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Hills v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

September 23, 2019


          Boggs, Justice.

         Roman Eugene Hills was convicted of malice murder in connection with the 2014 strangulation, beating, and stabbing death of his live-in girlfriend, Beverly Jones. He appeals, asserting error in the trial court's exclusion of a defense witness' testimony and two instances of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. For the reasons stated below, we affirm.[1]

         1. Construed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the evidence showed that at about 8:30 a.m. on November 1, 2014, paramedics responded to a 911 call that someone had fallen. Hills told one of the paramedics that his "wife" had fallen down the stairs.[2] No one was at the bottom of the stairs, however, and the paramedic saw no blood in the area, no items knocked over, nor any other indication that someone had fallen down the stairs. Hills said that his wife was upstairs and led the paramedics to a bedroom where the victim was lying on the bed. She had extensive head trauma, her head was swollen to almost twice its normal size, she was covered in blood, and she was not breathing. She was "obviously dead" and had been so for some time; her body was cold to the touch. The pillow, bed, walls, floor, and curtains nearby were covered with large amounts of dried blood.

         Police officers arrived and on entering the bedroom saw "blood everywhere, " but noticed no blood on the stairs or on the floors downstairs.[3] Hills was "ranting" at the officers, and as they tried to calm Hills down to get him out of the house, they saw dried blood on his clothing, sneakers, and hands. Outside, Hills continued yelling, asked if the victim was dead, and said, "I didn't know what was wrong with her. I didn't know if anything was wrong. I pushed her off me, " and "I told her to stop but she didn't listen." Hills was so agitated that officers handcuffed him and transported him to police headquarters. After he was detained, Hills called a family member and said that he knew what he did, but must have been asleep when he did it. He also told the police in an interview that the victim was saying, "Help me, help me, I need help, " but he pushed her away for ten or fifteen minutes and "hoped that [he] didn't hit her too hard." Forensic investigators processed the scene, photographing the outside of the house and then going from room to room inside the house photographing the windows and doors to document "whether they were locked or open" and whether "the windows were accessible from the outside." The front of the house showed no signs of forced entry, and all doors and windows appeared to be locked and undisturbed.[4]

         At trial, the medical examiner testified that the cause of the victim's death was strangulation, with beating and stabbing as significant contributing conditions. The victim had 122 external injuries and 23 internal injuries caused by strangulation, blunt force trauma, and sharp instruments. According to the medical examiner, the injuries were inconsistent with a fall down the stairs. DNA analysis showed the victim's blood on the blade of one pair of scissors, both the victim's and Hills' blood on the blade of a second pair of scissors, and a mixture of two types of blood, from which Hills and the victim could not be excluded as donors, on the blade of a knife. DNA analysis also showed that the blood on Hills' clothing and hands was the victim's.

         Hills testified at trial that he woke from a deep sleep and found the victim lying next to him covered in blood and cold, and that he attempted to wake her and perform CPR before calling for help. He said that he found items of jewelry and the victim's cell phone missing. He also said that on the night before, which was Halloween, he and the victim drank a bottle of wine and then went to a local club for several hours where they danced until the victim said she was ready to go home and told him, "I think one of these hoes put something in your drink. Let's go." They walked home from the club, a mile to a mile-and-a-half.

         Hills testified that he believed that "somebody really did put something in my drink, " because he felt tired, sweated profusely, and slept very heavily. But he reluctantly acknowledged on cross- examination that he did not tell the police about the missing items or the victim's alleged statement to him about something being put in his drink. He agreed that he told the police that he was "much more sober" than the victim, and when asked why he did not tell the police that he was "more intoxicated than [his] wife, " he responded, "Well, I wasn't intoxicated like that." He was able to walk about a mile-and-a-half from the club to the house without difficulty and speak to a neighbor when he arrived. He also acknowledged that he told the police that he locked the door when he and the victim arrived home and that no one else was there. Finally, he admitted that at some point the victim was crying for someone to call 911, and that he did not do so, claiming that "[s]he'd played like that before."

         Though Hills has not challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support his malice murder conviction, as is this Court's practice in murder cases, we have reviewed the record to determine the legal sufficiency of the evidence. We conclude that the evidence summarized above was more than sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Hills was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. In his first enumeration of error, Hills asserts that the trial court erred by barring testimony from a neighbor that the victim's older son had gained entry into the house on other occasions, which he claims would have impeached through contradiction the police officers' testimony that the house was secure. See OCGA § 24-6-621 ("A witness may be impeached by disproving the facts testified to by the witness."). We review that ruling for clear abuse of discretion. See Parks v. State, 300 Ga. 303, 305-306 (2) (794 S.E.2d 623) (2016).

         (a) A few days before trial, the State filed a "Motion in Limine Regarding 'Some Other Dude Did It' Defense."[5] The motion sought to prevent Hills from introducing evidence to suggest that the victim's older son may have murdered her. After jury selection, the trial court heard argument on the State's motion and concluded that evidence that the victim's son entered the house with a key or through a window on a date other than that of the murder did

nothing more than to cast a bare suspicion or raise a conjectural inference [of the son's guilt], and I think this is exactly what is not appropriate [in light of] . . . the confusion that it would [create] in this case.[6]

         The court provisionally granted the State's motion pending the presentation of evidence and forbade Hills from mentioning such a theory in his opening statement.

         At trial, outside the presence of the jury, Hills called Carolyn Walker, a neighbor of the victim, to testify. Walker was sworn and said that the victim's son went to the victim's house "the next day right after [the victim] died . . . getting [bicycles] and whatever else that he wanted out [of] the house"; that Walker was "pretty sure he had a key"; and that at some unspecified date "[b]efore any of this happened, " Walker had seen him enter the house through a second-story window that could be reached from the porch roof. The trial court excluded the proffered testimony, concluding that the evidence did not connect the son with the corpus delicti, did not clearly point to someone other than the accused as the perpetrator, and "would have no effect other than to cast a bare suspicion or to raise a conjectural inference as to the commission of a crime by another."[7]

         Hills then argued, as an alternative ground for admission, that the proffered testimony would impeach the testimony of police officers that the house was secure when they responded to the scene. The State replied that the proffered testimony could not impeach the officers' testimony that the windows were not accessible on the day of the crime; that the proffered testimony was unclear, because Walker first said she thought the victim's son came in through the window on the day after the murder but then stated that she believed he had a key; and that in any event the proffered testimony was cumulative of Hills' testimony at trial that one window had a faulty lock, that another window did not lock, and that he had accessed the house through those two windows in ...

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