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Moore v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

November 4, 2019

MOORE
v.
THE STATE.

          PETERSON, JUSTICE.

         William Christopher Moore appeals his malice murder conviction for the strangling and beating death of his girlfriend, Mandi Kaiser.[1] He challenges the trial court's rulings on evidentiary matters, including allowing the State to introduce evidence of his prior violent acts toward another girlfriend. He also argues that the trial court erred by denying a request for a jury instruction on mutual combat and by failing to grant a mistrial based on a comment by the prosecutor in closing argument. Moore also argues that his trial counsel was ineffective in matters related to the other acts evidence. We conclude that any error in admitting the other acts evidence was harmless given the strength of the State's case. Because Moore has not otherwise shown trial court error or deficient performance by counsel, we affirm.

         Moore lived with Kaiser in a Chatham County apartment.[2]Both had health problems and abused drugs, and Moore had a peripherally inserted central catheter ("PICC line") in his arm. Speaking to Kaiser on the telephone on the evening of February 17, 2015, Kaiser's mother, Karen Collins, could hear Moore yelling in the background. Kaiser asked Collins to come pick her up but decided to stay when Collins arrived. One of Kaiser's younger daughters left with Collins, reporting that Moore "was acting crazy."

         Kaiser's 18-year-old daughter, Breanna Hartlaub, and Hartlaub's husband arrived at Kaiser's apartment later that night to retrieve clothing for Kaiser's younger daughters. Moore screamed at Hartlaub, saying she was not supposed to be there. Kaiser responded affirmatively when Hartlaub asked her if Moore had "put his hands on" her. Kaiser indicated she would move out the following day, but declined to leave the apartment at that time. Collins again spoke with Kaiser on the telephone around 11:00 p.m. that night, and Kaiser told Collins that she would break up with Moore and move back in with Collins the following day.

         The next day, Kaiser did not respond to phone calls and text messages from her family members, and she was found dead on the floor of her apartment. The front door was locked and there were no signs of forced entry. Kaiser had abrasions and bruising all over her body, multiple fractured ribs, and more than ten separate blunt force injuries to her scalp. Kaiser's injuries also included a bite mark; testing of the wound showed the presence of Moore's DNA, and a dental forensics expert testified that Moore made the bite mark. A medical examiner testified that the cause of death was a combination of strangulation and blunt force injuries that could not be caused by improper CPR.

         On February 20, 2015, Moore waived his rights under Miranda[3] and spoke with investigators in a recorded interview. In the interview, Moore maintained that Kaiser was alive when he left the apartment for the night on February 17. Moore claimed that they had fought over Moore selling Kaiser's prescription medication, with Kaiser trying to pull out Moore's PICC line and Moore merely pushing her. He claimed that after he left, he caught a bus from the mall and spent the night at a laundromat. Moore also reported that he tried to call the victim while he was on the bus and the following day. Surveillance video, cell phone records, and other evidence undermined Moore's claims about what he did after he left the apartment. Police observed only superficial scratches on Moore's body, and his PICC line was not damaged.

         Moore did not testify at the January 2017 trial. He put on a witness, Dustin Singletary, who testified that he observed the victim at her apartment on the evening of February 17 screaming and throwing papers, angry that Moore had sold her pills. Singletary observed no one other than Kaiser and Moore in the apartment.

         Moore's counsel told the jury that it should find Moore guilty of voluntary manslaughter, rather than murder, acknowledging to the jury in closing that Moore may have grabbed Kaiser's throat but did so "in a moment of passion, and to defend himself[.]" Counsel also argued to the jury that it was possible that Kaiser's chest injuries were the result of Moore improperly attempting to perform CPR on her.

         1. Although Moore does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, we have independently reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence presented at trial was legally sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Moore argues that the trial court erred by allowing the State to introduce evidence under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) ("Rule 404 (b)") regarding Moore's violent acts against an ex-girlfriend. We conclude that any error was harmless.

         Before trial, the State gave notice pursuant to Rule 404 (b) that it intended to offer various evidence of other acts, including acts against Lisa Bedgood, for the purpose of proving Moore's intent and that he used violence to control his romantic partners. In a pre-trial order, the trial court ruled that various other acts against several ex-girlfriends would be admissible for the purpose of showing Moore's intent. At trial, however, the State sought to introduce only the other acts committed against Bedgood.

         Bedgood testified at trial that in April 2014 she and Moore had a physical altercation in which he blocked her from exiting their hotel room. Bedgood also testified that in May 2014 Moore slapped her in the chest and bit her as she tried to get out of a vehicle. And she described an incident on an unspecified date in which Moore tried to choke her.

[A] party offering evidence under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) must show three things: (1) the evidence is relevant to an issue in the case other than the defendant's character; (2) the probative value of the evidence is not substantially outweighed by its undue prejudice; and (3) there is sufficient proof for a jury to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant committed the other act.

Castillo-Velasquez v. State, 305 Ga. 644, 646-647 (2) (827 S.E.2d 257) (2019) (citation and punctuation omitted). In its pre-trial order, the trial court found Moore's actions against Bedgood in the April 2014 and May 2014 incidents amounted to batteries that showed an intent to cause bodily harm to the victim, the same mental state as required for the pending aggravated battery charge alleged in Count 4 of the indictment.[4] That charge was based on an allegation that Moore "maliciously cause[d] bodily harm to" Kaiser "by rendering her chest . . . useless[.]" The trial court also found that there was sufficient proof to enable the jury to determine by a preponderance of the evidence that Moore committed the acts allegedly committed in April and May 2014 and that the probative value of those acts was not substantially outweighed by undue prejudice. The trial court instructed the jury to limit its consideration of the other acts evidence to whether the State had proven intent as to the aggravated battery charge.

         Moore argues on appeal that "based on [the extent of Kaiser's injuries, his] intent was quite clear" and so the State had little need for Rule 404 (b) evidence to prove his intent. Thus, he argues, even if the evidence was relevant to an issue other than his character, the probative value of the Rule 404 (b) evidence was so minimal that it was substantially outweighed by unfair prejudice. Assuming that this argument was preserved, [5] we find that any error in admitting the Rule 404 (b) evidence was harmless and thus does not merit reversal.

The new Evidence Code continues Georgia's existing harmless error doctrine for erroneous evidentiary rulings. See OCGA ยง 24-1-103 (a) ("Error shall not be predicated upon a ruling which admits or excludes evidence unless a substantial right of the party is affected. . . ."). In determining whether the error was harmless, we review the record de novo and weigh the evidence as we would expect reasonable jurors to have done so. The test for determining ...

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