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Woodard v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

October 17, 2019

WOODARD
v.
THE STATE.

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

          DILLARD, PRESIDING JUDGE

         Following trial, a jury convicted Mervin T. Woodard on four counts of aggravated battery, one count of aggravated assault, one count of kidnapping with bodily injury, two counts of false imprisonment, one count of family violence battery, one count of making terroristic threats, one count of kidnapping, and two counts of reckless conduct. On appeal, Woodard challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction for kidnapping with bodily injury and further contends that the trial court erred in failing to allow him to represent himself. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm Woodard's convictions in part, but because certain counts should have merged for purposes of sentencing, we vacate his sentence and remand for resentencing.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [1] the evidence shows that Woodard and M. C., the victim, began dating in 2012 and moved in together later that same year. In 2015, M. C. gave birth to the couple's daughter, but by this time, Woodard had been violent with M. C. on several occasions and they ended up separating. Nevertheless, on December 13, 2015, M. C. arrived home to find Woodard outside on her front steps. And as M. C. entered the home, Woodard asked her to drive him to Rome, Georgia, where he had relatives. But once inside, Woodard took M. C.'s cell phone and car keys before punching her in the face and yelling at her. Woodard then retrieved a knife from the kitchen and put it to M. C.'s throat while continuing to yell at her.

         A few minutes later, Woodard forced M. C. outside and into her vehicle, which he then drove to a nearby gas station. There, Woodard ordered M. C. to withdraw cash from an ATM. After she complied, Woodard drove a short distance to a house that M. C. did not recognize, and forced her out of the vehicle and onto the front porch. Woodard then spoke to a man, who was also unfamiliar to M. C., and gave him some money to watch M. C. while he went inside. Woodard emerged about ten minutes later, forced M. C. into the driver's seat of her vehicle, and ordered her to drive to a different gas station. Once there, Woodard entered the station's convenience store, exited a few minutes later, and directed M. C. to drive him away. But shortly thereafter, apparently realizing that he had forgotten something, Woodard ordered M. C. to return to the gas station, at which point he went back into the store. As he did, M. C. found her spare key for the vehicle, drove to a nearby shopping center, and called the police. Within a few minutes, a police officer arrived, and M. C. provided him with a detailed statement regarding Woodard's actions. The same officer later went to M. C.'s home, and although broken windows indicated that someone attempted to enter the residence, Woodard was not there.

         Following this incident, the police officer who took M. C.'s statement obtained an arrest warrant for Woodard. But Woodard eluded law enforcement, and in January 2016, M. C. resumed speaking to Woodard and even allowed him to have contact with their daughter. This continued for several months, with Woodard promising M. C. that he would turn himself in to authorities by May 31, 2016; but that date passed without him doing so. One day later, on June 1, 2016, M. C. arrived home sometime after 2:00 a.m., and upon approaching her front door, she immediately smelled gasoline. Alarmed, M. C. walked back toward her vehicle, but before she reached it, Woodard emerged from the house, grabbed M. C. by the hand, and dragged her inside. Once inside the home, Woodard lead M. C. through the foyer to the entrance of the kitchen. Woodard then picked up a gasoline can, doused M. C. with gasoline, and set her on fire. Immediately, M. C.'s clothes burst into flames. And believing that she was going to die, M. C. tried to run toward the back door, but Woodard blocked her exit. A moment later, Woodard used the kitchen faucet hose to extinguish the flames engulfing M. C. He then put M. C. into her vehicle and drove her to the hospital, before fleeing after placing M. C. out on the street in front of the emergency department.

         Thereafter, the State charged Woodard, via indictment, with four counts of aggravated battery, one count of aggravated assault, one count of arson in the third degree, one count of kidnapping with bodily injury, two counts of false imprisonment, two counts of armed robbery, one count of burglary in the first degree, and one count of theft by taking, all of which related to the June 1, 2016 incident. And in the same indictment, the State also charged Woodard with one count of family violence battery, one count of false imprisonment, one count of making terroristic threats, one count of kidnapping, and two counts of aggravated assault, all of which related to the December 13, 2015 incident.

         The case eventually proceeded to trial, during which the State introduced the aforementioned evidence, as well as photographic evidence of M. C.'s injuries and the crime scene. In addition, M. C.'s friend testified that, on the night of the June 1, 2016 incident, Woodard called her from M. C.'s cell phone, told her that he burned M. C. and she was at the hospital, before abruptly hanging up. At the trial's conclusion, the jury found Woodard guilty on the four counts of aggravated battery, one count of aggravated assault, one count of kidnapping with bodily injury, two counts of false imprisonment, one count of family violence battery, one count of making terroristic threats, one count of kidnapping, and two counts of reckless conduct (as lesser included offenses of aggravated assault). Subsequently, Woodard obtained new counsel and filed a motion for new trial, which the trial court denied after conducting a hearing on the matter. This appeal follows.

         1. Woodard contends that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction on the charge of kidnapping with bodily injury.[2] We disagree.

         When a criminal conviction is appealed, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, and the appellant no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence.[3] And, of course, in evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence, we do not "weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility, but only determine whether a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt."[4] Thus, the jury's verdict will be upheld so long as "there is some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State's case."[5] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn to Woodard's claim that there was not sufficient evidence to support his conviction for kidnapping with bodily injury.

         OCGA § 16-5-40 (a) provides: "A person commits the offense of kidnapping when such person abducts or steals away another person without lawful authority or warrant and holds such other person against his or her will." And under OCGA § 16-5-40 (d) (4), "[a] person convicted of the offense of kidnapping shall be punished by[ ] . . . [l]ife imprisonment or death if the person kidnapped received bodily injury." Thus, kidnapping with bodily injury requires that "an injury, no matter how slight, occur during the kidnapping."[6] But whether the bodily injury occurs at "the beginning of the kidnapping incident or after the victim has been abducted is immaterial for purposes of proving the elements of the crime."[7]

         Here, Count 7 of the indictment charged Woodard with the offense of kidnapping, alleging that on June 1, 2016, he abducted M. C. "without lawful authority or warrant and held such person against her will, said act resulting in bodily injury to [M. C.]" And as discussed supra, the evidence showed that Woodard grabbed M. C.'s hand, forced her from outside near her vehicle to inside her home to the threshold between the foyer and the kitchen, poured gasoline on her, and ignited a lighter, which caused her serious injuries. Nevertheless, Woodard maintains the State failed to prove a bodily injury occurred during the kidnapping, arguing that the kidnapping was complete when he poured gasoline on M. C. and lit her on fire. But as a matter of law, bodily injury does not have to "be inflicted at the same moment as the initial abduction."[8] Indeed, whether the bodily injury "occurs at the beginning of the kidnapping incident or after the victim has been abducted is immaterial for purposes of proving the elements of the crime."[9] Consequently, the evidence that Woodard set M. C. on fire immediately after forcing her from outside her home to inside between the foyer and the kitchen is sufficient to support his conviction on kidnapping with bodily injury.[10]

         Having determined that Woodard's conviction for kidnapping with bodily injury was supported by the evidence, we further conclude that his convictions on the four aggravated-battery charges should have merged with that conviction. Of course, when neither party "properly raises and argues a merger issue, this Court has no duty to scour the record searching for merger issues."[11] But if we notice a merger issue in a direct appeal, we regularly resolve that issue, "even [when] it was not raised in the trial court and is not enumerated as error on appeal."[12]

         As we previously noted, Count 7 of the indictment alleged Woodard abducted M. C. "without lawful authority or warrant and held such person against her will, said act resulting in bodily injury to [M. C.]" And Count 1 of the indictment charged Woodard with aggravated battery, alleging he "did maliciously cause bodily harm to [M. C.] by seriously disfiguring her face, a member of said person's body by burning her." Counts 2 through 4 were nearly identically worded with the only difference being the part of M. C.'s body disfigured by the battery. But our Supreme Court has held that "[i]f, in establishing the commission of a crime, the State relies entirely upon the same evidence used to establish a separate crime charged in the same indictment, as a matter of law the former charge is included in the latter charge."[13] Here, given that the injuries in all of the aggravated-battery charges were inflicted by the single act of burning M. C., the evidence required to convict Woodard on those charges was the only evidence regarding the manner in which he inflicted the bodily injury described in the kidnapping charge. Accordingly, the aggravated-battery convictions in Counts 1 through 4 should have merged with the conviction for kidnapping with bodily injury delineated in Count 7. As a result, we vacate the sentences on those counts and remand this case to the trial court for resentencing.[14]

         2. Woodard also contends that the trial court erred in failing to allow him to represent himself as required by Faretta v. California.[15] Again, we disagree.

         Both the federal and Georgia constitutions guarantee a criminal defendant the right to self-representation.[16] And to avail himself of this right, Woodard was required to "clearly and unequivocally assert his desire to represent himself."[17] So, if a defendant makes an unequivocal assertion of his right to represent himself prior to trial, "the request should be followed by a Faretta hearing to ensure that the defendant knowingly and intelligently waives the right to counsel and understands the disadvantages of self-representation."[18] Suffice it to say, if the trial court improperly denies a defendant of his right to self-representation, this denial is "a structural error [that is] not subject to a harmlessness analysis, and requires automatic reversal."[19] But if the assertion of the right to proceed without the benefit of counsel is equivocal, there is "no reversible error in requiring the defendant to proceed with counsel."[20]

         In this matter, several months prior to the start of trial, Woodard filed a pro se motion, despite being represented by counsel at the time, requesting that he be allowed to represent himself and simultaneously be "assisted" by counsel. Consequently, at a preliminary hearing held three months before his trial, the trial court asked Woodard the following questions:

The Court: And so, this morning we're going to go through the series of questions that I'm required to address to you before I can make a determination on self-representation. Okay?
The Defendant: Yes, ma'am.
The Court: That is what you're still asking that I do; is that right?
The Defendant: Yes, your Honor.

         The trial court then explained to Woodard that he was entitled to representation by the public defender's office or his own counsel if he could afford to hire one, or he had the right to represent himself if the court determined that he understood what such representation entailed. Thereafter, the court explained to Woodard the maximum sentences for the various charges he was facing, the State's prosecutor provided the factual basis for the charges, and the court determined Woodard could adequately read and write. Subsequently, the trial court and Woodard engaged in the following colloquy:

The Court: Why is it, Mr. Woodard, that you think you can do a better job than a lawyer in representing you in this case?
The Defendant: First of all, Your Honor, I feel like this case is an accidental case. Second of all [defense counsel] hasn't even discussed anything about my case with me, period.

         After directing Woodard to listen carefully to its questions and respond accordingly, the trial court continued:

The Court: All right. So why is it that you think that you [would] do a better job than a lawyer in representing you in this case?
The Defendant: Because I know the facts of the case, Your Honor, and I know this case. I know this case, and I feel like that I'm the best candidate for representing myself. I just feel like I'm not going to be represented to the full extent of the law with other representation.
The Court: All right. And so, Mr. Woodard, do you, in fact, feel as if no lawyer can represent you in this case or do you have more of an issue with [defense counsel]?
The Defendant: Both, Your Honor. I've actually -
The Court: So it's your position that, even if this Court were to remove [defense counsel] from your case and appoint other counsel, that that lawyer would also not [be] in a better position than you are to represent you?
The Defendant: I can't say that, Your Honor. I can't say that, because I haven't had another lawyer, so I really don't know. But I have motions here that I filed.
The Court: Tell me this, Mr. Woodard. Was it something that you believe [defense counsel] did or did not do that prompted you to indicate ...

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