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Ballin v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

December 23, 2019

BALLIN
v.
THE STATE.

          Bethel, Justice.

         Following her conviction for the murder of her husband, Derrick Ballin, Pamela Lelieth Ballin appeals from the denial of her motion for a new trial.[1] Ballin argues that the trial court erred when it admitted evidence that she was the beneficiary of insurance policies on her husband's life and that the trial court wrongly denied her motion for a mistrial following an improper statement by the prosecution. Although the trial court erroneously applied an evidentiary standard from cases decided under the former Evidence Code in admitting evidence of the life insurance policies and related testimony, we hold that the overall strength of the evidence against Ballin rendered harmless any error. Further, Ballin's claim of error with respect to the denial of her motion for a mistrial lacks merit. We therefore affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial shows the following. Ballin and her husband, Derrick "Ricky" Ballin, had been married since 1985 and shared a son. Throughout their marriage, both Ballin and Ricky had extramarital affairs, including in the months prior to Ricky's death. Ricky had confided in another that he had plans to leave the marriage, and Ballin stated to a neighbor that she planned to leave the marital home.

         On December 29, 2009, at around 2 a.m., Ballin called 911 and reported a home invasion. When officers arrived, they found Ricky at the bottom of a stairwell, bleeding profusely. Ricky had been struck in the head multiple times and a bloody statue was found near him. Ricky ultimately died from his injuries later that day.

         Ballin told police that she woke up to use the restroom, but heard Ricky struggling with someone. She then hid and called 911. Ballin reportedly remained hidden until she heard officers at the front door. Officers noted that the scene, which included pry marks on the locked back door and a butter knife found nearby, appeared staged and that nothing appeared to have been broken or taken. Further, there were no signs of forced entry, and the exterior doors to the house were locked upon the arrival of police. Ballin gave differing accounts of where she was hiding in the house when she heard her husband call out for his gun during the alleged struggle. A blood-pattern analysis expert testified that it appeared Ricky had been struck while sitting in a recliner, before receiving several more blows at the bottom of the stairs where he was found by responding officers.

         The State moved in limine to admit evidence of life insurance policies for which Ballin was the beneficiary and related testimony, arguing that her rights to the proceeds of such policies upon Ricky's death provided a motive for her to kill Ricky. At a pretrial hearing, Ballin objected to any mention of life insurance policies naming her as beneficiary. The trial court ruled that there was sufficient independent evidence of a nexus between the offense and the life insurance policies such that evidence pertaining to the policies could be admitted at trial as evidence of motive.[2] The trial court granted Ballin a "continuing objection" to the ruling on the life insurance policy evidence.[3]

         1. Though not raised by Ballin as error, in accordance with this Court's standard practice in appeals of murder cases, we have reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence, as summarized above, was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find Ballin guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of malice murder. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Ballin, relying on cases decided under the former Evidence Code, contends that the trial court erred when it admitted evidence that she was the beneficiary of insurance policies on her husband's life in order to prove motive.[4] We disagree.

         This Court previously held that evidence of insurance could be properly admitted where the State established some connection, or nexus, to the crime. See Bagwell v. State, 270 Ga. 175, 177 (1) (a) (508 S.E.2d 385) (1998) (holding that evidence of an insurance policy may be admitted if there is some independent evidence of a nexus between the crime charged and the existence of the insurance policy); Stoudemire v. State, 261 Ga. 49, 50 (3) (401 S.E.2d 482) (1991) (holding that in order to admit evidence of a life insurance policy where the accused was a beneficiary of the deceased's policy, there must be independent evidence creating a nexus between the crime charged and the existence of the insurance policy). See also Bridges v. State, 286 Ga. 535, 539 (4) (690 S.E.2d 136) (2010) (nexus existed where accused asked his employer about the policy on the day the murder was discovered, made it clear to others that he wanted and needed the insurance money, and told fellow inmates that he would be receiving the money); Givens v. State, 273 Ga. 818, 822 (3) (546 S.E.2d 509) (2001) (defense opened the door by introducing testimony regarding the life insurance policy, and testimony that the accused intended to pay the shooter with money from insurance proceeds satisfied the nexus requirement).

         However, each of those cases was decided before Georgia adopted the current Evidence Code, which largely mirrors the Federal Rules of Evidence. See State v. Almanza, 304 Ga. 553, 555 (2) (820 S.E.2d 1) (2018). And Georgia appellate courts have repeatedly reminded both bench and bar of the importance of applying and arguing the correct law to evidentiary questions. See, e.g., State v. Orr, 305 Ga. 729, 739 (3) n.9 (827 S.E.2d 892) (2019); Davis v. State, 299 Ga. 180, 192 (3) (787 S.E.2d 221) (2016). See also Douglas v. State, 340 Ga.App. 168, 173 (2) n.14 (796 S.E.2d 893) (2017); Patch v. State, 337 Ga.App. 233, 241 (2) n.21 (786 S.E.2d 882) (2016). The nexus rule established by cases like Bagwell and Stoudemire does not appear to have had any basis in state statute or any federal rule of evidence. Rather, the categorical rule seems to originate from judicial lawmaking - that is, it represents the Court's view of good policy and its best attempt to determine what evidence should be excluded as overly prejudicial. As such, that rule has been supplanted by Rule 403 in the current Evidence Code. See Orr, 305 Ga. at 735 (2).

         Under the current Evidence Code, all relevant evidence is admissible, with specific exceptions. See OCGA § 24-4-402.[5] Pertinent here, relevant evidence may be excluded where its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. See OCGA § 24-4-403.[6] Rule 403's balancing of the probative value of the insurance policies and related testimony against the danger of unfair prejudice is a task properly reserved for the sound discretion of the trial judge, and exercise of this discretion to exclude otherwise admissible evidence "is an extraordinary remedy which should be used only sparingly." Hood v. State, 299 Ga. 95, 102 (4) (786 S.E.2d 648) (2016). In close cases, the balance is struck in favor of admissibility in determining whether the probative value is outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. See Pike v. State, 302 Ga. 795, 801 (4) (809 S.E.2d 756) (2018).

         Here, however, there is no indication that the trial court exercised its discretion in performing the balancing test under Rule 403. Rather, the trial court determined that there was "sufficient independent evidence of a nexus between the offense and [the] life insurance policies and that evidence requested by the State would meet the Bagwell test[.]" Even so, the trial court's failure to exercise its discretion under the proper standard is harmless here. See Jackson v. State, 306 Ga. 69, 80 (829 S.E.2d 142) (2019) ("[T]he test for determining nonconstitutional harmless error is whether it is highly probable that the error did not contribute to the verdict." (citation and punctuation omitted)). Even assuming that the trial court would have excluded the evidence if it had properly exercised its discretion, it is highly probable that any error in admitting the evidence did not contribute to the jury's verdict. "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." (Citation and punctuation omitted). Kirby v. State, 304 Ga. 472, 478 (819 S.E.2d 468) (2018).

         The evidence presented at trial demonstrated Ballin's decreased interest in the marriage, as evidenced by her extramarital affairs and apparent intent to leave the marital home. Further, when officers arrived at the scene, they found the doors to the home all locked, and the only people inside were Ballin and her husband, who was at the bottom of a stairwell, bleeding profusely. Officers noted that the scene, including pry marks on the locked back door and a butter knife found nearby, appeared staged and that nothing appeared to have been broken or taken. Further, there were no signs of forced entry. A blood-pattern analysis expert testified that it appeared Ricky had been initially struck while sitting in a recliner, and a bloody statue was found near him at the bottom of the stairs. Ballin also gave inconsistent statements about where she was hiding in the house when she heard her husband call out for his gun during the alleged struggle. In sum, given the overall strength of the other evidence of Ballin's guilt, we conclude that it is highly probable that the insurance evidence, even assuming it was erroneously admitted under Rule 403, did not contribute to the jury's verdict.

         3. Ballin next argues that the trial court erred in denying her motion for a mistrial following an improper ...


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