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Smith v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 21, 2019


          Blackwell, Justice.

         In February 2010, there was a fight at a nightclub in Albany, followed by a shooting in a nearby parking lot. A patron of the club, LeSheldon Stanford, was killed in the shooting, and a security guard for the club, George Ferguson, was wounded. Three years later, Shanard Smith, Anthony Hawkins, and Shuntavious Seay were tried together on charges arising from the fight and the shooting, and a Dougherty County jury found them guilty of murder and other crimes. They appeal from the judgment of conviction entered upon the verdict of the jury. With respect to Smith, we see no reversible error and affirm his convictions. As to Hawkins and Seay, we affirm their convictions for aggravated assault, which are based on their participation in the fight inside the club. We reverse, however, their convictions for murder because the evidence at trial was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were parties to the shooting in the parking lot outside the club.[1]

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence presented at trial shows the following. In the early morning hours of February 14, 2010, Stanford and a group of friends and relatives went to a club in Albany known as "Nab's" or "Brick City." The club was crowded with people drinking and dancing. At some point, several young men began to act aggressively toward Stanford, flashing gang signs and "bounc[ing] around in [his] face." A witness later identified Smith as one of the men flashing gang signs. Eventually, a large group-between 15 and 30 people-began to fight Stanford, chanting "EMF" as they punched and kicked him. "EMF" apparently refers to "East Mafia Family," a street gang that operates in the Albany area, and evidence shows that Smith, Hawkins, Seay, and a number of other individuals at the club on the morning of February 14 were affiliated with that gang. Stanford tried to fight back, and at some point, Jacory Butts-also affiliated with EMF and a part of the crowd attacking Stanford-said something like, "Hey Blood, let's get that chopper [and] show him what it'll do."[2]

         Ferguson and some other security guards eventually pulled Stanford away from his attackers and escorted him from the club. But the commotion and fighting continued, spilling out into the parking lot. Ferguson tried to lead Stanford to his car but failed to do so because people continued to "fight [Stanford] and jump on him and stuff." Ferguson described the situation as "crazy because people was driving up in cars, stopping in cars, jumping out of cars on the street, and somehow or another they just knew who this guy [Stanford] was and they'll jump out and come and jump on him."

         Ferguson and Stanford separated when Ferguson left to attend to a confrontation between another security guard and Antonio Seay. The security guard had exchanged blows with Antonio and knocked him down. Smith and Michael Stephens were with Antonio, and Ferguson told the three men to leave the premises. At that point, according to Ferguson, Smith said "f**k this sh*t" and ran to a car in the parking lot across the street from the club.

         In the meantime, Kevin Brown, who had accompanied Stanford to the club, saw him in between two cars with "some guys . . . jumping on top of the cars, off the cars on top of him." After the men stopped jumping on Stanford, Brown approached him and asked if he was okay. Stanford replied that he was, but he appeared to be looking at someone coming up behind Brown. At that point, Brown heard gunshots and dropped to the ground, and Stanford said, "I've been hit."[3]

         Ferguson testified that, when he turned his attention back to Stanford, he saw Stanford leaning against a car as if he were tired. Ferguson then heard a shout, and when he turned around, he saw Smith standing with a gun, which was pointed at Ferguson. Smith shot Ferguson in the arm and chest. Ferguson dropped to the ground and heard other shots being fired. He then heard someone say "Blood EMF" or "EMF Blood." Ferguson testified that he did not see anyone other than Smith with a gun, and he did not see anyone accompanying Smith at the time of the shooting.

         Several other witnesses testified about the shooting. Rolando Frazier said that he saw Smith shoot Stanford with a black handgun that looked like a .380-caliber pistol. Stephens testified that, when he exited the club during the commotion, he saw Smith run past him, curse, and fire four or five shots. Another patron, Quintus Porter, testified that, as he walked outside the club, he saw Smith fire a black gun at Stanford. All three witnesses had identified Smith as the shooter before trial in photographic lineups. Antonio testified that, when he was in jail with Smith, he asked Smith directly if Smith had shot Stanford, and Smith replied that he "wished none of that sh*t would have never happened" and that he "didn't mean to do it."

         The evidence against Hawkins and Seay was considerably weaker than the evidence against Smith. Ferguson testified that Hawkins and Cavoris Barney were among the people "in the club fighting." Ferguson also testified that, when he "broke the fight up," he told Hawkins and Barney to leave Stanford alone, and they listened to him and left. Ferguson testified that Seay was present inside the club but was not "involved in anything," and Ferguson did not interact with him at all. Frazier wrote a statement for investigators that was admitted into evidence. In that statement, Frazier said that he had seen "Peanut, Akheem, D, Ant, Slab, C-Low and a few other people fighting on the dance floor." "Ant" and "CLow" referred to Hawkins and Seay, respectively.[4] Porter also had given a written statement to investigators in which he said that, after the shooting, Smith, Seay, and three others "ran and got in a four-door car." At trial, however, Porter testified that he did not actually see Smith get into the car with Seay and the others; rather, he saw Seay and the others enter the car and then saw Smith "running towards that way."

         Hawkins and Seay both were interviewed by investigators, [5]and recordings of those interviews were played for the jury. Seay admitted that he was at the club, but he denied that he participated in the fight, was a member of EMF, or knew who shot Stanford. As for Hawkins, he denied being at the club on the day in question. An investigator, however, testified that Hawkins came back for another interview (which was not recorded) and admitted then that he was at the club and that "they" were yelling "EMF" as Stanford was beaten. Hawkins also told the investigator that he tried to break up the fight.[6]

         With regard to physical evidence, investigators recovered five .380-caliber shell casings from the scene. An autopsy revealed that Stanford had sustained six gunshot wounds, including a wound to his chest that caused extensive hemorrhaging. Stanford also suffered multiple scratches and blunt force injuries to his head and body. The medical examiner testified that the cause of Stanford's death was "multiple gunshot wounds."

         S19A0749. Smith v. The State.

         2. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Smith does not dispute that the evidence is sufficient to sustain his convictions. But consistent with our usual practice in murder cases, we independently have reviewed the record to assess the legal sufficiency of the evidence. We conclude that the evidence presented at trial, when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Smith was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         3. Admission of Portions of Recorded Interview with Investigators

         Smith's sole claim of error on appeal is that the trial court erred when it admitted a recording of his interview with an investigator in which the officer called him a "killer" and a "cold-blooded dude" who would "take a life." These statements, Smith argues, lacked any probative value and were unduly prejudicial. See OCGA § 24-4-403 ("Relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice . . . ."). Pretermitting whether the trial court erred when it admitted these portions of the interview, we conclude that any such error was harmless. See Fletcher v. State, 303 Ga. 43, 47 (810 S.E.2d 101) (2018) (a non-constitutional evidentiary error is harmless if "it is highly probable that the error did not contribute to the verdict" (citation and punctuation omitted)). The evidence against Smith was very strong. Four eyewitnesses-Ferguson, Frazier, Stephens, and Porter-identified Smith as the shooter.[7] Moreover, Smith implicitly admitted that he shot Stanford when he told Antonio in jail that he "didn't mean to do it." No one testified at trial that anyone else had a gun. Given the strength of the evidence against Smith, it is highly unlikely that the statements in the interview about which Smith complains had any effect on the verdict of the jury. See Tanner v. State, 303 Ga. 203, 208 (3) (811 S.E.2d 316) (2018) ("Considering the strength of the properly admitted evidence of [the defendant's] guilt and the context of a police interview in which . . . [the defendant] was claiming that he had nothing to do with [victim's] death, the jury was highly unlikely to have been swayed by the detective's passing comment that he thought [the defendant] would go to prison."); Hood v. State, 299 Ga. 95, 105-106 (3) (786 S.E.2d 648) (2016) (erroneous admission of evidence under Rule 403 was ultimately harmless given the strong evidence of defendant's guilt). See also Jones v. State, 301 Ga. 544, 551 (3) (802 S.E.2d 234) (2017).

         S19A0750. Hawkins v. The State.

         S19A0751. Seay v. The State.

         4. Sufficiency ...

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