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Rodrigues v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 7, 2019


          BETHEL, JUSTICE.

         In February 2014, a jury found Leonard Rodrigues guilty of malice murder and other crimes in connection with the stabbing death of Nathaniel Reynolds.[1] Rodrigues appeals, contending that the trial court erred by allowing improper testimony regarding the circumstances of prior bad acts to be admitted at trial. For the reasons stated below, we affirm.

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence presented at trial showed that, on January 18, 2013, correctional officers at Hays State Prison in Chattooga County were transporting Nathaniel Reynolds and several other inmates from the prison's Special Management Unit (SMU) back to the general population. Reynolds had been in the SMU as the result of a previous altercation with Rodrigues. Reynolds' request to be removed from the SMU had been granted, so he and one other inmate were being returned to their dormitories.

         At the same time that Reynolds and the other inmates were being moved out of the SMU, other inmates housed in one side of C dormitory were returning from the dining hall. A Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) officer was posted in the middle of the compound, pursuant to the practice of having CERT officers present any time there is mass movement of inmates. The CERT officer opened the gate so that the officers and the inmates they were transporting could continue to the dormitory.

         While Reynolds was getting his property off a cart, Rodrigues and Gonzalez came out of the dormitory and ran at Reynolds with weapons. Reynolds started backing up, but Rodrigues and Gonzalez cornered Reynolds into a gate and began to stab him with shanks. Rodrigues had two shanks and Gonzalez had one. Because the gates were secured on both sides of the dormitory, there was no way for Reynolds to retreat. Reynolds, who did not have a weapon, got into a "fighting stance" and tried to defend himself.[2] The CERT officer sprinted towards the scene and tried to break up the altercation. The officer yelled at Rodrigues and Gonzalez to stop and lie down on the ground, but they continued to stab Reynolds with shanks, ultimately stabbing him 17 times. The officer then pulled out his pepper spray and dispersed it, at which time Rodrigues and Gonzalez put down their shanks and laid face down on the pavement.

         One of the correctional officers instructed Reynolds to lie down on the ground and started escorting the inmates who had been in the area to the SMU as a precautionary measure. A third correctional officer told Reynolds to put his hands behind his back to be handcuffed, and Reynolds complied. However, as soon as the officer pulled his handcuffs out, Reynolds collapsed. A few minutes later, Reynolds died.

         Rodrigues testified at trial in his own defense that, on a Sunday in September 2012, Reynolds took down one of the three televisions in the dormitory and broke it. Reynolds then changed the channel on one of the other two televisions, on which Rodrigues was watching a program. When Rodrigues asked Reynolds why he changed the channel, Reynolds said that if Rodrigues did not let him watch that television, he would break it. Rodrigues testified that he started to leave the room, at which point Reynolds stabbed him. Rodrigues went to his cell and did not report the incident, but someone in the security office found out about it, and both he and Reynolds were sent to the SMU following this incident. Rodrigues remained in the SMU for six days. Rodrigues testified that, during the five and a half months that Reynolds was in the SMU, he sent threats to Rodrigues that when he got out of the SMU, he was going to "finish [Rodrigues] off."

         Rodrigues testified that, on the date Reynolds was killed, he did not know that Reynolds was going to be released from the SMU. Rodrigues testified that all the inmates at Hays carried shanks, and that he always carried two for "security." Rodrigues testified that, while he was walking from the dining hall back to the dormitory, Reynolds saw Rodrigues and immediately started coming towards him. Rodrigues testified that Reynolds put his hand in his pants and Rodrigues thought Reynolds might have a weapon. He testified that he then "went towards" Reynolds to keep Reynolds from having a chance to attack him. Rodrigues did not deny attacking and stabbing Reynolds, and he testified that he did not know if Reynolds had a weapon.

         A second CERT officer at Hays came into contact with Rodrigues several times after Reynolds was killed. The CERT officer testified that Rodrigues told him that he stabbed Reynolds and that he did not care if Reynolds died. The cause of Reynolds' death was sharp force trauma to the chest.

         Although Rodrigues has not challenged the sufficiency of the evidence, it is our customary practice to review the sufficiency of the evidence in murder cases, and we have done so here. After reviewing the record of Rodrigues' trial, we conclude that the evidence presented against him was more than sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Rodrigues was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). See also Brown v. State, 302 Ga. 454, 456 (1) (b) (807 S.E.2d 369) (2017) ("It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence." (citation and punctuation omitted)).

         2. Rodrigues contends that the trial court erred in admitting the testimony of GBI Special Agent Dale Wiley regarding the circumstances of a 2008 stabbing incident involving Rodrigues. Pretermitting whether it was error for the trial court to admit this evidence at trial, any error in this regard would not require the reversal of Rodrigues' conviction because it was harmless. See Kirby v. State, 304 Ga. 472, 487 (4) (c) (819 S.E.2d 468) (2018). Here, the State filed a notice of its intent to introduce evidence of the circumstances of the prior stabbing incident pursuant to OCGA § 24-4-404 (b), which states in pertinent part:

Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts shall not be admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, including, but not limited to, proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident….

         The trial court admitted the evidence as relevant to an issue other than Rodrigues' character-intent-and found that the probative value of the evidence was not substantially outweighed by any danger of unfair prejudice. The trial court provided a limiting instruction immediately before the witness testified about the prior crimes and again during the final charge to the jury, both of which instructed the jury that it could consider the evidence only as to the issue of intent.

         The evidence consisted of the testimony of Special Agent Wiley, who participated in the investigation of the 2008 death of Enrique Lopez Ramirez. Ramirez was stabbed in the right-hand side of his upper torso. Agent Wiley testified that as part of his investigation, he spoke with Rodrigues after giving Rodrigues the Miranda warnings.[3] Rodrigues initially claimed that the victim's dog attacked him, which provoked a scuffle between Rodrigues and the victim, each of whom had a knife, but Rodrigues' appearance did not indicate he had been injured by a dog. Agent Wiley also testified that Rodrigues later changed his story, claiming that there was only one knife involved. Following the 2008 incident, Rodrigues was charged with malice murder of Ramirez, felony murder, aggravated assault, and possession of a firearm or knife during the commission of certain crimes. Rodrigues pleaded guilty to involuntary ...

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