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Shaw v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 31, 2019


          Bethel, Justice.

         Earnest Shaw appeals from the denial of his motion for new trial after a jury found him guilty of malice murder and concealing the death of another in connection with the death of Elizabeth Richardson.[1] On appeal, Shaw argues that the evidence presented by the State was insufficient to support the jury's verdicts because the State's case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence and the State did not exclude all reasonable theories of the crimes other than Shaw's guilt. Shaw also argues that the trial court erred by requiring Shaw to proceed pro se during a pre-trial hearing on the admission of certain evidence and by admitting certain evidence at trial. He further contends that he received ineffective assistance from his trial counsel. Finding no grounds for reversal, we affirm.

         1. Sufficiency of the Evidence.

         (a) Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. Leanne Shaw, Shaw's daughter, lived with Shaw in 2007. During that time, Shaw and Elizabeth were dating. Elizabeth lived up the street from Shaw in her mother's house.

         While Leanne was living with Shaw, she witnessed a number of arguments between Shaw and Elizabeth and saw Shaw strike Elizabeth on two occasions. On the morning of September 1, 2007, Leanne witnessed a "loud" argument between Shaw and Elizabeth in the house. Shaw and Elizabeth went out into the yard and continued arguing. At one point, Leanne witnessed Shaw grab Elizabeth by the hair, push her to the ground, and slap her. Shaw then picked up a crowbar and, while Elizabeth was lying on the ground on her back, threw the crowbar to the ground beside her. Shaw then said, "Next time I won't miss." Leanne testified that, shortly after that, sometime between 11:00 a.m. and noon, Shaw and Elizabeth left Shaw's house in Shaw's silver Chevrolet truck. Shaw returned to the house without Elizabeth about 15 to 20 minutes later. Leanne never saw or heard from Elizabeth again.

         After Shaw returned to the house, he went back to his bedroom, changed clothes, took the sheets off his bed, asked Leanne to make the bed, and left the house. Leanne testified that Shaw put the bed sheets in his truck and drove away. Leanne did not see Shaw again until the next day. Leanne also testified that Shaw had a habit of keeping his vehicles clean. She testified that a man named "Blind" came to Shaw's house every weekend to wash both of Shaw's trucks. According to Leanne, Shaw did not normally clean the trucks himself.

         The State also presented the testimony of Brandon Shaw, Shaw's son. Brandon was also at Shaw's house on the morning of September 1. He heard Shaw and Elizabeth arguing and left the house. Brandon never saw or heard from Elizabeth again. The next day, Shaw called Brandon because he had run out of gas. Brandon brought gas over to Shaw and noticed bed sheets in Shaw's Chevrolet truck, which he found unusual. Brandon also testified that Shaw was very "picky" about his trucks and that only a man named Isaiah "Blind" Miles cleaned them. However, the day after Brandon brought gas to Shaw to fill up his truck, Brandon saw Shaw cleaning his truck.

         Duel Davis testified that, on September 6, he was hunting in a heavily wooded area in Montgomery County less than 10 miles from Shaw's house when he found a dead body, which was later identified as Elizabeth. After finding the body, Davis called 911.

         Special Agent Todd Crosby, a crime-scene specialist from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, arrived later that afternoon and began processing the area around Elizabeth's body, which was naked. In that area, Crosby found purge fluid that had leaked from Elizabeth's body as it began to decompose. Based on the body's state of decomposition, Crosby determined that the body had been at the location in the woods for several days when it was discovered. Crosby also observed holes on both sides of Elizabeth's skull, which he attributed to Elizabeth having been struck on both sides of her head.

         Crosby testified that, on September 11, after Elizabeth's body was removed from the crime scene, he performed luminol testing at the scene and detected trace amounts of blood and bodily fluids there and in the area leading back up to a nearby dirt road. Crosby performed additional luminol testing at Shaw's house. There, several areas in the backyard and the interior cabs of two trucks owned by Shaw yielded a positive reaction for the presence of blood.

         GBI Special Agent Catherine Sapp also participated in the crime-scene investigation by assisting Crosby in searching for blood in Shaw's backyard. She detected a blood stain on a pair of shoes, and the chemical test she performed indicated that it was human blood. She then performed luminol testing on three vehicles, each of which reacted positively for the presence of blood. She and Crosby also detected the presence of blood in a dirt sample and on a rug, both of which were found in Shaw's backyard.

         The medical examiner, Dr. Mark Koponen, testified that Elizabeth's body was received for autopsy on September 7 "extensively decomposed," "partially skeletonized," and "partially mummified." Dr. Koponen noted two "large" holes in her skull, photographs of which were admitted and shown to the jury. One hole was "slightly larger" than the other, but both holes were oval in shape with fractures radiating from each wound. Based on the nature of the wounds, Dr. Koponen ruled out a gunshot as the source of the injuries. Dr. Koponen testified that the trauma likely caused portions of the skull to be driven into Elizabeth's brain, causing "tremendous brain damage and bleeding," which resulted in her death. Dr. Koponen testified that Elizabeth died either instantly or "very, very shortly after receiving her injury." He also stated that the condition of her body at the time of the autopsy was consistent with her having been dead "most, if not all" of the time between September 1 and September 6, when her body was discovered. He stated that the level of decomposition was not consistent with Elizabeth's body being exposed to the elements for only one or two days.

         The jury also heard testimony from Dr. Frederick Snow, a forensic anthropologist who assisted Dr. Koponen. Dr. Snow's examination established that the two wounds to Elizabeth's skull were the result of non-specific blunt force trauma and appeared to be caused by a "circular implement" of some kind. Dr. Snow testified that, at the time Elizabeth's remains were brought into the lab for autopsy on September 7, she had been dead "probably a week, somewhere along in there. Certainly not just a day or two."

         The State also called GBI Special Agent Lindsey Giddens to testify. Giddens assisted in the investigation of Elizabeth's death and executed a search warrant at Shaw's house. During that search, Giddens found a burn pile behind the house containing a burned piece of a flip-flop sandal, two metal rings, a burned piece of a blue towel, and a burned metal shaft of a hammer, all of which were seized by GBI. Giddens also testified that, during her search of Shaw's residence, she entered Shaw's workshop and saw that Shaw had gas cans, hammers, and numerous tools.

         The State also called GBI Special Agent Kendra Lynn, who testified that, on the afternoon of September 6, she responded to the area where Elizabeth's body was discovered. Elizabeth's body was not visible from the road, but was found in a wooded area off a dirt road in a rural part of Montgomery County.

         Lynn testified that the body at the scene was not identified as Elizabeth until the following afternoon, September 7. Later that day, Lynn briefly spoke with Elizabeth's mother, Barbara Blaxton. Lynn and two deputies from the Toombs County Sheriff's Office then met with and interviewed Shaw at his residence. Lynn testified that Shaw was not under arrest during that interview.

         In the interview, Lynn and Shaw discussed Shaw's relationship with Elizabeth. Shaw told Lynn that Elizabeth was his girlfriend, that they had a sexual relationship, and that she regularly stayed at his house. Shaw indicated that he and Elizabeth "had a few rough spots" that were alcohol-related but that they always worked them out. In that conversation, Shaw told Lynn that he smoked Marlboro 100 cigarettes.

         Shaw also told Lynn that, around 9:30 a.m. on September 1, Elizabeth called him and asked him to pick her up from her mother's house. Shaw stated that he then picked Elizabeth up on the side of the road as she walked toward his house. Elizabeth was wearing sandals at the time. Shaw told Lynn that he and Elizabeth went back to his house and had sex, then he took her back home. He also told Lynn that Elizabeth sometimes tried to sneak out of her house to see him because her mother did not like Shaw. Shaw said this had happened recently and that he suffered cuts to his arms when Elizabeth broke her bedroom window while trying to sneak out of the house to see Shaw while her former boyfriend, Eric Peavy, was visiting.

         Lynn testified that she and the deputies spoke with Shaw for about 20 minutes before he asked why they were there. When Lynn informed Shaw that Elizabeth's body had been found and that they were investigating her death, Shaw "became upset very briefly" but then continued talking. He never asked what happened to Elizabeth or where her body had been located. He then told Lynn that he had seen Elizabeth the afternoon of September 1 with Anthony Bledsoe. Later in the interview, Shaw told Lynn about a man named Geron Collins and mentioned that Collins gave rides to Elizabeth and that she sometimes cleaned his house. Shaw then mentioned Jamie Richardson, noting that Elizabeth referred to him as her "husband," which had caused tension with Shaw in the past. Shaw also recounted a recent incident in which he and Elizabeth had been parked in a lane near the home of Deavis Williamson, one of their neighbors. Shaw told Lynn that he and Elizabeth had been in the woods when Elizabeth got upset, jumped out of Shaw's truck, ripped her clothes off, and ran up to Williamson's house. Shaw told Lynn that he and Elizabeth had argued before, but that he had never struck her or hurt her.

         Lynn testified that, the next day, September 8, she returned to the area where Elizabeth's body had been discovered and found and seized an empty pack of Marlboro 100 cigarettes. As she left the scene and drove down the adjacent dirt road, she noticed a sock and a piece of blue shop towel in the road. She photographed and collected those items. She testified that she then recalled having seen a piece of blue towel near Elizabeth's body during a prior visit to the scene, so she returned to that area, located the piece of towel she had seen, and collected it as evidence. Lynn testified that, by September 8, her investigation began to center on Shaw based on interviews with several witnesses, the fact that she had discovered an empty pack of cigarettes near Elizabeth's body that were the same brand Shaw smoked, and that Shaw was the last person to be seen with Elizabeth before she disappeared.

         On September 11, Lynn again interviewed Shaw, this time at the Toombs County Sheriff's office. Shaw was not under arrest at the time. In that interview, Shaw told Lynn that Elizabeth was on probation and gave her the names of several of Elizabeth's acquaintances. He also told Lynn that he and Elizabeth liked to meet at various places to have sex, including in a wooded area near Williamson's house. Shaw stated that Elizabeth last stayed at his house a week before she disappeared, that she had gone back to her mother's house that day, and that he had cut his arm on a window of Elizabeth's mother's house as Elizabeth was trying to sneak out. Shaw said that Elizabeth called him the morning of September 1, that he had picked her up around 8:30 or 9:00 a.m., and that they were in the bedroom together when his daughter, Leanne, knocked on the door and asked for the keys to his truck so that she could take her boyfriend to work. Shaw said that he took Elizabeth home after Leanne returned to the house. He also told Lynn about prior incidents with Doris Kolb, his former romantic partner, in which he broke into Kolb's house and set her belongings on fire.

         While Lynn was interviewing Shaw, Leanne Shaw was being interviewed in a separate room. Lynn took a break from interviewing Shaw and learned that Leanne had provided information to the investigators about the events she witnessed at Shaw's house the morning of September 1. Lynn then resumed her interview with Shaw, but this time gave him Miranda warnings.[2]Shaw indicated that he understood his rights, and the interview continued.

         Lynn told Shaw that she was aware of an altercation between Shaw and Elizabeth on September 1. Shaw then told Lynn that Elizabeth was upset with him because he had filed a report about harassing phone calls that her brothers had made to Shaw. Shaw said that he and Elizabeth then started pushing each other, that she fell, and that he then grabbed her hair. Shaw told Lynn that he never hit Elizabeth, that he did not have any kind of tool in his hand while they argued, and that Elizabeth was "okay" when he left. Shaw told Lynn that he then took Elizabeth to a man's house in Vidalia. Lynn later interviewed William Segar, the man who owned the house where Shaw claimed to have dropped off Elizabeth the afternoon of September 1. Segar said Shaw's statement was untrue and that he had not seen Elizabeth in some time.

         During another break from interviewing Shaw, Lynn learned that Leanne had told investigators that Shaw had taken the sheets off his bed when he returned to the house. Lynn resumed the interview and again provided Miranda warnings to Shaw. When asked about the sheets, Shaw denied removing them from his house several times before admitting that he took the sheets off the bed and threw them in a dumpster. Shaw told Lynn that he removed the sheets because of his "criminal history" and because he worried that, if Elizabeth called the police because of their argument, his business license could be taken away. After this interview, Shaw was placed under arrest at the Toombs County jail.

         Lynn testified that Shaw's bed sheets were never found. She also testified that she never identified other suspects in the case. She stated that the case centered on Shaw based on the interviews he provided, evidence that emerged about him being the last person seen with Elizabeth, and evidence that he and Elizabeth had an abusive relationship, including Leanne's statement about the altercation on September 1. Lynn stated that she had not learned any information about any other person that would indicate someone besides Shaw had engaged in "any other violence toward" Elizabeth. Although Shaw had told her about Elizabeth's drug use and "a black man in a white car" that Elizabeth associated with, Lynn stated that there was no one, including Shaw, who indicated to her that there was any other person Elizabeth was scared of or who had ever hurt her.[3] Lynn said that even though Shaw had identified Geron Collins by name and given nicknames of other people Elizabeth associated with, "there was no other information as to the fact that they would be even remotely involved in her death." Lynn indicated that Collins was interviewed by the sheriff and that if there had been viable suspects besides Shaw she would have pursued them.

         Lynn was also asked on cross-examination about a statement made by Isaiah "Blind" Miles, the man who regularly washed Shaw's trucks. In December 2007, Miles told investigators that he had seen Elizabeth with a white male on September 4. Lynn testified that she did not follow up on the lead because she believed Miles had his dates confused, in light of the forensic evidence that Elizabeth had already been dead for several days by September 4. Lynn was also aware that Miles had vision problems.

         The State also presented testimony from a number of witnesses regarding the relationship between Shaw and Elizabeth, including Elizabeth's friend, Tammy Ward. Ward stated that she had witnessed arguments between Shaw and Elizabeth and had once seen Shaw "dragging" Elizabeth "across the yard by her hair." Ward testified that Elizabeth had asked her not to call the police after this incident because "[Shaw] would get back at her." Elizabeth also told Ward that Shaw was mean to her and that, at times, when Shaw had been drinking, "he would get so mean . . . he'd go to hit [his son] and [Elizabeth would] stand in front of him and he would hit her." Ward testified that Elizabeth was frightened of Shaw and "would run from [Shaw] and hide from him," but that Shaw "would follow [Elizabeth]" and "find her, wherever she went."[4] Ward also testified that Elizabeth's pocketbook had "funny shaped" rings, which were oval-shaped, but not circular.

         The State also called Barbara Blaxton, Elizabeth's mother, to testify. Blaxton testified that Shaw had "threatened to kill [both her and Elizabeth]." Blaxton testified that, in the past, she had witnessed Shaw strike Elizabeth, that she had seen bruises on Elizabeth, and that she had called the police to report Shaw's conduct numerous times. Two days before Blaxton last saw Elizabeth, Shaw came to Blaxton's house and broke one of her windows.[5]

         The State also presented testimony from Jamie Richardson, Elizabeth's husband. The couple separated after the death of their daughter in 2003, but they never divorced.[6] Jamie was aware that Elizabeth was in a relationship with Shaw after the couple separated. On one occasion, Elizabeth came to stay at Jamie's house. Shaw picked her up that evening, and the next morning, Shaw called Jamie. In that call, which took place sometime in 2004 or 2005, Shaw asked for advice about his relationship with Elizabeth, specifically "how to control her" because she "wouldn't do what he wanted her to do." Shaw then told Jamie that he was going to kill Elizabeth.

         The State also presented testimony from Steven Anthony Bledsoe, a friend of Elizabeth's who lived near both Shaw and Elizabeth. Bledsoe testified that one time he was passing by Shaw's house and saw that Shaw and Elizabeth were in a "struggle" in the front yard in which Shaw "had a firm grasp on her" and the two were "yelling back and forth." On another occasion, Bledsoe saw Elizabeth in the field behind his house, and Elizabeth told him that she was running from Shaw. Bledsoe testified that he had "occasionally" seen bruises on Elizabeth, although he was not sure how she got them.

         The State also presented testimony from Eric Peavy, who testified that he had been friends with Elizabeth since 1999. Peavy testified that, in the summer of 2007, he drove from his home in Savannah to Elizabeth's home in Vidalia to visit her. While he was visiting, Shaw came to the house, argued with Elizabeth on the front porch, and then broke Elizabeth's bedroom window. Peavy also testified that Elizabeth had told him that Shaw was abusive toward her and that she was afraid of Shaw.

         The State also presented testimony from Toombs County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Wiggs, who testified that he had answered emergency calls from Elizabeth regarding prior incidents involving Shaw. In one of the calls, he and another deputy responded to a report of an argument or fight. When they arrived, Elizabeth was sitting on the front steps of her mother's house. She told the deputies that Shaw had taken her clothes, forced her out of his house, and made her walk home unclothed. Shaw later told the deputies that he "removed" Elizabeth from his house because he did not want her to smoke in the house. On another occasion, Wiggs and another officer responded to a call from Elizabeth regarding an altercation between her and ...

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