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Chambers v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

September 9, 2019

CHAMBERS
v.
THE STATE.

          DILLARD, P. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          DILLARD, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Following trial, a jury convicted Eric L. Chambers on one count of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment, and one count of battery. Chambers appeals his convictions, arguing that the trial court erred in admitting the victim's prior inconsistent statement and his own prior bad acts into evidence. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [1] the evidence shows that in the early evening of October 25, 2016, a 911 dispatcher with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department received a call from a woman, later identified as S. P., who claimed that her fiancé-Chambers, with whom she resided-attacked her after she confronted him about his drug use. Crying and obviously upset, S. P. explained that Chambers struck her in the face, tried to strangle her, and ultimately tied her to their bed to prevent her from leaving the home. S. P. begged the dispatcher to send an ambulance and expressed fear that Chambers was trying to get back into the house.

         Shortly thereafter, a police officer arrived at S. P.'s residence and found her being treated in the back of an ambulance by EMTs, who arrived just a few minutes earlier. S. P. again stated that Chambers-who left the residence after the assault-had beaten her and tied her up with belts. And while the first officer continued questioning S. P., a forensics detective went inside the home and took photographs, which depicted the bedroom in disarray with broken glass and several belts laying on the floor and draped across the bed's footboard. Subsequently, both the officer and detective met a still visibly upset S. P. at the hospital, where the detective took photographs documenting her swollen face and eyes, abrasions on her neck, and significant carpet burns on her arms and legs.

         Meanwhile, a sheriff's deputy-who had been alerted to the assault-spotted Chambers walking down the road less than a mile from the home and arrested him. But not long after Chambers's arrest, S. P. began contacting him via telephone and visiting him in jail. During those interactions, all of which were recorded, Chambers sought to influence S. P. and discussed how she should testify about the incident. And a little over two weeks after Chambers's arrest, S. P. submitted a handwritten affidavit, claiming that she falsely accused him of attacking her.

         Nevertheless, the State charged Chambers, via indictment, with one count of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment, and one count of battery. And not long afterward, the State filed a notice of its intent to introduce evidence of Chambers's prior act of family violence battery in 2003 under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b). Around this same time, the State also filed a motion to admit S. P.'s prior out-of-court statements to law enforcement, arguing that they were necessary because she would not testify against Chambers at his upcoming probation-revocation hearing.

         The case proceeded to trial, and just before the start of jury selection, Chambers successfully moved the trial court to allow him to proceed pro se. Then, following jury selection, the trial court heard argument regarding the admissibility of Chambers's 2003 guilty plea to family violence battery against a former girlfriend with whom he resided at the time. At the conclusion of the argument, the trial court ruled that the evidence was admissible to prove motive and intent under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) and that its probative value was not substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect.

         Subsequently, the State presented its case, during which the 911 dispatch officer and the forensics detective testified, with the latter discussing the photographs he took of the scene and S. P.'s injuries. S. P. also testified. And although she admitted calling 911 on October 25, 2016, she denied that Chambers physically abused her. S. P. further testified that she did not remember anything from that night because she had been drinking and not taking her blood-pressure medication. Additionally, S. P. denied any recollection of a 2012 incident, in which Chambers struck her in the face. The State then presented the testimony of the law-enforcement officer who responded to a battery-in-progress call at S. P.'s residence, who stated S. P. claimed Chambers punched her and that he noticed injuries to her face.

         The State also presented testimony from the police officer who initially responded to the October 25, 2016 assault and played a video of his interview of S. P., which was recorded via the officer's body camera. Subsequently, after the trial court provided the jury with a limiting instruction, the State presented a former law-enforcement officer, who testified that, on May 4, 2003, he was dispatched to a residence Chambers shared with his then-girlfriend to investigate a domestic-violence report. The officer explained that, on his way to the residence, he encountered Chambers at a nearby convenience store, and he admitted that he and his girlfriend had an argument about child care, culminating in her hitting him in the head with scissor handles. Chambers then confessed that he "lost it" and "beat the f*** out of her." Later, the officer met with the victim, who indeed had swelling to her face and one of her eyes.

         Finally, the State presented expert testimony from a licensed social worker, who specialized in domestic-violence prevention. Specifically, she explained that abusers commonly use violence to exert control over their victims and that the victims of abusive relationships often have difficulty ending the relationship and will frequently recant reports of violence. Thereafter, the State rested its case, and at the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted Chambers on all three counts in the indictment. This appeal follows.[2]

         1. Chambers contends that the trial court erred in admitting into evidence the victim's prior inconsistent statements to law-enforcement officers. Specifically, he argues that S. P.'s statements claiming he attacked her, which were recorded by the police officer's body camera, constituted inadmissible hearsay not subject to any exception. We disagree.

         Under OCGA § 24-6-613 (b), extrinsic evidence of a witness's prior inconsistent statement may be admitted so long as "the witness is first afforded an opportunity to explain or deny the prior inconsistent statement and the opposite party is afforded an opportunity to interrogate the witness on the prior inconsistent statement or the interests of justice otherwise require."[3] And under OCGA § 24-8-801 (d) (1) (A),

[a]n out-of-court statement shall not be hearsay if the declarant testifies at the trial or hearing, is subject to cross-examination concerning the statement, and the statement is admissible as a prior inconsistent statement or a prior consistent statement under Code Section 24-6-613 or is otherwise admissible under this chapter.

         These evidentiary rules "retain Georgia's former approach to a testifying witness's out-of-court statements."[4] Specifically, such statements are not hearsay, and, thus, they "may be admitted for both impeachment purposes and as substantive evidence."[5]

         In this matter, when asked about Chambers's attack on her, S. P. testified that she did not recall any of the events of the night in question, claiming that her drinking and failure to take medications on the night in question contributed to her lack of recall. Ultimately, she testified that Chambers had not been violent toward her. The State then called the police officer who initially responded to the scene as a witness and played a video of ...


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