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Gaston v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

January 13, 2020


          Bethel, Justice.

         In October 2016, a jury found Lerenzo Gaston guilty of felony murder and other crimes in connection with the shooting death of Terrance Walker.[1] Gaston appeals, contending that he received ineffective assistance of trial counsel because counsel (1) did not request a jury charge on justification; (2) did not object to the State's closing argument referencing evidence outside the record; (3) did not object to the admission of a prior consistent statement; and (4) did not introduce evidence that a witness initially denied seeing Gaston shoot Walker. For the reasons stated below, we affirm.

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed that sometime during the fall of 2011, Gaston solicited sex from Maegan Bostic, who was working as a prostitute at the time. Bostic agreed to have sex with Gaston, and the two drove to an apartment complex where some acquaintances lived. When they arrived, the two prepared to engage in intercourse; however, Gaston refused to use a condom and the act was not consummated. Bostic then demanded Gaston drive her back to the motel from which he had picked her up.

         When they arrived back at the motel, Bostic informed her then-boyfriend, Walker, what had happened. Walker demanded that Gaston pay Bostic for her time. Gaston refused and threatened to "shoot [the] place up," but Bostic told those present that Gaston was unarmed. "The people at the [motel]" then began shooting at Gaston's vehicle, and Gaston attempted to flee in his vehicle. He wrecked his vehicle in the process and then fled on foot.

         A month or two later, during the afternoon of November 2, 2011, Walker's mother drove him to an apartment complex where Walker's brother was staying. Gaston-who was parked across the street from the apartment complex at the time-followed Walker and his mother into the complex in a black car. Shortly after Walker got out of his mother's vehicle, Gaston drove back out of the complex. A short time later, while Walker was standing in a grassy area between some apartments, Kimberly Seaborn saw Gaston and another person approach Walker from behind.[2] The pair began shooting at Walker, ultimately shooting him four times-once in the back of each thigh, once in his left hip, and once in the head. Walker's brother heard shots and then saw Gaston and another individual flee into the adjacent woods.

         Walker died from his injuries at the scene. No weapons were found on or near his body, although a cell phone and ear buds were found in Walker's left hand. In addition, a .40-caliber bullet was found "in [Walker's] clothing," and a .38-caliber lead bullet was found in his head. Law enforcement also found four .40-caliber shell casings and one 9mm shell casing at the scene. Law enforcement later determined that each of the .40-caliber casings were fired from the same weapon; that the .40-caliber bullet was consistent with having been fired from that same weapon; that the .38-caliber bullet was fired from a revolver; and that the 9mm casing was fired from a third weapon. Gaston had been known to carry both a .40-caliber and 9mm handgun.[3]

         Several months after the shooting, Bostic saw Gaston at a gas station. Gaston told Bostic, "I got him. You're next." At trial, Gaston's ex-girlfriend, Jaquita Mack, testified that shortly after Walker's death, she overheard Gaston admit to killing someone.

         Gaston elected not to testify on his own behalf at trial. He called no witnesses, and he did not tender any other evidence in his defense.

         Although Gaston has not challenged the sufficiency of the evidence, it is our customary practice to review the sufficiency of the evidence in murder cases, and we have done so here. After reviewing the record of Gaston's trial, we conclude that the evidence presented against him was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Gaston was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-319 (II) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). See also Brown v. State, 302 Ga. 454, 456 (1) (b) (807 S.E.2d 369) (2017) ("It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence." (citation and punctuation omitted)).

         2. Gaston contends that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance due to counsel's failure to (a) request an instruction on justification; (b) object to the State's closing argument referencing evidence outside the record; (c) object to Mack's prior consistent statement; and (d) introduce evidence that Seaborn initially denied seeing Gaston shoot Walker. We disagree.

         To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant generally must show that counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance resulted in prejudice to the defendant. Swanson v. State, 306 Ga. 153, 155 (2) (829 S.E.2d 312) (2019) (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-695 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984)). To satisfy the deficiency prong, a defendant must show that trial counsel "performed at trial in an objectively unreasonable way considering all the circumstances and in the light of prevailing professional norms." Romer v. State, 293 Ga. 339, 344 (3) (745 S.E.2d 637) (2013). This requires a defendant to "overcome the strong presumption that trial counsel's performance was adequate." (Punctuation omitted.) Swanson, 306 Ga. at 155 (2). To satisfy the prejudice prong, a defendant must establish a reasonable probability that, in the absence of counsel's deficient performance, the result of the trial would have been different. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. "A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id.

         (a) Gaston first argues that he received ineffective assistance from his trial counsel due to counsel's failure to request an instruction on a justification defense. We disagree. Gaston contends that trial counsel erroneously thought he could not request a justification instruction without Gaston telling him that he acted in self-defense.[4]

         If there is some evidence to support more than one theory, "a defendant who pursues alternative defense theories is entitled to requested charges on both theories." Williams v. State, 297 Ga 460, 462 (2) (773 S.E.2d 213) (2015); see also Wainwright v State, 305 Ga 63 (5) (823 S.E.2d 749) (2019) ("[T]o authorize a requested jury instruction, there need only be slight evidence supporting the theory of the charge" (citation omitted)) However, it is rarely an unreasonable strategy to not pursue defenses that logically conflict See McClure v State, __ Ga__ (834 S.E.2d 96, 104) (2019) (Nahmias, J, concurring) ("[W]hat the law allows may be bad strategy for a defendant." (emphasis in original)).

         Pretermitting whether trial counsel was deficient, Gaston fails to establish that he was prejudiced by his trial counsel's failure to request a jury instruction on justification. Here, absent counsel's alleged mistaken understanding of the law and his professional obligations, Gaston would have been left with two choices in addition to the misidentification defense he mounted. Trial counsel could have requested an instruction on both misidentification and justification, or trial counsel could have abandoned the misidentification theory and relied solely on a theory of justification. As we have previously noted, although a defendant may choose to pursue alternative defense theories, doing so may risk alienating the jury, particularly where there is only slight evidence to support a theory. Muller v. State, 284 Ga. 70, 71-72 (3) (663 S.E.2d 206) (2008). While that risk exists where trial counsel presents inconsistent defense theories, such as accident and self-defense, the risk that a jury may reject both defenses is great where trial counsel presents defense theories that logically conflict, such as misidentification and self-defense. See McClure, 834 S.E.2d at 104 (Nahmias, J., concurring) ("Presenting inconsistent defenses to the jury, particularly when the evidentiary support for one defense is considerably weaker than for others or where a defense is contradicted by the defendant's own account of events, risks losing credibility for all of the defenses."); see also Hills v. State, Ga. (833 S.E.2d 515, 521 n.10 (3) (a)) (2019) ("[T]he assertion of inconsistent theories of defense runs the further risk that the State will seize upon the opportunity to aggressively point out in closing argument inconsistencies between those theories and the differing view of the evidence that would be required to support each of them." (citation omitted)).

         Gaston argues that trial counsel's alleged deficiency was prejudicial because the jury found Gaston not guilty of malice murder, meaning that the jury believed that Gaston intended to shoot Walker, but not to kill him. Gaston further argues that this suggests that an instruction of self-defense might have caused at least one juror who voted to convict to decide otherwise. However, such speculation does not establish a reasonable probability that the jury would have reached a different result. See, e.g., Hinton v. State, 304 Ga. 605, 608 (2) (820 S.E.2d 712) (2018) (where jury found appellant not guilty of malice murder but guilty of felony murder and predicate aggravated assault, appellant failed to establish a reasonable probability that the jury would have reached a different result where "evidence of Hinton's guilt was strong, and any evidence supporting a[n] [alternative] voluntary manslaughter theory was weak"); Fuller v. State, 278 Ga. 812, 814 (2) (b) (607 S.E.2d 581) (2005) (where jury found defendant not guilty of malice murder but guilty of felony murder and predicate aggravated assault, defendant failed to show, given the strength of the evidence, that but for trial counsel's alleged failure to elicit an alternative voluntary manslaughter charge there was a reasonable probability that the result of his trial would have been different).

         Here, there was at best slight evidence presented at trial that would have allowed the jury to infer that Gaston acted in self-defense. Law enforcement found blood belonging neither to Gaston nor Walker at the scene, indicating that a third person was present and was wounded. Law enforcement also recovered three different shell casings at the scene, indicating that three different weapons may have been used in the shooting. However, there was no direct evidence that Walker was armed, or that Gaston was in imminent danger from Walker at the time of the shooting. See OCGA § 16-3-21 (a) ("A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that he or she reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person against such other's imminent use of unlawful force" (emphasis supplied)). The fact that Gaston and Walker had a previous altercation in the months prior to Walker's shooting does not change this. SeeCarter v. State, 285 Ga. 565, 566 (2) ...

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