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Leili v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 21, 2019


          Benham, Justice.

         Appellant Matthew Leili was convicted of malice murder and associated offenses arising out of the death of his wife, Dominique Leili.[1] On appeal, Appellant claims that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress, that the State was erroneously permitted to adduce other-acts testimony from his ex-wife, and that trial counsel was ineffective. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.

         Reviewing the facts in a light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence adduced at trial established as follows. Appellant and Dominique were married in the late 1990s. During the course of the marriage, Appellant was verbally abusive and exhibited controlling behavior, such as physically restraining Dominique by placing himself on top of her, locking her in the bathroom, recording her conversations, and using technology to track her location. Dominique confided in friends that Appellant was also physically abusive, at one point pinning her against a wall and putting his hands around her throat; coworkers testified that they observed injuries on Dominique, despite her apparent attempt to hide them with clothing. In the weeks before her death, Dominique announced to friends that she was ending her marriage but expressed concern about doing so because Appellant had threatened to kill her if she tried to leave with their children.

         On the evening of July 8, 2011, the couple went to dinner and a movie but had a verbal altercation when they returned home in the early morning hours of July 9; Appellant would later report to police that this argument resulted when Dominique did not reciprocate his desire for sex. According to Appellant, he left Dominique in an upstairs bedroom following the argument and retired to a first-floor office around 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m. At approximately 6:00 a.m., Appellant awoke and went to find his wife but could not locate her, although all her possessions and her vehicle remained at the residence. According to Appellant's father, who was staying at the Leili residence at the time Dominique disappeared, Appellant left the residence for over an hour looking for his wife. Later that day, Appellant contacted one of his wife's co-workers and calmly inquired if Dominique was with her. The co-worker was surprised to hear from Appellant as she did not have a close personal relationship with Dominique.

         On Monday, July 11, Dominique's father attempted to reach her by telephone, but Appellant answered the call. Upon discovering that his daughter was missing, Dominique's father contacted the police and filed a missing-person report because Appellant had not. Friends and family attempted to coordinate a search effort, but Appellant proved to be a "roadblock," disapproving various photographs of Dominique and written content that was to be used on flyers. On Wednesday of that week, as friends and family searched for Dominique, Appellant filed for divorce. On Friday of that week, Appellant provided law enforcement with the victim's two cell phones, one of which had been damaged beyond use, repair, or analysis. The jury learned that, while his wife was missing, Appellant remarked to a family member that he would be blamed if Dominique were found drugged and murdered. The jury also learned that Appellant provided inconsistent timelines regarding the morning Dominique went missing and that Appellant had blamed Dominique's disappearance on a mental health crisis, though her medical history supported no such concern.

         On Saturday, July 16, two members of a search party found Dominique's naked body hidden, face down, under a mound of loose dirt and vegetation at the front of the Leilis' neighborhood. Though an autopsy revealed no obvious cause of death, the medical examiner testified that she found no evidence that Dominque died of a natural cause, disease, self-inflicted injury, or violent accident. The medical examiner found injuries consistent with strangulation, though the concealment and deterioration of the body frustrated a definitive finding, and concluded that Dominique's death was "highly suspicious of homicidal violence."

         Just hours after Dominique was discovered, law enforcement executed a search warrant at the Leili residence. Officers seized computers and other electronic devices from the residence and searched vehicles on the property. The jury heard testimony that Appellant was known to have a keen interest in technology and that the Leili residence was fitted with numerous audio-recording devices and approximately 19 security cameras. However, a search of the computers and hard drives seized by law enforcement originally yielded little useful data. A search of Appellant's SUV revealed hair belonging to Dominique (or her children) in the hatchback locking mechanism and in the rear cargo area. The case went cold, and Appellant moved to Vermont.

         A cold-case investigator revisited the case in July 2012 and secured additional search warrants to collect more data from the seized electronics. During this second forensic examination, investigators discovered audio recordings that captured various verbal altercations between the couple. In some of the recordings, Dominique is heard telling Appellant to "get off of [her]" or heard accusing him of putting his hands around her throat. Investigators also discovered that the security cameras had been manually disabled by password at 7:18 a.m. the morning Dominique disappeared and then re-engaged roughly two days later at 4:41 a.m. on July 11. Though the cameras apparently captured video between midnight and 6:57 a.m. on July 9, those recordings had been deleted and rendered irretrievable by a program run on July 11 and July 16. Finally, the jury learned that Appellant had surreptitiously recorded telephone conversations between Dominique and her father and between Dominique and her sister.

         1. Though not raised by Appellant as error, in accordance with this Court's practice in appeals of murder cases, we have reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence, as summarized above, was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Appellant first argues that the trial court committed reversible error when it denied his motions to suppress items seized during searches of his residences in Georgia and Vermont. There was no error.

         "[T]he Fourth Amendment provides that 'no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.'" (Emphasis removed.) United States v. Travers, 233 F.3d 1327, 1329 (II) (11th Cir. 2000). In making a determination as to the existence of probable cause sufficient to issue a search warrant, the task of a magistrate is

simply to make a practical, common-sense decision whether, given all the circumstances set forth in the affidavit before him, including the veracity and basis of knowledge of persons supplying hearsay information, there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.

DeYoung v. State, 268 Ga. 780, 787 (493 S.E.2d 157) (1997). "[A] search conducted pursuant to a search warrant, regular and proper on its face, is presumed to be valid and the burden is on the person who moves to suppress the items found to show that the search warrant was invalid." Hourin v. State, 301 Ga. 835, 844 (3) (b) (804 S.E.2d 388) (2017).

         "The duty of an appellate court reviewing a search warrant is to determine, based on the totality of the circumstances, whether the magistrate had a substantial basis for concluding that probable cause existed to issue the search warrant." Glenn v. State, 302 Ga. 276, 281 (III) (806 S.E.2d 564) (2017). "A magistrate's decision to issue a search warrant based on a finding of probable cause is entitled to substantial deference by a reviewing court," DeYoung, 268 Ga. at 787, and "[e]ven doubtful cases should be resolved in favor of upholding a magistrate's ...

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