Justia Georgia Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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In January 2018, Matthew Richardson was convicted for felony murder and other crimes related to the shooting death of Julius Aderhold, III. The incident occurred in a drive-by shooting when Richardson was allegedly upset with Jabari Johnson for his involvement in stealing a gun belonging to Richardson's cousin. Richardson, Johnson, and another individual, Young, were involved in the shooting. During the incident, Aderhold was shot and killed. Richardson was found guilty of all counts and sentenced to serve life in prison with the possibility of parole on Count 1, a consecutive five-year term on Count 5, and 20 years in prison to run concurrent on Counts 2, 3, and 4.Richardson later appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial court committed plain error when it admitted testimony of a detective that improperly bolstered out-of-court statements by Johnson and Young, and that his trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance by failing to object to that same testimony.The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the conviction. The court held that the detective's testimony did not directly address the credibility of Johnson and Young and thus did not constitute improper bolstering. Additionally, the court found that Richardson's trial counsel's performance was not deficient, as it was not a clear case of improper bolstering, so no reasonable lawyer would have objected to such testimony on those grounds. View "RICHARDSON v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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In this case, Willie Williams Palmer appealed his 2023 convictions for malice murder and other crimes related to the shooting deaths of his estranged wife, Brenda Jenkins Palmer, and his 15-year-old stepdaughter, Christine Jenkins. He argued that his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial was violated, that the loss or destruction of potential biological evidence from the crime scene required dismissal for prosecutorial misconduct or an instruction allowing the jury to draw an adverse inference against the state, that the trial court violated his constitutional right to present a defense by excluding evidence of bias against him from local law enforcement and prosecutors, and that he was unfairly targeted as the shooter to the exclusion of other possible suspects. He also claimed that the cumulative effect of the court’s errors deprived him of a fundamentally fair trial.However, the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed his convictions. The court found that the delay in bringing Palmer to trial did not violate his right to a speedy trial. Regarding the potential biological evidence, the court found that the State did not act in bad faith in failing to preserve it and that it lacked exculpatory value. It also ruled that the trial court did not err in excluding evidence of historical bias against Palmer as it was tangential to the issues at trial. The court found no basis for Palmer's claim of being unfairly targeted as the shooter to the exclusion of other possible suspects. Lastly, the court ruled that cumulative error analysis was inapplicable as Palmer did not show any error by the trial court. View "PALMER v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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In November 2019, Samuel Earl McCullum was convicted of the 1998 rape and murder of Monica Blackwell and the 1999 rape of another woman identified as C.C. McCullum appealed, asserting that the evidence presented in court was insufficient to support his convictions for the murder and rape of Blackwell. He claimed that there was no evidence showing that he intoxicated Blackwell or was connected to the drugs she took before her death, nor that the sexual encounter with Blackwell was non-consensual. McCullum also argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion to dismiss the count of rape against C.C. on constitutional speedy trial grounds and in denying his motion to sever that count from the counts related to Blackwell’s murder and rape.The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the trial court's decision. The court found that the evidence was constitutionally sufficient to convict McCullum of Blackwell’s rape and murder. The medical examiner's testimony established that while Blackwell died of cocaine intoxication, the combination of the cocaine, the head injuries inflicted by McCullum, and the rape materially accelerated her death. The court also found that McCullum's constitutional right to a speedy trial was not violated and it did not abuse its discretion in denying McCullum's motion to sever the counts. View "MCCULLUM v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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In this case, Jamie Avila Reyes, the appellant, appealed his 15-year prison sentence for crimes including homicide by vehicle in the first degree and driving under the influence of alcohol. Reyes, an undocumented immigrant, contended that the trial court improperly considered his immigration status during sentencing, violating his due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Reyes also argued that OCGA § 17-10-1.3, a Georgia statute that allows a trial court to consider potential deportation when determining whether to probate a convicted person's sentence, is unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to him.The Supreme Court of Georgia held that OCGA § 17-10-1.3 is constitutional. The court found that the statute survived rational basis review because it bears a rational relationship to the legitimate governmental interest in ensuring the complete execution of judicial sentences. The court also held that the trial court did not violate Reyes' due process or equal protection rights when it applied the statute and declined to probate any portion of his sentence due to his impending deportation. The court noted that there was no evidence the trial court based its sentence on discriminatory animus towards undocumented noncitizens. Therefore, the court affirmed the judgment of the trial court. View "REYES v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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In Georgia, the Fair Dismissal Act (FDA) offers certain protections to public school teachers after they have fulfilled a contract for the fourth consecutive school year with the same local board of education. This case considered whether the Charter Schools Act's waiver provision, which relieves public charter schools from complying with Title 20 (including the FDA), impairs the vested rights of teachers who had earned FDA protections before their school converted to a charter system. The Supreme Court of Georgia decided that the teachers' constitutional claims failed as a matter of law. The justices reasoned that the 1993 Charter Schools Act had already clarified that the FDA did not afford teachers any rights enforceable against charter schools. Therefore, the Charter Systems Act's retention of an FDA exemption for charter schools did not impair any rights for teachers who earned FDA rights after the 1993 Charter Schools Act was enacted. View "WOODS v. BARNES" on Justia Law

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In a case before the Supreme Court of Georgia, the State appealed a lower court's decision to suppress evidence of Antonio Rodrick Randall's refusal to submit to a blood test following his arrest for driving under the influence. The lower court had suppressed this evidence on constitutional grounds. In a previous appeal, the Supreme Court of Georgia vacated the lower court's order suppressing the evidence, finding that the lower court unnecessarily resolved Randall’s constitutional challenge. On remand, the lower court again suppressed the evidence on constitutional grounds. However, the Supreme Court of Georgia decided that the lower court should have first evaluated Randall's argument that exclusion of the evidence was warranted under Georgia's Rule 403 (which allows relevant evidence to be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice) before reaching his constitutional claims. The Supreme Court of Georgia therefore vacated the lower court's order and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. View "STATE v. RANDALL" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Supreme Court of Georgia considered whether the State violated Joseph Robert Gates's right to privacy under the Georgia Constitution by obtaining his medical records through an ex parte court order. The records, which were obtained after a car accident involving Gates, contained results of blood alcohol content (BAC) tests performed by the hospital where Gates was treated. The State used these records to charge Gates with several offenses, including driving under the influence. Gates filed a motion to suppress his medical records, but the trial court denied the motion, leading to this appeal.The Supreme Court of Georgia reversed the trial court's decision. The court held that Gates's medical records, including the BAC test results, were protected by the right to privacy under the Georgia Constitution. The court further concluded that the State's use of an ex parte court order to obtain Gates's medical records was more akin to the use of an ex parte subpoena, which had previously been held to violate the right to privacy, rather than an ex parte search warrant, which had been deemed permissible. The fact that the court order was not based on probable cause, nor did it comply with the statutory requirements for the issuance of a search warrant, further supported this conclusion. Therefore, the court concluded that the State had violated Gates's right to privacy by obtaining his medical records through an ex parte court order. As a result, the court reversed the trial court's denial of Gates's motion to suppress. View "GATES v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Supreme Court of Georgia upheld the convictions of Milton Nathaniel Scott for felony murder and other crimes related to the shooting death of Jerrica Porter. Scott had appealed his conviction on the basis that the trial court erred in admitting into evidence one of his custodial statements in which he admitted to shooting Porter but claimed the shooting was an accident. He also contended that the trial court abused its discretion in overruling a hearsay objection to testimony that characterized his initial statement that Porter shot herself as implausible and that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective in failing to object to testimony and evidence that suggested he was involved in a gang.The Supreme Court found that even if there was error in the admission of Scott's custodial statement, Scott failed to show harm from the admission because the State introduced into evidence a recording of a jailhouse phone call in which Scott repeated his claim that his shooting of Porter was an accident. The court also found that because Scott's defense was accident and the admission of the hearsay testimony and the evidence to which his trial counsel did not object was not relevant to that defense, these claims did not warrant a reversal.Lastly, the court determined that even if Scott's trial counsel was deficient in failing to object to evidence and testimony suggesting Scott's gang involvement, Scott failed to establish that this alleged deficiency prejudiced him. Therefore, the court affirmed Scott's convictions. View "SCOTT v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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In the Supreme Court of Georgia, the appellants, London Clements and Eric Velazquez, were jointly tried for murder and other offenses connected to the shooting death of Hall County Deputy Sheriff Blane Dixon on July 7, 2019. Clements was convicted of felony murder, and Velazquez was convicted of malice murder and other crimes. On appeal, Clements argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion for a directed verdict on the conspiracy to commit robbery and burglary count and the felony murder count predicated thereon and that the trial court failed to exercise its discretion to grant his motion for new trial on the general grounds. Velazquez contended on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for malice murder and felony murder predicated on aggravated assault on a peace officer, that the trial court erred by denying his motion for a directed verdict as there was insufficient corroboration of his co-conspirators’ testimony, and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. The court affirmed the convictions in both cases. View "CLEMENTS v. THE STATE (two cases)" on Justia Law

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Appellant Larry Thomas appealed his convictions for felony murder in connection with the vehicular deaths of Krystof Krawczynski and Elizbieta Gurtler-Krawczynski. On appeal, Appellant contends that the trial court erred in sentencing him for two counts of felony murder (Counts 1 and 2) rather than for two counts of homicide by vehicle (Counts 7 and 8) because both sets of charges were predicated on fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, and thus the rule of lenity required that he receive the lesser penalty. This argument, however, was foreclosed by the Georgia Supreme Court's decision in Sosebee v. Georgia, __ Ga. __, __ (1) (__ SE2d __) (2023) As explained in Sosebee, the felony-murder and homicide-by-vehicle statutes “are not ambiguous and do not require different punishments for the same conduct” because “[t]he offense of felony murder . . . criminalizes causing the death of a human being ‘in the commission of a felony,’ but the offense of homicide by vehicle in the first degree under OCGA § 40-6-393 (a) does not.” Accordingly, as in Sosebee, “[t]he rule of lenity simply has no application in this case, and this claim of error fails.” View "Thomas v. Georgia" on Justia Law