (1991), for example, the defendant was charged with terroristic threats, specifically, threatening to murder the victim, based on his statement "I'm gonna get you" to the victim. 198 Ga.App. at 887 (2). The Court of Appeals found the evidence sufficient to sustain the verdict based on evidence of a preceding connected and explicit threat to kill the victim. Id. at 887 (2). In an earlier incident, the defendant went to the victim's home, threatened to kill her if she did not leave the house, took a gun from her bedroom, chambered a bullet, took the safety off, and told her again that he would kill her if she did not leave. Id. at 886 (1). Ten days later, while the victim testified against the defendant at the bond hearing on charges arising from the first incident, the defendant gave her "looks that scare you to death," as she described it. Id. After she testified, he passed her and said to her, "I'm gonna get you." Id. The Court of Appeals held that, although the defendant's words "may not specifically threaten death, the circumstances surrounding the utterance of [the] defendant's threatening words to the victim were sufficient to authorize the jury's finding that [the] defendant threatened the victim's life" in the second incident. Id. at 887 (2).

         As noted above, the alleged threat was to murder Bryant, and the allegedly threatening communication, declaration, or expression was the appellant's statement in the final phone call, "you will regret this." The crime of making a terroristic threat was completed, if at all, when the appellant communicated the threat to Bryant with the intent to terrorize her. See Clement, 309 Ga.App. at 379 (1). The appellant's shooting of Bryant, albeit only ten minutes later, was not part of his communication to her in that phone call. Because the appellant's conduct after the phone call was not part of his communication to her in that phone call, the shooting was not relevant to the determination whether ...


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