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Causey v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 21, 2019

CAUSEY
v.
THE STATE.

          Benham, Justice.

         Appellant Frank Don Causey was convicted of malice murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole in relation to the fatal strangulation and drowning of Lydia Ivanditti.[1] We affirm his conviction.

         1. Causey alleges the evidence was insufficient to convict him because there was no evidence placing him at Ivanditti's home at the time of her death. In a light most favorable to upholding the jury's verdict of guilty, the evidence at trial was as follows. On December 1, 2016, Ivanditti left her mother's house around 8:30 p.m. When Ivanditti's mother and daughter had not heard from her by the afternoon of December 2, Ivanditti's mother went to her house to check on her. The mother discovered Ivanditti deceased in her bathtub and called police. Ivanditti had been deceased for at least four to six hours prior to discovery because her body was in full rigor mortis. Ivanditti had bruising on her neck and on her forehead. The medical examiner testified that Ivanditti died from manual strangulation and drowning.

         Inside the bathtub with Ivanditti's body was an unplugged foot massager with some blood on it.[2] Next to the bathtub was a broken glass pipe with traces of marijuana in it, a broken cell phone, and a cell phone case. Authorities identified the blood on the battery of the broken cell phone and the cell phone screen protector as belonging to Causey. Some blood-spotted bath towels recovered from the scene also tested positive for Causey's DNA. The police believed items in the bathroom had been arranged to make the scene look like an accident, in particular the placement of the unplugged foot massager on top of Ivanditti's foot and the placement of the components of the broken cell phone.

         Causey had once lived with Ivanditti, who was known to allow various people to live in a downstairs bedroom inside her Putnam County house. A forensic review of Ivanditti's phone records and Causey's phone records revealed that Causey, using a method to block the identity of his phone number, contacted Ivanditti several times on the night she was killed. Police confirmed that Causey sometimes drove his partner's blue Dodge Durango. The Durango was seen at Ivanditti's house around 8 p.m. on December 1. That vehicle was also recorded by a nearby hardware store's video surveillance camera. The recording showed the vehicle leaving from the direction of Ivanditti's house around midnight on December 2. Ivanditti's neighbor testified that, at about 2 a.m. on December 2, she saw a person, whom she believed to be male, walk out of Ivanditti's house and over to a maroon SUV that was parked on Ivanditti's property. The evidence at trial showed that Causey owned a maroon SUV, which he had left at Ivanditti's house when he had previously lived there.

         After his arrest, Causey made inculpatory statements to police, admitting that he saw Ivanditti on the night of her death, became angry with her, "broke out in [a] rage," and grabbed her by the neck with his hands for 15 to 20 seconds. Causey said after he let go of her neck, Ivanditti fell into the tub and was unresponsive. In addition to these inculpatory statements, the State introduced evidence pursuant to OCGA § 24-4-404 (b), showing that Causey had fought with past girlfriends, and, during those altercations, he choked the women and either disabled their cell phones or took their cell phones away from them.

         The evidence described above was sufficient for a reasonable trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Causey was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Causey alleges the trial court erred when it admitted custodial statements he made after he allegedly invoked his right to remain silent.

Police must scrupulously honor a suspect's right to remain silent if the person clearly and unambiguously states that he wants to end a custodial interrogation. Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370, 381-382 (130 S.Ct. 2250, 176 L.Ed.2d 1098) (2010); Perez v. State, 283 Ga. 196, 197 (657 S.E.2d 846) (2008). "But if a defendant equivocates in asserting the right, a police officer is under no obligation to clarify or to stop questioning." Ridley v. State, 290 Ga. 798, 802 (4) 725 S.E.2d 223) (2012) (citation omitted).

Brown v. State, 304 Ga. 435 (2) (b) (819 S.E.2d 14) (2018). The record in this case does not support Causey's assertion that he clearly and unambiguously invoked his right to remain silent.

         Causey submitted to two custodial interviews. The first custodial interview took place on December 20, 2016, the day of Causey's arrest, at the Eatonton Police Department (EPD) with GBI Special Agent David Peebles, who was the lead investigator on the case, EPD Investigator Lenwood Pickens, and, towards the end of the interview, GBI Special Agent in Charge Joe Wooten. The second custodial interview, which was partially video-recorded and fully audio-recorded, [3] took place on December 21 at the Putnam County Sheriff's office with GBI Special Agents Michael Maybin and Peebles.

         Upon holding a Jackson-Denno[4] hearing and reviewing the recordings of the custodial interviews, the trial court concluded that Causey did not unequivocally invoke his right to remain silent during the first custodial interview. Our review of the record supports this conclusion. Immediately prior to commencing the first custodial interview, authorities read Causey the Miranda[5]warnings, and he agreed to talk without an attorney present. Throughout the first custodial interview, Causey denied having anything to do with Ivanditti's murder. He also questioned investigators about what evidence connected him to the crime. Just under an hour into the interview, after being admonished several times that he could not go home because he was under arrest, but also reminded that he was not required to talk to police, Causey told agents to put the handcuffs on and take him to jail. At that point, Agent Peebles and Investigator Pickens stepped out of the room. Agent Wooten came in to tell Causey that they were getting ready to book him and take him to jail. Agent Wooten advised Causey that the authorities would only talk to him if he re-initiated the interview. Causey asked for Agent Wooten's business card and requested a cigarette. Agent Wooten advised Causey that he could smoke his cigarette and take five minutes to decide if he was finished talking to police. Rather than taking five minutes to think, Causey asked Agent Wooten to sit down. Once Agent Wooten sat down, Causey started talking again and continued to ask more questions about the evidence against him. Agent Peebles re-entered the room as Causey continued speaking. At the end of the interview, Causey told Agent Peebles he would talk to him "tomorrow at noon."

         Agent Maybin testified that, after the first custodial interview had ended, he was on guard in the EPD booking area while Causey was being booked. Agent Maybin testified Causey asked to speak to him, and, during their brief exchange, Causey told Agent Maybin he wanted to speak to the agent alone the next day at noon. In addition, Causey gave Agent Maybin a handwritten note memorializing this request.[6] As Causey was being escorted from EPD to a transport vehicle that would take him to the county jail, he said, in front of the state trooper escorting him, "I did it, I did it."

         The next day, per Causey's request, Agents Maybin and Peebles interviewed Causey at the Putnam County Sheriff's office. Before this second custodial interview commenced, the officers again reminded Causey of his rights pursuant to Miranda, and Causey agreed to talk. During the second custodial ...


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