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Gebhardt v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

December 23, 2019


          Melton, Chief Justice.

         Following a June 18 to 26, 2018 jury trial, Franklin George Gebhardt was found guilty of malice murder and various other offenses in connection with the torture and stabbing death of Tim Coggins in October of 1983.[1] On appeal, Gebhardt contends that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support his murder conviction; that the trial court erred in denying Gebhardt's pre-trial plea in bar with respect to the charges of aggravated assault, aggravated battery, and concealing the death of another; that the trial court inappropriately commented on the evidence at trial; and that the trial court committed several evidentiary errors. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence presented at trial reveals that, on the evening of October 7, 1983, Coggins, an African-American man, visited a club in Spalding County with predominantly African-American clientele. On the way to the club, Coggins told a friend who drove him to the club about a Caucasian woman whom Coggins was dating at the time, Ruth Guy. When Coggins arrived at the club, three white males - Gebhardt, Moore, and another man - were waiting outside. Guy was Gebhardt's ex-girlfriend, and Gebhardt did not approve of Coggins's interracial relationship with her. Coggins knew Gebhardt and Moore, and he approached the men before entering the club, but no confrontation occurred between Gebhardt and Coggins at that time. After Coggins danced at the club for a while, Gebhardt came in looking for Coggins, and, eventually, Coggins left the club with Gebhardt and the other men with whom Gebhardt had been standing outside. Coggins called his friend, Samuel Freeman, and told Freeman that he was with "Frankie," whom Freeman knew to be Gebhardt. Coggins, Gebhardt, Moore, and the other man with whom Gebhardt and Moore had been standing traveled to a nearby party before heading to a mobile home park in Sunnyside, close to where Gebhardt lived.

         In the early morning hours of October 8, Gebhardt began arguing with Coggins in the mobile home park, with Moore and Guy present as well. Moore and Guy then got into the front of a car, and Gebhardt and Coggins got into the back seat, and the group started driving in the direction of Minter Road. When Gebhardt and Moore arrived in an area near Minter Road with Coggins, but apparently no longer with Guy, Gebhardt and Moore stabbed Coggins multiple times in the back, torso, wrist, and neck; chained Coggins to the back of their truck and dragged him behind it; and then stabbed Coggins some more. Coggins died from his stab wounds, and Moore and Gebhardt left Coggins's body in a field in a rural area that was intersected by a power line and that was about a mile away from the mobile home park.

         Coggins's body was found the next day by Christopher Vaughn, who was out hunting squirrels with his father at the time. Coggins was still wearing his underwear and jeans, but he was without his shirt, socks, and shoes. Police were called to the scene, and they found Coggins's blood-stained beige sweater there. Drag marks around a dirt trail in a pattern that ended at Coggins's body were consistent with a person having been dragged behind a truck, and abrasions on Coggins's body indicated that he had been dragged. However, police did not find any item that could have been used to drag Coggins behind a truck at that time.

         Despite the preliminary investigation by police into the murder, the case went cold after about four or five months.[2] Over the subsequent years, Gebhardt bragged about having murdered Coggins for being involved with Guy, and he provided details about the murder that had not been made known to the public. Two weeks after the murder, Gebhardt admitted to a friend named Willard Sanders that Gebhardt and Moore had killed Coggins and dragged him along the power line after tying a logging chain around Coggins's feet. And, a few months after the murder, Gebhardt admitted to Vaughn at a party that he and Moore had killed the man that Vaughn had found "over there on the power line." Gebhardt also told Vaughn on at least three or four other occasions that he and Moore had stabbed "the ni**er," referring to Coggins, 18 to 30 times, dragged him down the power lines, and then stabbed him again because Coggins was romantically involved with Guy. In addition, Gebhardt told Vaughn that he had thrown the murder weapon and Coggins's clothes into a well. Vaughn also overheard Gebhardt threaten a handyman on a different occasion, by saying "I'll kill you like I did that ni**er."[3] In 1985, Gebhardt threatened a man named Charlie Sturgill by saying, "the same thing that happened to that ni**er is going to happen to you and your momma," and stated to Sturgill on another occasion that Gebhardt had "stabbed that ni**er 25 times and cut him open." Gebhardt also said to an acquaintance named Jonathan Bennett that Gebhardt and Moore had stabbed Coggins 38 times and dragged him down the road after Gebhardt tied Coggins to the back of a truck. In 2016, Gebhardt reminisced with Robert Smith about the times "back in the days" when a black man "never live[d] to tell about [a] white girl he was with," and, on another occasion, admitted to Smith that he had dragged and "gutted" Coggins "for messing with a white girl."

         In April of 2017, Gebhardt was incarcerated on unrelated charges, and Vaughn, who was also incarcerated at that time, went into Gebhardt's cell while wearing a recording device provided by police. Gebhardt had not yet been indicted or arrested for Coggins's murder. When Vaughn asked Gebhardt about Coggins's murder, Gebhardt initially denied knowing anything about it, but then he admitted that he did not know what he might have said about the murder while he was drunk at a party hosted by Willard Sanders (another man to whom Gebhardt had earlier admitted that he and Moore had committed the murder). Gebhardt was arrested for Coggins's murder in October of 2017, and, while he was incarcerated with Patrick Douglas, Gebhardt told Douglas that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; that it was unfair that the sheriff could "get away with killing a ni**er," but he could not; and that he "didn't need no help killing that ni**er," as he was the one who "slammed him down and stabbed him in the back." Also, while incarcerated with Terry Reed, Gebhardt learned that police had seized over 50 knives from Gebhardt's home, and Gebhardt told Reed that law enforcement would not find DNA evidence on those knives because he threw the knife used in Coggins's murder into a well under a shed at his house.

         GBI Special Agent Jared Coleman took over the cold case in June 2016. After reviewing the case file and realizing that several items pertinent to the crime were never recovered during the initial investigation - including Coggins's footwear and t-shirt from the night of the murder, the item used to drag Coggins, and the murder weapon - Agent Coleman obtained two search warrants for Gebhardt's residence and property. The first warrant was for Gebhardt's home, [4] and police recovered 63 knives in connection with that search. The second search warrant was also for Gebhardt's home, but specified that, in addition to the home, the search was "[t]o include [its] curtilage, all vehicles, and all persons currently contained on said property." During the second search, police used hydrovac technology[5] to excavate a sealed well on Gebhardt's property, and from the well they recovered a white shoe that was the correct size for Coggins's foot, two socks, a logging chain, a white t-shirt, broken pieces of a knife, and a knife handle.

         Gebhardt challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support his conviction for malice murder, but the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find Gebhardt guilty of that crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Gebhardt contends that the trial court erred in denying his pre-trial plea in bar to prevent his prosecution for aggravated assault, aggravated battery, and concealing the death of another. He claims that, because Coggins's murder took place 34 years before Gebhardt was indicted, and because the four-year statute of limitations with respect to these particular offenses had already expired, Gebhardt could not be tried for those offenses. See OCGA §§ 17-3-1 (c) and 17-3-2, supra. However, Gebhardt cannot show harm from the fact that he was tried for these offenses, as he does not currently stand convicted of any of them. See Hendricks v. State, 283 Ga. 470, 473 (3) (660 S.E.2d 365) (2008) (an appellant "must show harm, as well as error, to demonstrate his entitlement to a new trial"). Gebhardt's only remaining conviction is for malice murder, because the trial court granted his motion for new trial on the aggravated assault, aggravated battery, and concealing the death of another counts, finding that those counts had to be vacated because the statute of limitation was not tolled with regard to those crimes. See Anderson v. State, 299 Ga. 193, 196 (1) n.4 (787 S.E.2d 202) (2016) (a defendant is not "convicted" on counts that are vacated or that merge with other offenses for sentencing purposes, and challenges to the sufficiency of evidence to support those non-existent convictions are moot). See also OCGA § 16-1-3 (4) ("'Conviction' includes a final judgment of conviction entered upon a verdict or finding of guilty of a crime upon a plea of guilty."). Because Gebhardt was not convicted of the offenses that he now wishes to challenge, his challenges to those charges are moot. See Anderson, supra, 299 Ga. at 196 (1) n.4. To the extent that Gebhardt is attempting to argue that the jury was prejudiced in favor of finding him guilty of murder due to the existence of these other charges at his trial, we also find no merit to this argument, as the very same evidence that supported these charges (i.e., the stabbing and dragging of Coggins and leaving his body in a field) would have been relevant and admissible to give context to the murder for the jury even if these other charges had not been a part of his trial.

         3. Gebhardt argues that the trial court plainly erred by improperly commenting on the evidence presented at trial. See OCGA § 17-8-57 (a) (1) ("It is error for any judge, during any phase of any criminal case, to express or intimate to the jury the judge's opinion as to whether a fact at issue has or has not been proved or as to the guilt of the accused") and (b) (except with regard to opinions about guilt, the "failure to make a timely objection to an alleged violation of paragraph (1) of subsection (a) of this Code section shall preclude appellate review, unless such violation constitutes plain error which affects substantive rights of the parties. Plain error may be considered on appeal even when a timely objection informing the court of the specific objection was not made, so long as such error affects substantive rights of the parties.").[6] Specifically, Gebhardt asserts that the trial judge commented on the evidence by stating (a) "asked and answered" on two occasions during defense counsel's cross-examination of two witnesses, and (b) "yes, there has," in response to an objection by defense counsel in which counsel claimed that no evidence had been presented during the testimony of Douglas that Gebhardt was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. We identify no plain error.

         In order to satisfy the test for plain error,

[f]irst, there must be an error or defect - some sort of deviation from a legal rule - that has not been intentionally relinquished or abandoned, i.e., affirmatively waived, by the appellant. Second, the legal error must be clear or obvious, rather than subject to reasonable dispute. Third, the error must have affected the appellant's substantial rights, which in the ordinary case means he must demonstrate that it affected the outcome of the trial court proceedings. Fourth and finally, if the above three prongs are satisfied, the appellate court has the discretion to remedy the error - discretion which ought to be exercised only if the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

(Citations, punctuation, and emphasis omitted.) State v. Kelly, 290 Ga. 29, 33 (2) (a) (718 S.E.2d 232) (2011).

         (a) The record reveals that, on the two occasions that the trial judge stated "asked and answered," the judge was specifically trying to get defense counsel to move on from repetitive lines of questioning, not that the judge was in any way commenting on what had or had not been proven in the case. The trial judge even told defense counsel to "move on" before stating "asked and answered" in connection with counsel's repetitive questioning of the first witness. When counsel engaged in another round of repetitive questioning three witnesses later, the trial judge once again stated "asked and answered" in an effort to get defense counsel to move on from repeatedly asking variations of the same question that the witness had already answered. We see no error, let alone any clear or obvious one, in the trial court exercising its authority to keep the case moving along in the face of repetitive questions by defense counsel. See OCGA § 24-6-611 (a) (2) ("The court shall exercise reasonable control over the mode and order of interrogating witnesses and presenting evidence so as to . . . [a]void needless consumption of time[.]"). See also Rickman v. State, 304 Ga. 61 (2) (816 S.E.2d 4) (2018).

         (b) The record shows that Douglas, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, testified that Gebhardt told him that Gebhardt was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Douglas then testified that the Ku Klux Klan was part of the Aryan Brotherhood. When the State then posed a follow up question to determine if it was difficult for Douglas to be "testifying against someone [who] is in the Aryan Brotherhood," defense counsel objected, stating that "[t]here ha[d] been no testimony whatsoever that Mr. Gebhardt is in the Aryan Brotherhood." In overruling the objection, the trial judge stated, "yes, there has." Viewed in its proper context, this was not a comment on the evidence. The judge merely corrected defense counsel's erroneous assertion. See, e.g., Smith v. State, 317 Ga.App. 801, 805 (2) (732 S.E.2d 840) (2012) ("[A] trial judge may state his recollection as to some portion of the testimony without [violating OCGA § 17-8-57].") (citation and punctuation omitted). We see no plain error in the trial court's response to defense counsel's objection.

         4. Gebhardt asserts that the trial court erred by allowing Samuel Freeman to testify, over defense counsel's hearsay objection, about a phone call in which Coggins allegedly told him that Coggins was with "Frankie" on the night of the murder.[7] However, even if the trial court abused its discretion in admitting this testimony, the admission of the evidence was harmless, as it was largely cumulative of the testimony of eyewitnesses who placed Gebhardt with Coggins on the night of the murder. See Rutledge v. State, 298 Ga. 37, 40 ...

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