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Anderson v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 21, 2019



         Appellant Leonardo Anderson was convicted of felony murder, aggravated assault, and a firearm offense in connection with the shooting death of Arkeen Abron and the non-fatal shooting of Showkey Barnes. Appellant argues that the trial court erred by admitting into evidence lead detective Jonathan Puhala's video-recorded interview of Appellant's girlfriend and failing to grant a mistrial after one of her statements in the interview was played for the jury; by excluding evidence of Barnes's more-than-ten-year-old criminal convictions under OCGA § 24-6-609 (b); by excluding evidence of a firearm found at the house where Abron and Barnes's associate James Walker was staying; by allowing Detective Puhala to stay in the courtroom during the trial; and by declining to give a jury instruction on voluntary manslaughter. Having reviewed the record and briefs, we see no reversible error, so we affirm.[1]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at Appellant's trial showed the following. On the afternoon of July 18, 2014, Abron and Walker picked up Barnes in a Silverado truck. With Barnes in the passenger's seat and Walker in the backseat, Abron drove to 1206 Seiler Avenue in Savannah to ask someone there for the phone number of a marijuana dealer. When they arrived, Barnes got out and walked onto the porch, where he began talking to some people. Appellant approached Barnes, mumbling "in an aggressive way." Barnes became nervous when people on the porch began discussing a mask. Barnes walked off the porch, but Appellant followed him, continuing to talk.[2] Appellant then went to a white van, retrieved a gun, turned around, and shot at Barnes, hitting him in the legs eight times. Barnes fell to the ground and passed out, but he survived.

         Abron started the Silverado and tried to drive away, but backed into a car. Appellant turned and shot at the truck; one shot hit the windshield. Walker ducked down in the backseat. Abron jumped out of the truck and tried to run away, but Appellant shot him in the back. Abron later died from the gunshot wound. Walker crawled into the driver's seat of the truck and drove away. Appellant got into the white van and fled. Barnes and two witnesses who were outside a neighboring house identified Appellant as the shooter. All three witnesses knew Appellant, and all three picked him out of a photo lineup.[3]

         Investigators found a black ski mask on the porch of 1206 Seiler Avenue and four shell casings on the street in front, all of which were fired from the same 9-millimeter gun. Alisha Cooper, who was Appellant's girlfriend, had seen him with a 9-millimeter gun, and three or four days before the shooting, he told her that he was looking for 9-millimeter bullets. After the shooting, Appellant told Cooper that he shot Barnes because Barnes confronted him about some kind of set-up with a mask and "it was either [Barnes] or him."[4] Cooper owned a white van, which Appellant borrowed on the day of the shooting.

         Appellant did not testify at trial. His main defense theory was that the police did not do a thorough investigation and the witnesses, most of whom had criminal records and had changed their stories to some extent, were "liars."

         Appellant does not dispute the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions. Nevertheless, as is this Court's usual practice in murder cases, we have reviewed the record and conclude that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial and summarized above was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). See also Vega v. State, 285 Ga. 32, 33 (673 S.E.2d 223) (2009) ("'It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence.'" (citation omitted)).

         2. (a) At trial, Cooper initially testified that Appellant had not told her anything about the shooting, but on cross-examination, she said that Appellant told her that he shot at other people because "it was either him or them." When the prosecutor questioned her about the interview she gave to Detective Puhala two weeks after the shooting, she first said that she did not recall and then denied telling the detective that Appellant said Barnes "tried to get him set up by a mask or something."[5] After further questioning about inconsistencies between her trial testimony and what she said in her interview with Detective Puhala, Cooper claimed that the detective had threatened to take away her children and charge her as an accessory to murder. After her testimony, she was kept under subpoena at both parties' request.

         Later in the trial, Detective Puhala testified that he did not threaten Cooper, and the State moved to admit the video recording of the detective's interview of Cooper to show that Detective Puhala did not threaten her. Appellant made an objection on hearsay grounds, which the trial court overruled, and the State then played the recording for the jury.[6]

         About nine minutes into the 18-minute recording, Cooper said that Appellant told her that he shot Barnes because Barnes had come to confront him about getting set up with a mask, "I guess trying to rob someone or whatever." Appellant objected and moved for a mistrial on the ground that it was improper to put evidence before the jury that Appellant may have been involved in another crime. The State said that the evidence was proper because it went to Appellant's reason for shooting Barnes and because it was inconsistent with Cooper's testimony that she did not tell the detective anything about a mask set-up. The court denied Appellant's mistrial motion.

         (b) Appellant argues that the trial court erred by admitting the interview recording into evidence. The recording was admissible, however, to impeach Cooper by contradiction. See OCGA § 24-6-621 ("A witness may be impeached by disproving the facts testified to by the witness."). After Cooper testified that Detective Puhala threatened her during the interview, playing the recording of the interview - during which the detective did not threaten her - was a permissible way to impeach Cooper's untruthful statement. See Wilkins v. State, 291 Ga. 483, 488 (731 S.E.2d 346) (2012) (holding that a recorded phone call was properly admitted under the former version of OCGA § 24-6-621 to contradict the witness's testimony that no one from the State had called her).[7] Under these circumstances, the trial court's admission of the recording was not an abuse of discretion. See Taylor v. State, 302 Ga. 176, 180 (805 S.E.2d 851) (2017).[8]

         (c) Appellant further argues that the trial court should have granted a mistrial after the jury heard Cooper's recorded statement about a mask set-up and a possible robbery, because the statement indicated that Appellant had been involved in another crime. That recorded statement was admissible, however, as a prior inconsistent statement by Cooper. See OCGA § 24-6-613 (b) (providing for the admission of extrinsic evidence of a prior inconsistent statement if "the witness is first afforded an opportunity to explain or deny the prior inconsistent statement and the opposite party is afforded an opportunity to interrogate the witness on the prior inconsistent statement or the interests of justice otherwise require"). See also OCGA § 24-8-801 (d) (1) (A).

         Cooper's statement about the mask set-up during the recorded interview was inconsistent with her trial testimony first that Appellant did not tell her anything about the shooting and then that Appellant said only that he shot at other people because "it was either him or them." Appellant does not argue that the procedural requirements of OCGA § 24-6-613 (b) were not met.[9] Instead, the thrust of his argument appears to be that even if Cooper's statement could have been used to impeach her, it was nonetheless inadmissible because its probative value was substantially outweighed by the unfair prejudice to Appellant resulting from the jury's being told about his involvement in another crime. See OCGA § 24-4-403.

         We disagree. The evidence of the mask set-up as a reason for the confrontation between Appellant and Barnes was significantly probative because it indicated Appellant's motive for a shooting that otherwise had no obvious motive. See, e.g., Anglin v. State, 302 Ga. 333, 337 (806 S.E.2d 573) (2017) (holding that evidence that helped explain the appellant's motive was probative). And the reference to the robbery was not especially prejudicial; it was not even clear from Cooper's oblique reference to "trying to rob someone or whatever" whether Appellant, Barnes, or both had participated in this robbery "or whatever." Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a mistrial. See Wade v. State, 304 Ga. 5, 9-10 (815 S.E.2d 875) (2018).[10]

         3. (a) Before trial, Appellant gave notice that he intended to introduce into evidence Barnes's prior criminal convictions to impeach Barnes. Two sets of those convictions carried prison sentences that ended within ten years of Appellant's trial.[11] The trial court ruled that those convictions were admissible. Appellant also sought to introduce into evidence three sets of Barnes's convictions with sentences that ended more than 15 years before Appellant's trial.[12] The court ruled that the probative value of these older convictions did not substantially outweigh their prejudicial effect and excluded them from the evidence. During direct examination of Barnes, the State introduced into evidence a set of Barnes's convictions from 2008.[13] During cross-examination, Appellant introduced Barnes's 1998 and 2001 convictions.

         (b) OCGA § 24-6-609 provides for the admission of a witness's prior convictions for impeachment purposes. Subsection (b) of this statute has a special rule for convictions that are older than ten years:

Evidence of a conviction under this Code section shall not be admissible if a period of more than ten years has elapsed since the date of the conviction or of the release of the witness from the confinement imposed for such conviction, whichever is the later date, unless the court determines, in the interests of justice, that the probative value of the conviction supported by specific facts and circumstances substantially outweighs its prejudicial effect. However, evidence of a conviction more than ten years old, as calculated in this subsection, shall not be admissible unless the proponent gives to the adverse party ...

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