Opinions issued in several high profile, gruesome murder cases
In this high-profile Gwinnett County case, the Supreme Court of Georgia has upheld the murder conviction and life prison sentence given to a young woman who was 15 years old when she and her sister were charged with killing their adoptive mother.
Catherine O’Connell was 11 years old when Muriel O’Connell adopted her from a Guatemalan orphanage. A few years later, Muriel adopted a second daughter, Brenda, from the same orphanage. The girls were the same age, had known each other at the orphanage, and quickly formed a strong bond with each other. But their relationship with their mother gradually deteriorated. There were confrontations over cell phone bills and boyfriends, and Muriel told friends she feared for her life.
According to prosecutors, Muriel believed the girls were trying to poison her by putting diethyl ether, a compound found in car starter fluid, in her vodka bottle. The night of Aug. 6, 2006, the girls went to a neighbor’s house. The neighbor later testified that when he answered the door, Brenda, who had a brown and green sash tied around her neck, collapsed on the floor gasping for air. He said her actions “seemed kind of staged.” After Catherine told him their mother had tried to choke Brenda, the neighbor went to the girls’ home where he found Muriel’s body on the bathroom floor with a butcher knife in her hand. When police arrived, both Catherine and Brenda gave statements saying their mother had attacked Brenda with a knife, and Catherine had intervened to defend her sister. They said Catherine had grabbed her mother around the neck, causing Muriel to faint. The girls claimed Muriel had abused and mistreated them since they came from the orphanage. But Brenda eventually admitted to police that she had placed the knife in Muriel’s hand after she was dead. An autopsy revealed that Muriel had sustained multiple head injuries while still alive, and had died from strangulation. A medical examiner who had evaluated both girls testified he found no injuries substantiating their claim of self-defense. Brenda did not have injuries consistent with strangulation, and Catherine’s minor scrapes and bite marks appeared self-inflicted.
In October 2008, the girls were tried as adults, and a jury convicted them of murder and aggravated assault, and they were sentenced to life in prison.
In today’s decision, which involves Catherine’s appeal to the state Supreme Court, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson writes:
“We find the evidence adduced at trial sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to reject appellant’s justification defense and find her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of malice murder.”
The high court has rejected her attorney’s contention that during jury selection, the State racially discriminated by striking one of the prospective jurors. The State argued that one particularly young woman had acted overly eager to be part of the jury. “A peremptory strike based on a juror’s demeanor during voir dire may be deemed to be race-neutral,” today’s opinion says. “Furthermore, age can be a race-neutral reason for exercising a peremptory strike.”
The high court also has rejected the argument by Catherine’s attorney that the trial court erred by refusing to allow in evidence of the girl’s traumatic upbringing in Guatemala. As a result, the defense was prevented from “fully” presenting her defense of justification, including that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had a “reasonable belief” that her mother was about to hurt her sister.
“Because justification is based on the fears of a reasonable person, the subjective fears of a particular defendant are irrelevant in the evaluation of this defense,” today’s opinion says. “For this reason, we have on numerous occasions found inadmissible to support a justification defense evidence of violent acts or abuse committed against a defendant by someone other than the victim.”
“Here, appellant sought to introduce evidence of acts committed against her in Guatemala by someone other than the victim in support of her justification defense.”
Attorney for Appellant (O’Connell): Mary Erickson
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Daniel Porter, District Attorney, Dan Mayfield, Chief Asst. D.A., Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Andrew Sims, Asst. A.G.
DAVIS V. THE STATE (S13A1580)
In a second high-profile Gwinnett County case, the Georgia Supreme Court has also upheld murder convictions and the two life prison sentences that Troy Lee Davis, Jr. received for stabbing to death his aunt and uncle.
In a unanimous decision, written by Justice Harold Melton, the high court finds that the evidence “was sufficient to enable the jury to find Davis guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.”
On Feb. 28, 2005, Gwinnett County police received a 911 call from Davis, 38, who lived on Murphy Street in Buford with his 76-year-old aunt, Lavadar Chambers, and his 78-year-old uncle, William Horace Marsingill. Chambers and Marsingill were siblings, and Davis, who was unemployed and worked only sporadically doing odd jobs, had lived at the home on Murphy Street for seven years. In the 911 call, Davis reported that he had arrived home and found his aunt and uncle dead. When police arrived, Davis was barricaded inside with a shotgun, claiming he feared the assailants might still be inside. He came outside only upon police orders. According to prosecutors, Davis did not always get along with his aunt because she was often after him about clutter and garbage he left in the backyard and his bedroom. When officers entered the house they found Marsingill’s body in the doorway of one of the bedrooms. Nearby, they found a roll of paper towels and a bloody rug with an abnormally discolored area. The entire house smelled like bleach. Officers found Chambers’ body on the floor of a separate bedroom. Both victims had been stabbed more than two dozen times, although investigators said only a small amount of blood was visible where Chambers was found. Investigators believed that the room where Chambers was found and the discolored rug near Marsingill’s body had been treated with bleach. In Davis’ bedroom, they found two large bottles of bleach and 22 knives, although the killing weapon was never found. At the scene, Davis told officers he’d woken before dawn and walked to his mother’s home nearby to take a shower in hopes of searching for jobs that day. Investigators found a note outside his mother’s home that said, “Momma, I don’t want any trouble to come your way, so I’m leaving. Love, Lee.” Less than a week after the murders, Davis was arrested at his mother’s home.
Defense attorneys argued at trial that Davis was a mentally-limited, social oddity who had no motive to kill his aunt and uncle. According to prosecutors, Davis had grown tired of his aunt’s nagging and finally snapped, killing her and his uncle. During the trial, Chambers’ niece testified that her aunt once told her she was afraid of Davis. In October 2009, the jury convicted Davis of two counts of murder and sentenced him to two life prison terms. Davis then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
In today’s opinion, the high court rejects his attorney’s argument that the trial court erred by admitting the hearsay statement of Chambers’ niece, in violation of his constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him. “For a statement to be admissible under the necessity exception to the rule against hearsay, its proponent must show ‘a necessity for the evidence, a circumstantial guaranty of the statement’s trustworthiness, and that the hearsay statements are more probative and revealing than other available evidence,’” the opinion says. In this case, “all prongs of the necessity exception were satisfied, and the trial court did not err by allowing this testimony.” Davis’s attorney also argued that he was denied “ineffective assistance of counsel” during his trial in violation of his constitutional rights. But in today’s opinion, the high court concludes that this claim, too, “has no merit.”
Attorney for Appellant (Davis): Edwin Wilson
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Daniel Porter, District Attorney, Richard Vandever, Asst. D.A., Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., David Bikoff, Asst. A.G.
JESSIE V. THE STATE (S13A1317)
The Supreme Court of Georgia has upheld the murder conviction and life prison sentence given to a young Terrell County woman for the death of her newborn son.
In today’s unanimous decision, Justice Carol Hunstein writes for the court that the “evidence was clearly sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that [Samantha Latrice] Jessie was guilty of the malice murder of her newborn son and the subsequent concealment of his death.”
According to the evidence, Jessie gave birth to her first child when she was 18 years old and a year later, had a second child who was born prematurely and had significant medical needs. Shortly after child welfare officials determined Jessie had essentially abandoned the second baby at a Macon hospital and she subsequently surrendered her parental rights to him, Jessie became pregnant again. Fearing her family’s disapproval, she denied she was pregnant when asked and hid her growing belly by wearing girdles and jackets, according to briefs filed in the case. Jessie was living with her 84-year-old grandmother when, on Dec. 17, 2008 in the early morning hours, she went into labor. While her toddler daughter slept on the bed, Jessie, 21, gave birth on the bedroom floor to another baby boy. Her grandmother later said she had heard Jessie moaning and what she thought was a baby crying, but she had not gone into the room to investigate or ask Jessie about it. After the birth, Jessie wrapped the crying baby in a blanket and hid him in the corner of her bedroom behind a bookshelf. The next day she put the bundle in her grandmother’s lit kitchen fireplace. Jessie’s grandmother meanwhile told her daughter what she thought she had heard, and Jessie’s aunt notified authorities. On Dec. 23, GBI agents questioned Jessie, who at first denied having been pregnant. After further questioning, she said she’d had a miscarriage and put the fetus in a nearby dumpster. The agents searched but found no fetus. In another interview the next day, Jessie finally admitted she had given birth to a live baby, wrapped him tightly in a blanket, then left him behind the bookshelf until the next day when she put the baby’s body in the fireplace. Upon searching a pile of ashes in the backyard, agents found newborn-sized bones. An obstetrician examined Jessie and confirmed she had recently given birth.
Following a March 2010 trial, the jury convicted Jessie of malice murder and concealing the death of another, and she was sentenced to life in prison. Her attorney then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, arguing among other things that the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jessie had intended for the baby boy to die – a necessary element to proving malice murder. In today’s opinion, the high court disagrees.
“Here, the evidence was easily susceptible to a finding that Jessie, who had previously given birth to two babies, clearly understood and intended that wrapping her unwanted newborn baby in a quilt that covered his face, stashing him in a corner for hours, and then incinerating him in a fireplace would cause his death,” the opinion says.
Her attorney, who described Jessie as “a poor young black woman from the small town of Dawson, Georgia,” also argued that her sentence should be modified because a life sentence for such a young woman “because of such a tragic situation” was inhumane and constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
But the high court finds she was properly sentenced under the law. “Contrary to Jessie’s contention, the fact that she was 22 years old at the time her life sentence was imposed does not render her sentence cruel and unusual,” the opinion says.
Attorney for Appellant (Jessie): Tim Lewis
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Thomas Earnest, District Attorney, Ronald Smith, Chief Asst. D.A., Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Andrew Sims, Asst. A.G.
FOSTER V. THE STATE (S13A1335)
The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld the murder conviction and sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole given to a young man who was 17 years old when he shot into a crowd in Bibb County and killed a 20-year-old mother of four.
On the evening of Sept. 22, 2010, Terrilyn Williams and her family planned to have a cookout at her residence at the Westminster Apartments in Macon. Prosecutors said gang activity was common at the apartment complex, especially involving the Crips and the Bloods gangs. Earlier in the day, fights had broken out in a building near Williams’ unit. One of those involved in the fight called her niece, Joelissa Johnson, for help. Johnson brought her friend, Brianna Curry, and after confronting some of the people there, left the scene in her car. Later Johnson returned to the complex with Curry and Dasjwan Foster, 17. At the time, Williams and her family and friends were outside preparing for the cookout. As they stood in the apartments’ parking lot, Johnson handed a gun to Foster and, after he fired a warning shot into the air, Foster fired at a group of people he did not know. When the shooting started, people ran for cover, but one of Williams’ children stepped outside their apartment, and as Williams rushed to the child, she was shot in the neck, striking her carotid artery and pharynx. Another woman was shot in the wrist and the arm. Williams died at the scene.
Foster, Johnson and Curry were arrested, and while in jail, Foster sent Johnson a letter, instructing her to keep quiet about the shooting and police would not have a case against them. He also told her to throw away the letter. But his co-defendants and four other witnesses said Foster was the shooter, and following a jury trial, he was convicted of malice murder and aggravated assault and sentenced to life without parole. Foster then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Foster’s attorney argued several things on appeal, including that the trial court erred by allowing in as evidence the letter Foster sent Johnson because it had not been properly authenticated. But in today’s opinion, written by Justice Harold Melton, the high court has rejected all his arguments, and finds that the “evidence was sufficient to enable the jury to find Foster guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The letter in question was signed with the name, “Trae The Truth,” an alias Foster had used. Furthermore, the “genuineness of a writing may be proved by circumstantial evidence,
the opinion says, and the circumstances here were sufficient to show authenticity.
Foster’s attorney also argued that under its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court found that mandatory punishment of life without parole for a minor was unconstitutional and indicated that a discretionary sentence of life without parole for a juvenile should be rare. The attorney argued that the trial court had failed to give proper consideration to Foster’s juvenile status as a 17-year-old and that his sentence was “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Today’s opinion points out that under Miller, “Mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional and violate the Eigth Amendment.” But Georgia’s statute (Official Code of Georgia §16-5-1 (d)) “does not mandate life without parole, but instead gives the sentencing court discretion over the penalty. Accordingly, Foster’s contention lacks merit,” the opinion says.
Attorney for Appellant (Foster): Robert Bearden
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., David Bikoff, Asst. A.G.
BENSON V. THE STATE (S13A1504)
The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld the convictions and life prison sentence given to a DeKalb County man for murdering his girlfriend, dismembering her body, and scattering her remains on a secluded property in Newton County where a dog brought home her foot.
In October 2009, a Newton County jury found Franklin Benson guilty of malice murder, the removal of body parts from the scene of death or dismemberment, and concealing the death of another involving the 2007 death of Leslyan Williams. On appeal, Benson argued the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions. But in today’s opinion, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson writes for the court that “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, we conclude that it was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant killed the victim intentionally and unlawfully and that the victim died from some criminal agency and not from natural causes.”
According to the evidence, Benson and Williams became romantically involved in 2007, and he spent several nights a week at her home in DeKalb County. Benson’s automobile repair business, located near Williams’ home, was having financial difficulties and she agreed to lend him more than $10,000. On Oct. 28, 2007, a DeKalb County police officer responded to a domestic dispute call involving the couple’s argument over the money Benson owed. Williams had refused to give Benson his car keys until he signed a promissory note for the money he had borrowed. The officer told Williams to give him his keys back, she did, and the officer left.
That evening, Benson called his bank to check on his account, which was overdrawn. At 7:32 that night, Williams’ credit card was swiped on the credit card machine at Benson’s Decatur business. Whoever swiped the card attempted to transfer $7,500 from Williams’ account, but the bank declined to make the transfer. On Monday morning, Oct. 29, Williams had been scheduled to meet with Benson’s sister, Cassandra Benson, but Williams never answered her cell phone when Cassandra Benson called to arrange to pick her up. Benson also did not show up at his work Monday morning, and he too did not answer his phone.
In the early hours of Oct. 30, Brandy Snellgrove returned from work in Newton County and found a human foot on her porch that her dogs had found. She called the Newton County Sheriff’s Department, and in the ensuing days, officers found another foot, two legs, two arms, and two hands scattered in a heavily wooded area near a house adjacent to Snellgrove’s. A coroner determined the cause of death was homicide by an unknown cause. Benson, who never reported Williams missing, began moving out of her house Nov. 3 and told conflicting stories about her disappearance. He told officers that Williams had been selling drugs from her house, and he asked another of his sisters to tell officers the same thing. She refused to do so, and other friends and family of Williams said she had never sold drugs. Benson had also told his sister to tell officers he’d never lived with Williams. On Nov. 5, family members reported Williams missing and told police Benson was her boyfriend. When they questioned Benson, he told officers he’d last seen her Oct. 29, that she was a drug dealer, and that she had called from Chattanooga saying she had a flat tire. By Nov. 9, law enforcement officials identified the body parts as belonging to Williams. Her head and torso were never found. They also learned that Benson had a connection to the house where Williams’ body parts were found. Soon after, officers recovered Williams’ car in a hotel parking lot in Chattanooga where surveillance footage showed Benson towing the car to the parking space on Oct. 29. They found her car keys in Benson’s auto shop.
Benson was arrested Nov. 11, tried and convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder, plus another 11 years for the removal of body parts and concealing the death of another. He then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Benson’s attorney argued several things on appeal, including that the trial court erred in closing the courtroom during jury selection and that he was denied effective legal representation during his trial, in violation of his constitutional rights. But in today’s opinion, the high court has rejected all his arguments. “Because these issues are without merit or are procedurally barred, we affirm his convictions,” the opinion says.
Benson failed to object to the closing of the courtroom during the trial, the opinion says, and he therefore was prohibited under court procedure from raising the issue for the first time on appeal. He also failed to prove that his trial attorney had been incompetent and ineffective for failing to object to the closure. “To prevail on this claim, appellant must show that his counsel performed deficiently and that, but for the deficiency, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been more favorable to him,” the opinion says. “However, appellant has made no showing that the courtroom’s closure affected the jury selection process or tainted the ultimate jury chosen. Appellant therefore has failed to carry his burden to show that, if trial counsel had objected to the closure of the courtroom during voir dire, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have differed.”
Attorney for Appellant (Benson): David West
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Layla Zon, District Attorney, Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Benjamin Pierman, Asst. A.G.