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Jones v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

October 18, 2019


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

          Dillard, Presiding Judge.

         Ronnie Jones appeals his convictions for rape and aggravated battery, arguing that the trial court (1) improperly expressed an opinion on his guilt in violation of OCGA § 17-8-57; (2) erred in refusing to give a jury instruction on battery as a lesser-included offense of aggravated battery; and (3) abused its discretion by allowing the State to introduce extrinsic evidence of a prior aggravated-assault conviction. For the reasons set forth infra, we reverse Jones's convictions and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [1] the record shows that Jones and the victim, C. W., met in 2009, and were married in 2012. Jones was physically and verbally abusive to C. W. during their marriage and isolated her from family and friends. And as a result of this abusive behavior, C. W. attempted to leave Jones several times; but each time, they got back together because he was aggressive and she was afraid of him. But eventually, C. W. left Jones for good and moved to North Augusta. One night after her move, when she was relaxing at home, Jones went to her house, kicked in the door, "charged [her] like a quarterback[, ]" and threatened to break her jaw if she called the police. In February 2014, after this incident, C. W. finally filed for divorce.

         Several months later, on August 21, 2014, Jones called C. W. and told her that he would agree to a divorce on the condition that she give him a ride to his car-which was at her mother's house-and talk to him about their relationship. C. W. agreed, but after she picked Jones up, he instigated a fight over her car (which she had recently purchased), alleging that another man bought it for her. Jones-who was driving the car-became increasingly angry, and at some point, he took his hands off the wheel, grabbed C. W.'s neck, choked her, and threatened to flip the car and kill them both. But he eventually calmed down, and after stopping briefly at a convenience store, Jones drove C. W. to her mother's house as planned. Thereafter, Jones took C. W. to "the Riverwalk," apologized for attacking her in the car, and told her that he wanted to discuss working on their marriage. When C. W. told him that she did not want to talk about that, they returned to her mother's house, and Jones left.

         Later that evening, around 11:00 p.m., Jones returned to C. W.'s mother's house and told her to get into the car with him. Although C. W. did not want to go with Jones, she agreed to do so. Then, after making a few stops, Jones took C. W. to his family's auto shop, where he had been living. Once there, Jones asked C. W. if she would have sex with him one last time before the divorce. C. W. agreed, and they had consensual sex on a mattress that had been placed on the floor of the shop. Afterward, outside of the shop, Jones asked C. W. if she was still sure about wanting a divorce; and when she said yes, Jones told her that "it's best that [she] leave before [he] hurt [her]." Jones then went back into his shop, but when C. W. started her car, he ran back outside, "jumped through the [car] window[, ]" pushed his elbow into her throat, took her keys, and went back inside.

         C. W.-who did not have her phone or keys-went back into the shop, called out Jones's name, and then she heard the door slam behind her. C. W. immediately looked to her left and saw that Jones was holding a can of gasoline and a lighter. Jones threatened C. W., saying: "Bitch, I'm going to kill you. I'm going to teach you about playing with me." Jones then started pouring gasoline on C. W., while she begged him to stop and tried to escape. After dropping the gasoline can and lighter, Jones grabbed C. W.'s neck "extremely hard" with his right hand and threw her on the mattress. Jones gripped her neck so hard that she lost consciousness, and when she awoke, he lit her on fire and "everything went up in flames." Once the fire was put out (by both C. W. and Jones), C. W. begged Jones to take her to the hospital for treatment, but he told her that she "would be fine" and drove her to a pharmacy instead.

         C. W. could not move due to her injuries, so she stayed in the car while Jones went into the pharmacy for a few minutes. But while he was inside, C. W. saw a couple nearby and asked them to call 911. Although the police had been called, C. W. still went back to the shop with Jones because she was afraid of him, and once there, Jones put Vaseline, gauze, and tape on her burns. Then, Jones had vaginal intercourse with C. W. against her will, while she was still in "so much pain" and begging him to get help for her injuries. After Jones ejaculated, she "balled over in a knot" on her side, and he "had sex with [her] from behind." Eventually, after several futile attempts to escape, Jones let C. W. leave for work, and she drove to her sister's house to get help. As a result of the attack, C. W. suffered such severe injuries that she was hospitalized and remained in the Intensive Care Unit for two weeks.

         Subsequently, Jones was charged, via indictment, with rape and aggravated battery. And following a jury trial, [2] Jones was convicted of both charged offenses. Jones filed a motion for a new trial, and after a hearing on the matter, the trial court denied the motion. This appeal follows.

         1. Jones argues that the trial court erred by improperly expressing an opinion on his guilt in violation of OCGA § 17-8-57. We agree.

         Under OCGA § 17-8-57 (a), "[i]t is error for any judge in any criminal case, during its progress or in his charge to the jury, to express or intimate his opinion as to what has or has not been proved or as to the guilt of the accused." And should any judge express an opinion as to "the guilt of the accused, the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals or the trial court in a motion for a new trial shall grant a new trial."[3]

         While Jones was represented by counsel for the majority of the trial, he asked to represent himself for the purpose of cross-examining C. W. Specifically, after the State presented the testimony of C. W. and two other witnesses, Jones notified the court that he was not satisfied with his attorney, and he asked the court to appoint new counsel to represent him. The court responded that it would not appoint new counsel because Jones was represented by a skilled attorney; but the court asked if he wanted to represent himself. The court then questioned Jones at length to make sure that he understood what representing himself would entail, including that he would be bound by all of the rules of evidence lawyers must adhere to and that defendants who represent themselves usually have a negative outcome with the jury. Eventually, after a lengthy discussion on the matter, the trial court granted Jones's request to represent himself, but required his counsel to remain in the courtroom to assist him if necessary.

         Jones then recalled C. W.-who had been previously examined by the State and his counsel-for additional cross-examination. Throughout Jones's cross-examination of C. W., he asked numerous improper questions, and the State objected each time that he did so. The court also interrupted Jones several times to explain why certain questions were impermissible. And after Jones asked C. W. a string of objectionable questions, the State argued that he was badgering her, noting that she had been on the witness stand for over two days and Jones was not asking her any relevant questions. Immediately thereafter, the court had the following exchange with Jones:

The court: Sir, I've told you you're bound by the same rules of evidence that lawyers are. You can't just say anything you want to. Move on to the next question.
Jones: I just asked the question a bad way. I just want to get some truth of this, what happened that night.
The court: Sir, all of this is the truth. Move to your next question.[4]Jones then continued with his cross-examination of C. W.

         On appeal, Jones argues that the trial court improperly expressed its opinion on his guilt when-during the victim's testimony-it stated "all of this is true." Both parties agree that Jones failed to object at the time when the court made this statement, but acknowledge that we still review Jones's claim for plain error under OCGA § 17-8-57 (b), which provides:

Except as provided in subsection (c) of this Code section, failure to make a timely objection to an alleged violation of paragraph (1) of subsection (a) of this Code section shall preclude appellate review, unless such violation constitutes plain error which affects substantive rights of the parties. Plain error may be considered on appeal even when a timely objection informing the court of the specific objection was not made, so long as such error affects substantive rights of the parties.[5]

         But regardless, under OCGA § 17-8-57 (c), "[s]hould any judge express an opinion as to the guilt of the accused, the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals or the trial court in a motion for a new trial shall grant a new trial."[6]

         Here, during an exchange with Jones regarding his improper questioning of the victim, the trial court expressed an opinion as to his guilt. Specifically, during Jones's cross-examination of C. W., the victim and only eyewitness to the attack, the trial court stated that "all of this is the truth." The State contends that, taken in context, this statement was merely an attempt by the court to "control the conduct of the trial and guide [Jones][, ] who was acting as his own attorney." This argument is a nonstarter. To the contrary, the damning testimony offered by C. W. against Jones right before the trial court's "all of this is truth" statement extensively detailed the violence inflicted on her by Jones during the incident at issue. Additionally, the plain language of OCGA § 17-8-57 (c)-which applies when a trial court expresses an opinion regarding a defendant's guilt-does not remotely suggest that the court's subjective intent in making the offending statement is relevant. Indeed, all that matters are the words expressed by the trial court. And this is perfectly reasonable because the purpose of this statutory section-as reflected by the relevant text-is to "keep the jury from being influenced by the judge's opinion."[7]

         Nevertheless, the State also contends that Jones cannot show plain error because, inter alia, he has not demonstrated that the trial court's comments likely affected the outcome of the trial.[8] But this contention is likewise without merit because, under OCGA § 17-8-57 (c), when a court expresses an opinion as to the defendant's guilt, he or she shall be granted a new trial.[9] We conclude, then, that the trial court's statement that all of the victim's testimony is "the truth" is equivalent to communicating its belief to the jury that Jones was guilty, even if that is not what it intended. As a ...

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