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Martin v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

September 9, 2019

MARTIN
v.
THE STATE.

          Benham, Justice.

         Appellant Deondra Martin was convicted of felony murder and possession of a knife during the commission of a felony in connection with the stabbing death of her husband, Christopher Washington.[1] On appeal, Martin contends that the evidence was insufficient to support her convictions, that the trial court erred by excluding evidence of Washington's drug use, and that trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. On August 27, 2012, paramedics and sheriff's deputies responded to a call of a person stabbed at a Laurens County residence. Upon arrival, paramedics found Washington lying on a bedroom floor with a stab wound to the chest and in cardiac arrest. Martin, her mother, her sisters, and several children were also at the residence; all were very upset. Paramedics transported Washington to the hospital where he was pronounced dead later that night.

         While deputies secured the residence, Martin went into the bathroom. While she was in the bathroom, deputies heard rattling, which they reported to the crime scene investigators. A kitchen knife containing traces of Washington's blood was later recovered from the toilet tank reservoir.

         Martin was questioned three times about the incident. First, while in the back of a patrol car at the scene, Martin told investigators that she did not know what had happened in the house but that she and Washington had been fighting. Later that night, during her first formal interview at the police station, Martin said she and the victim merely "had words," but she denied stabbing him. She also told investigators that she and Washington often argued and that those arguments frequently escalated to physical violence. The next morning, Martin told investigators that she and Washington were arguing and that he was choking her. She had a knife in the bedroom, and she picked it up "trying to scare him." She explained that the stabbing was an accident, that she was scared, and that she did not think Washington would die. However, Martin admitted that the victim had stopped choking her before she picked up the knife. Martin was examined at the jail for signs of injury, but none were visible.

         The medical examiner testified that Washington's cause of death was a single stab wound to the chest. The wound was five inches deep, and the medical examiner opined that a significant amount of force would have been required to inflict such a deep wound. Notably, Washington had no defensive wounds.

         1. Martin challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support her conviction for felony murder predicated on aggravated assault by intentional stabbing.[2] "When we review a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict and defer to the jury's assessment of the weight and credibility of the evidence." Bowman v. State, 306 Ga. 97, 99 (1) (829 S.E.2d 139) (2019), citing Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         Martin argues that the State failed to meet its burden of proving that she was not justified in using deadly force to defend herself against Washington. According to Martin, the evidence showed only that she "stabbed . . . Washington in self-defense, with the sole intent to get him to stop choking her. He had choked her before, he was choking her again." However, other evidence presented at trial, including Martin's own statement, contradicted her claim of self-defense. Martin told police that Washington had stopped choking her before she stabbed him, and neither Martin's nor Washington's body showed signs of other injuries, as may be expected if the wound were inflicted during a physical struggle. The medical examiner further testified that Washington's lack of defensive wounds indicated that he did not see the knife coming. As we have explained before, "the jury was free to reject any evidence in support of a justification defense and to accept the evidence that the [stabbing] was not done in self-defense." Gibson v. State, 300 Ga. 494, 495 n.3 (796 S.E.2d 712) (2017). Thus, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, we conclude that the evidence was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Martin was guilty of felony murder. See Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319 (III) (B).

         Martin further posits that the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to grant her a new trial on the general grounds, ostensibly arguing that this Court should sit as the thirteenth juror in the trial court's stead. "A motion for new trial on [the general grounds], however, is not properly addressed to this Court[, ] as such a decision is one that is solely within the discretion of the trial court." Smith v. State, 300 Ga. 532, 534 (1) (796 S.E.2d 671) (2017). Because the trial court's order reflects that it weighed the evidence and considered the witnesses' credibility and evidentiary conflicts before declining to exercise its discretion as the sole arbiter of the general grounds, we find no abuse of discretion here. See id.

         2. Martin next contends that the trial court violated her Sixth Amendment right to present a full and fair defense by excluding evidence of Washington's drug use and related criminal history. However, the record shows that this claim is being raised for the first time on appeal. Because it is a claim regarding the exclusion of evidence, we may review it for plain error. See OCGA § 24-1-103 (d); see also Gates v. State, 298 Ga. 324, 328-329 (4) (781 S.E.2d 772) (2016) (plain error review under OCGA § 24-1-103 (d) is available only for challenges to rulings on the admission or exclusion of evidence).

To show plain error [Martin] must point to an error that was not affirmatively waived, the error must have been clear and not open to reasonable dispute, the error must have affected [her] substantial rights, and the error must have seriously affected the fairness, integrity[, ] or public reputation of judicial proceedings. We need not analyze all of the elements of this test when, as in this case, the defendant has failed to establish one of them.

(Punctuation and citation omitted.) State v. Herrera-Bustamante, 304 Ga. 259, 264 (2) (b) (818 S.E.2d 552) (2018).

         Before trial, the State moved, pursuant to OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) ("Rule 404 (b)"), to exclude evidence of Washington's drug dealing and drug use. At a hearing on the State's motion, defense counsel argued that Martin's knowledge of Washington's drug use and his resultant tendency toward violence was relevant to her state of mind at the time of the incident and to show how drug use affected Washington's personality and led to domestic violence incidents between the two, including the one that led to his death. The trial court granted the State's motion, finding that Martin failed to show a sufficient nexus between Washington's drug use and his stabbing and that such evidence was more prejudicial than probative.

         Here, Martin's claim fails because she has not demonstrated that the exclusion of this evidence affected her substantial rights; in other words, she has not demonstrated that such exclusion "likely affected the outcome of the trial court proceedings." State v. Johnson, 305 Ga. 237, 240 (824 S.E.2d 317) (2019). The jury heard testimony from multiple witnesses and from Martin herself that Washington tended toward violence and frequently directed that violence at Martin. Martin's stepfather testified that he witnessed Washington on top of Martin choking her, and Martin's former supervisor testified that Martin arrived at work on several occasions with such extensive facial swelling and bruising that "she was not presentable to be working the shift." Martin likewise testified at length regarding physical and verbal abuse to which Washington subjected her. Whether Washington's ...


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