County jury found Ricardo Harris guilty of murder and
concealing the death of another in connection with the death
of Yvonne James. Harris contends that the trial court erred
in admitting his pre-trial statements into evidence and that
trial counsel was ineffective for allowing him to give an
incriminating custodial statement. For the reasons that
follow, we affirm the judgment of conviction.
in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the
evidence presented at trial showed the following. James was a
sex worker. Ancil Neil advertised James' services on
social media sites and acted as her agent. Neil and James had
a routine for communicating about clients: Neil procured the
clients and then informed James via text message when a
client was on the way. James texted Neil when a client
arrived and when he was about to leave. She would also text
Neil if she needed his protection. On December 27, 2012, Neil
rented a room in James' name for a week at a hotel in
December 31, Harris, who is deaf, sent text messages to Neil,
and the two negotiated a price for sex acts. Harris was not
informed that he was texting with Neil, as Neil pretended to
be James. Unbeknownst to Harris, Neil watched from his car in
the hotel parking lot as Harris arrived at the hotel just
prior to 4:00 a.m. on January 1, 2013. Neil sent Harris a
text with James' hotel room number, then he informed
James that Harris was approaching her room. Shortly
thereafter, James confirmed that Harris had arrived and that
he had brought her some brandy. While Harris was in
James' room, Neil sat in his car where he had a
"clear, unobserved view" of the exterior of
James' room. At 4:40 a.m., Neil received a text from
James, stating that she was "getting dressed,"
which meant that Harris was about to leave. When Neil did not
see Harris leave the room as expected, he grew concerned. He
texted James several times during the following hour, but she
did not respond.
to Neil, Harris peered from behind the blinds of James'
room at 5:40 a.m. Moments later, Harris walked from the hotel
room to his car, where he put something in his trunk. Harris
then walked to the hotel lobby. While in the lobby, Harris
wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to the
front desk clerk. Neil went to the hotel room to find out
what was going on. There, he found James, submerged in a
bathtub filled with red-tinged water. She had a pillow over
her head. As Neil pulled James from the tub and tried to
revive her, Harris re-entered the room. Neil could not fully
understand what Harris was saying, but thought he said:
"I sorry; accident; dead." Neil ran to the front
office and told the desk clerk that someone had killed his
girlfriend. While talking to the clerk, Neil saw Harris
driving away and pointed toward Harris' white car. Time
stamps on the hotel security video showed Neil at the front
desk at 5:55 a.m. Harris drove across the street, where he
asked a gas station employee to dial 911 while he waited for
the police to arrive. Neil went back to the hotel room,
removed several items from it, and left.
officers found James' body on the floor. They saw wounds
on her face and body. The officers noted damage to the hotel
room, including holes in the walls. Having been advised that
a 911 caller was waiting at the gas station across the
street, an officer drove there and brought Harris to the
hotel. When the officers attempted to speak with Harris,
Harris indicated that he was deaf. Officer Figueroa took out
his notepad and asked Harris if he could read and write.
Harris indicated that he could. Figueroa wrote questions and
asked Harris to write answers. Finding the process
time-consuming, Figueroa got a laptop computer from his
patrol car and asked Harris to type out the answers to his
testified that, at this point, he believed Harris was a
witness; therefore, he did not advise him of his rights. In
response to the officer's questions, Harris typed the
following account. He went to see the victim for sex. As soon
as he entered the room, he found her dead, lying in the tub
with a pillow over her face. He walked to the hotel's
front desk and asked them to call police, but they refused.
He decided he should drive somewhere to have someone else
call the police. As he returned to his car, he saw a man
seated in a nearby car. Harris asked the man for help. The
man got out of his car, went to the hotel room, and pulled
the victim out of the bathtub. But then the man stole the
victim's phone and left. Thereafter Harris drove across
the street to the gas station and asked an employee to call
the police. After giving this typed account, Harris went with
an officer to police headquarters to give a more formal
after Harris left, Detective Mark Erion arrived at the hotel
and spoke with Figueroa. Erion reviewed the handwritten and
typed statements that Figueroa had taken down in his initial
contact with Harris. Even though it was New Year's Day
and interpreters were difficult to find, Erion enlisted the
services of sign language interpreter Barbara Bell, who also
worked as a dispatcher for the Southern Polytechnic Police
Department. Bell met Erion at the police station. With
Bell's assistance, the detective informed Harris of his
Miranda rights. Erion testified that, although he
read Harris his rights, Harris was not under arrest and was
being treated as a witness. Harris also read and signed a
waiver-of-rights form. Through the interpreter, Erion told
Harris that he was following up on Harris' 911 call and
wanted to know what he had seen. Harris repeated what he had
told Figueroa and reduced his statement to writing.
a break in the interview, Erion had a chance to review the
hotel surveillance video-recording. He noticed that the time-
stamps on the recording did not match Harris' account of
events. The recording showed Harris arriving at James'
room at 4:03 a.m., but not leaving the room to go to the
lobby until 5:37 a.m. According to Erion, when he confronted
Harris with that information, Harris seemed surprised and
confused. At that point, Erion stopped the interview and
arrested Harris for concealing the death of another.
Harris was arrested, he was wearing a beaded necklace.
Officers found a bead on the hotel room floor similar to
Harris' beaded jewelry. James wore no beaded jewelry.
After obtaining search warrants for Harris' home and car,
officers found a bottle of brandy in the trunk of Harris'
car. The search of Harris' residence yielded several
necklaces with beads. The officers also recovered a cell
phone image from Harris' phone that had been taken the
night before the murder. It showed him wearing a beaded
to the Cobb County medical examiner, James had injuries
consistent with having been struck with a blunt object or
fist. She had been struck so hard that a small bead with a
wrinkled, cracked finish similar to Harris' beaded
necklace had become embedded in her face. The medical
examiner opined that the injuries to the victim's body
were akin to her being shoved into or through a wall. He
determined that the cause of death was a homicide due to
blunt force head trauma associated with probable
strangulation and drowning.
January 14, 2013, in the presence of his retained attorney,
Harris informed Erion through interpreter Bell that he wanted
to make a revised statement. Harris gave Erion a hand-written
statement concerning James' death. Erion did not question
Harris about the revised statement; rather, the interview was
postponed until the following day so that arrangements could
be made to have Harris' own interpreter present. On
January 15, Harris, in the presence of his attorney and with
the assistance of his chosen interpreter, continued the
interview. After giving Harris Miranda warnings,
Erion questioned Harris.
January 15 interview and in the hand-written statement he had
given Erion the previous day, Harris claimed that James had
been alive when he arrived at the hotel room, but that she
had apparently suffered a head injury and was upset. He
stayed with James for a while and watched television while
she slept. When she woke, she was dizzy. She went to the
bathroom, where she fell into the tub. The fall rendered
James unconscious, so Harris put a pillow under her head and
went to the hotel lobby to get help. When he returned to the
room, he met Neil, who followed him in and pulled a gun on
him. Neil dragged James out of the tub, checked on her, and
then took her cell phone. Neil threatened to kill Harris if
he told anybody what he had seen. After Neil left, Harris
went to the gas station to call the police.
addition to this evidence, the State also introduced
prior-acts evidence through the testimony of three women with
whom Harris had been intimate. They each testified that
Harris had physically abused them, including by strangling
and punching them and by slamming them into walls.
Harris does not dispute the legal sufficiency of the evidence
supporting his convictions. Nevertheless, as is this
Court's practice in murder cases, we have reviewed the
record and conclude that, when viewed in the light most
favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial
and summarized above was sufficient to authorize a rational
jury to find Harris guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the
crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v.
Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61
L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). See also Vega v. State, 285 Ga.
32, 33 (1) (673 S.E.2d 223) (2009) ("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)).
Harris contends that the trial court erred by allowing into
evidence three of his four pre-trial statements, each of
which are discussed in detail in subdivision (2) (b) below.
He argues, inter alia, that the statements were not freely
and voluntarily made and that the State failed to comply with
the statutory requirements of OCGA § 24-6-653,
concerning the procedure for interviewing people who are
hearing impaired. For the following reasons, we apply the
plain-error standard of review and find no plain error in the
admission of Harris' pre-trial statements.
Preservation of error. In his appellate brief,
Harris contends that his trial counsel and the prosecutor
agreed that any claim of error with respect to the
admission of his statements would be preserved for appellate
review. But because the record shows that any agreement
between the prosecutor and trial counsel was insufficient to
preserve for appellate review Harris' claims ...