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Harris v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

January 13, 2020



         A Cobb County jury found Ricardo Harris guilty of murder and concealing the death of another in connection with the death of Yvonne James.[1] 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.

         Viewed 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 Cobb County.

         On 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.

         According 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.

         Responding 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 questions.

         Figueroa 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 statement.

         Shortly 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[2] 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.

         During 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.

         When 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 bracelet.

         According 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.

         On 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.

         In his 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.

         In 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.

         1. 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)).

         2. 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.

         (a) 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 ...

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