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Easley v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

September 23, 2019

EASLEY
v.
THE STATE

          MILLER, P. J., RICKMAN and REESE, JJ.

          Reese, Judge.

         A jury found Vincent Easley, Jr. ("the Appellant") guilty of armed robbery, false imprisonment, theft by taking property valued at $5, 000 or more, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, and possession of cocaine[1] arising from actions that allegedly occurred on December 11, 2013.[2] The trial court sentenced the Appellant to serve a total of 38 years, with the first 20 years in confinement and the remaining years on probation. The Appellant appeals from the denial of his motion for new trial, arguing that the trial court erred in failing to grant his motion for a continuance and in admitting improper character evidence, and that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [3] the record shows the following facts. On December 10, 2013, at around 6 p.m., the victim, T. D. met a young lady, later identified as Terrineka Watts ("Watts"), at a gas station. Watts gave T.D. her phone number, and T. D. called Watts at around 5:00 a.m. the next day to ask if he "could stop by and see her for a second." Watts told him "[y]es[, ]" and she gave him an address. He traveled to the address, discovered it was a hotel, and called Watts to make sure he was in the right place. Watts gave T. D. a room number, and upon reaching the room, Watts opened the door. T. D. testified that he entered the room, sat on the bed, and talked to Watts for about ten minutes. T. D. admitted that they began "flirting with each other[, ]" and Watts told him that "she would do something for some money." T. D. denied that he visited Watts with the intention to "pay for anything[.]"

         According to T. D., two men emerged from the bathroom, with one of the men pointing a gun at T. D.'s face. At trial, T. D. identified the Appellant as one of the two men, and he testified that the other man, later identified as Myron Sterling ("Sterling"), was the person who held the gun to his face. Sterling instructed T. D. to "take [his] pants off and give [them to Sterling]." Sterling emptied T. D.'s pants pockets, which contained "around $200" and his license, debit card, cell phone, and car keys.

         T. D. testified that the Appellant "walked up to [him] and demanded [his] watch, and [the Appellant] snatched [T. D.'s] necklace off [T. D.'s] neck." After T. D. gave the Appellant his watch, the Appellant punched him in the face.

         The Appellant and Sterling told T. D. to sit on one of the beds while Sterling pointed the gun at him. T. D. sat on the bed, and the Appellant punched him in the face again. Sterling then told T.D. to get up, and both Sterling and the Appellant told T. D. to "get in the closet." T. D. went into the closet, and both men closed the closet door. While in the closet, T. D. heard the two men "pushing things up against the wall, " and one of the men said to T. D. that they would "kill [him]" if he came out of the closet. He also heard one of the men say, "I'm going to the car, I'm going to find the car."

         T. D. remained in the closet until he did not hear anything further. Once he pushed the closet door open, T. D. put his pants back on, left the hotel room, and went to the hotel's front desk. A person at the front desk called the police. T. D. testified that he did not recover any of his property.

         The Appellant testified at trial that Sterling picked him up at around 8 p.m. on December 10, 2013, and that the Appellant intended to "catch up [with his] old friend[.]" Sterling took the Appellant to a hotel room, where Watts was "just laying on the bed." The Appellant admitted that the three of them "[s]moked marijuana and did cocaine." While the Appellant was in the hotel room, a phone rang. The Appellant testified that Watts answered the phone and, after finishing a conversation with the caller, the Appellant and Sterling "exited the room because [Watts] had a dude coming over there to pay for sex with her." As the two men left the room, a man that was going into Watts's room "turned around and walked away." When the man did not return to Watts's room after about ten minutes, Sterling and the Appellant re-entered Watts's room.

         At around 6:20 a.m., the phone rang again, and Watts answered it. The Appellant testified that he and Sterling left the room and went into the bathroom "[because Watts] had another male that wanted to pay for sex." The Appellant further testified that he and Sterling left the bathroom when "[the male visitor] went over the time limit[.]" The Appellant testified that, upon entering the hotel room, he could not tell if Watts and T. D. were having sexual intercourse. The Appellant further testified that Sterling "just ask[ed] [T. D.] for additional money because [T. D. had gone] over the time." The Appellant denied that anyone had a gun or hit T. D.

         The Appellant testified that Sterling took the victim's car keys and that he (the Appellant) told Sterling, "[g]ive me the car keys so I can go home." The Appellant testified that he "grabbed the car keys" and Sterling told him to "get the girl['s] clothes and go the car[.]" The Appellant further testified that he heard someone tell T. D. to get into the closet, but he did not see what happened because he (the Appellant) was in the parking lot. He testified that, after about 15 minutes, Sterling and Watts came to the car and got in, and the Appellant drove them away.

         The Appellant testified that, after driving about 15 minutes, he dropped Watts and Sterling off at a gas station. The Appellant was stopped by police at another gas station, but he fled in the car. After leading the police on a "high speed chase[, ]" the Appellant eventually fled from the car and hid in a pile of leaves, behind a house. He was apprehended by police after being bitten by a K-9 dog.

         During his custodial interview, the Appellant told the detective assigned to investigate this case that his "friend[, ]" "Royal, " also known as "Jeremy[, ]" was in the hotel room serving as Watts's "protection." The Appellant described Royal as someone with whom he had been in jail in Gwinnett County. The redacted custodial interview was played for the jury. The detective testified at trial that, based on his investigation, the Appellant and Sterling had never been in jail together.

         At trial, the Appellant testified that he mistakenly thought Sterling's "street name" was Royal, and he admitted that he had lied to the detective about being "in jail with the person [the Appellant] knew to be Royal[.]" The Appellant admitted taking the car and possessing cocaine, but denied having a gun, committing armed robbery or kidnapping anyone.

         Following the jury trial, the Appellant filed a motion for new trial. After conducting a hearing, the trial court denied the Appellant's motion. This appeal followed.

On appeal from a criminal conviction, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and an appellant no longer enjoys the presumption of innocence. This Court determines whether the evidence is sufficient under the standard of Jackson v. Virginia, [4] and does not weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility. Any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence are for the jury to resolve. As long as there is some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State's case, we must uphold the jury's verdict.[5]

         "The standard of Jackson v. Virginia[6] is met if the evidence is sufficient for any rational trier of fact to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crime charged."[7] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to the Appellant's specific claims of error.

         1. The Appellant argues that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion for a continuance. Specifically, the Appellant contends that the trial court should have granted the continuance because the State untimely served him with a "small portion" of Sterling's two-and-a-half-hours-long custodial interview three days prior to trial.[8] He argues that the continuance could have provided the Appellant with "cross[-]examination questions for [T. D., ]" and allow him time to "investigate what [Sterling] stated in his interview." We find no abuse of discretion.

         Under OCGA § 17-8-22, "[a]ll applications for continuances are addressed to the sound legal discretion of the court and, if not expressly provided for, shall be granted or refused as the ends of justice may require."

In reviewing a trial court's denial of a motion for a continuance, this Court will not reverse a trial court's decision on a motion for continuance except upon a clear abuse of the trial court's discretion. Moreover, to be entitled to a new trial based upon the denial of his motion for a continuance, the defendant has the burden to show that he was harmed by that denial.[9]

         The record shows that, on June 8, 2015, the Appellant filed a motion for a continuance because trial counsel had received, less than ten days before trial, a written summary of a recorded custodial interview with Sterling. On the morning of the first day of trial, the State served the Appellant with a video recording of the entire two-and-a-half-hours-long custodial interview of Sterling. The trial court recessed the proceedings to allow trial counsel time to watch the entire interview.

         The trial court reconvened the proceeding three hours later and held a hearing on the Appellant's motion for a continuance, during which his trial counsel stated: "This statement by [Sterling] is the only . . . statement that contradicts our theory of the defense as it stands now. And it's going . . . to affect how we present our case, it's going to affect whether or not [the Appellant] decides to testify." The trial court responded, "I don't understand how it can affect the presentation of your case if I'm not going to allow it into evidence." Trial counsel responded, "I also heard a few things in the video that . . . I would really like to have additional time to follow up on that may be helpful to [the Appellant's] case [such as] Sterling stat[ing] that . . . he didn't see anybody actually take anything from [the victim]." Citing OCGA § 17-16-6, the trial court ruled that the State could not introduce evidence contained in the written summary or the video of Sterling's custodial interview.[10] In denying the Appellant's motion for a continuance, the trial court ruled that Sterling's custodial video was "clearly inculpatory[, as to the Appellant, ]" and that the Appellant had failed to present sufficient grounds justifying a continuance.

         At the motion for new trial hearing, the Appellant did not present the testimony of any potential witnesses or offer any other evidence to show that any prejudice resulted from the denial of his motion for continuance.[11] Thus, the Appellant's argument that the continuance could have provided the Appellant with additional cross-examination questions for the victim or time to investigate Sterling's custodial statement is unsupported by the record. Based on the foregoing, the Appellant has failed to meet his burden showing that he was harmed by the denial, and trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for a continuance.[12]

         2. The Appellant argues that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting improper character evidence of him by allowing the State to present evidence of: (a) his previous incarceration; and (b) outstanding warrants for his arrest without notice or a hearing as required by OCGA § 24-4-404 (b).[13] We disagree.

         (a) Previous incarceration.

         During trial, outside the presence of the jury, the trial court held a hearing on the admissibility of portions of the Appellant's custodial interview. During the interview, the Appellant stated that his friend, Royal (also known as Jeremy), was in the hotel room on December 10, and that he and Royal had previously been incarcerated together. The trial court admitted that portion of the Appellant's statement because the "prejudice does not substantially outweigh the probative value of the two [the Appellant and Sterling] being friends together and being in jail for that brief mention." The detective subsequently testified at trial that the Appellant and Sterling were never in jail together.

         At trial, the Appellant admitted that he lied to the detective when he said that Sterling was not in the hotel room. He also testified that, at the time, he thought Sterling's street name was Royal. In the order denying the Appellant's motion for a new trial, the trial court ruled that "the challenged evidence was not impermissible character evidence[, but instead it] was evidence showing [the Appellant's] association with the other male in the hotel room."

         As a general rule, "[a] trial court's decision under OCGA §§ 24-4-403[14] and 24-4-404 (b) to exclude or admit other acts evidence will be overturned only where there is a clear abuse of discretion."[15] Moreover, "although evidence may incidentally put [the Appellant's] character in issue or be prejudicial, it may be admitted if otherwise relevant."[16]

         Thus, because the Appellant's brief statement about being in jail with Royal, and that Royal was Sterling's street name, was relevant and admissible to show that the men knew each other prior to the crimes at issue, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence.[17] And, even if the Appellant's passing reference to Sterling and he being incarcerated together was improperly admitted, the Appellant has failed to demonstrate reversible error.[18]

         (b) Outstanding arrest warrants.

         The Appellant also argues that the trial court erred by admitting evidence of the Appellant's outstanding arrest warrants for shoplifting, arguing that the trial court failed to provide notice and a hearing, as required by OCGA § 24-4-404 (b). Specifically, the Appellant claims that the court erred in admitting evidence that, during his custodial interview, the Appellant stated that he decided to flee from the police in the stolen vehicle after dropping off Sterling and Watts because he had outstanding warrants. This argument is unavailing.

         "Evidence is intrinsic to the charged offense, and thus does not fall within [OCGA § 24-4-404 (b)'s] ambit, if it (1) arose out of the same transaction or series of transactions as the charged offense; (2) is necessary to complete the story of the crime; or (3) is inextricably intertwined with the evidence regarding the charged offense."[19]

         Based on the foregoing, the Appellant's statement was intrinsic evidence because his motive for fleeing from the police was "inextricably intertwined" with the evidence of the charged crime of fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer.[20]Thus, a hearing pursuant to OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) was not required.[21] Accordingly, ...


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