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Ga. Supreme Court rules on murder case involving insurance policy, love triangle

Court also makes decision in Cobb EMC case

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SUMMARIES OF OPINIONS

Published Monday, June 2, 2014

 

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Public Information Office for the general public and news media. Summaries are not prepared for every opinion released by the Court, but only for those cases considered of great public interest. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official opinions of the Court. The full opinions are available on the Supreme Court website at www.gasupreme.us .

See previous stories on Ga.Supreme Court rulings:

 

Ga. Supreme court rules on cases involving lethal inuections - May 19

Ga. Supreme court rules on two child killing cases, one internet porn case - April 22

 

 

 

SLAUGHTER V. THE STATE (S14A0536)

            In this high-profile case from rural Marion County, the Supreme Court of Georgia has unanimously upheld the murder conviction and life prison sentence given to a woman who admitted to police she had shot and killed a young man she believed was having an affair with her husband.

            According to the facts presented at trial, Donna Slaughter, 30 at the time of the crime, lived in a trailer on Palm Drive in rural Mauk, GA, with her then 23-year-old husband, Jason Slaughter. For about a year, 21-year-old Michael Haegele also lived with the couple.

On May 7, 2010, a man’s body was found on the side of Butler Mill Road in Macon County, spotted by a school busload of children. The victim had been shot in the back of the head, and the words, “Fag,” “KKK,” and “Hell” had been written on his body. But it otherwise contained no identification. Law enforcement canvassed witnesses in the area, and one resident said he had seen a small red truck stop on Butler’s Mill Road, which struck him as odd. In an attempt to identify the victim, law enforcement also released sketches and limited information to various media outlets.

 

 

On May 12, Jason Slaughter contacted police and said that he and his wife believed the victim could be their roommate whom they had not seen since May 1. Detectives went to their home in rural Marion County where they observed a small red truck on the side of a nearby shed that was partially obscured by wooden boards. During the initial interview, the couple said they believed Haegele was gay and a male prostitute, and that he frequently hitchhiked to Columbus. He was not permitted to drive the truck, Donna Slaughter told investigators. According to prosecutors, Jason Slaughter and Haegele had met on line, and Haegele had moved from St. Louis, MO to be with Jason. During a search of the Slaughter’s home, detectives found notes and letters that appeared to depict a romantic relationship between the two men. Police also recovered a $500,000 insurance policy in Haegele’s name that listed Jason Slaughter as the beneficiary. Prosecutors claimed that after failing to make sure there was identification on Haegele’s body, Jason Slaughter called police because he otherwise would not have been able to collect on the insurance.

Police arrested Jason Slaughter on May 13. While initially, Donna Slaughter said she had no knowledge about Haegele’s death, she confessed to the crime in a videotaped statement that was later played for the jury. She said she had killed Haegele due to jealousy over his relationship with her husband, and she pleaded with the detective to believe she had shot Haegele. In a reenactment of the crime, she told police that she had retrieved the gun from her bedroom and loaded it with one bullet. She then entered the living room and knelt down behind the couch where Haegele was sitting and shot him in the back of the head. She then pushed him to the floor and, with her husband’s help, loaded his body into a large plastic storage container to avoid blood stains. She told police she hit Haegele’s hands, knees, ankles and back with a hammer to make it appear Haegele had been beaten. And she wrote epithets on his body to deflect from her husband and herself as they were an interracial couple. She then cleaned up the floor in front of the couch with a rag and a bucket of water and bleach. She and her husband waited until nightfall, then loaded the body into their small red pickup and drove out and dumped it about 30 miles away on the side of the road near the Marion-Macon county line. Donna Slaughter told police that she and her husband threw the gun, hammer and plastic container in dumpsters, but they apparently were taken to a landfill and never recovered. At trial, the medical examiner confirmed that the bruises on Haegele’s body could have been caused by a hammer, and the cause of death was a “gunshot wound to the head with perforations of [the] skull and brain.”

Donna and Jason Slaughter were tried separately, and on Nov. 1, 2012, a jury convicted Donna Slaughter of malice murder, felony murder based on aggravated assault, concealing the death of another, felony tampering with evidence, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. She was sentenced to life plus five years in prison. In her appeal to the state Supreme Court, she argued the evidence was insufficient to convict her.

  But in today’s opinion, written by Justice Robert Benham, the high court disagrees, finding the evidence “was sufficient for a rational jury to find appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which she was convicted.”

The Supreme Court also rejects her argument that the trial court erred in failing to declare a mistrial when the jury heard, during the replay of her videotaped confession, a GBI agent ask her if she had submitted to a polygraph exam and her reply that she had. The tape was stopped at that point, and the judge instructed the jury to disregard the reference to the polygraph. Although there was no mention of the polygraph’s results, her attorney argued she was entitled to a new trial because it was likely the jury inferred that she had passed the test, i.e. the statements she made in her confession were true.

“This Court, however, has held the fact that the jury is apprised that a polygraph test was taken is not necessarily prejudicial if no reference to the results of the test is made,” today’s opinion says. “Appellant has failed to show that a mistrial was essential to her right to a fair trial, especially here where the trial court gave an immediate curative instruction admonishing the jury to disregard the reference to the polygraph test. Accordingly, this enumeration of error cannot be sustained.”

Attorney for Appellant (Slaughter): William Kirby

Attorneys for Appellee (State): Julia Slater, District Attorney, Ray Daniel, Asst. D.A., Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Andrew Sims, Asst. A.G.

 

 

THE STATE V. WYATT (S14A0317)

            The case against a man charged with murdering a 2-year-old child in his care may go forward under a unanimous decision by the state Supreme Court.

             A Gwinnett County court had thrown out most of the charges against John Randall Wyatt for his involvement in the 2009 death of Andrea Marginean after Wyatt challenged the indictment as not specific enough to allow him to defend himself.

            But in today’s opinion, written by Justice David Nahmias, the high court has reversed that pre-trial ruling, and the charges will be reinstated.

            According to the State, Wyatt, 29, had been babysitting 2-year-old Andrea and her older brothers, ages 4 and 6, on a regular basis for several months. On April 11, 2009, while caring for the children, Wyatt took Andrea into the bathroom, at which time her brothers heard crying. Wyatt brought her out of the bathroom and laid Andrea on the bed. When Andrea’s mother, Nicole Marginean, returned home at about 1 p.m. that day, she found the toddler unresponsive and took her to Gwinnett Medical Center. From there, Andrea was life-flighted to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta with severe bleeding to her brain and multiple bruises to her back, legs and forehead. Physicians there performed immediate surgery, but Andrea died three days later.

While Nicole was at the hospital, she called Wyatt and told him police wanted to talk to him. Wyatt went to the police station where he was questioned for an hour and a half before being advised of his Miranda rights. According to police, Wyatt gave several conflicting accounts of what had happened. Initially, he said that when he checked on Andrea in the morning, her diaper was overflowing with feces and he took her to the bathroom to clean and change her. He said she did not like taking baths and she flailed around and hit her head on the underside of the toilet, on the cabinets and on the porcelain. He said that once she was clean, he carried her back to the bedroom where she fell asleep. Later, he discovered her breathing was labored, and he began giving her CPR, believing phlegm was obstructing her breathing tube. When officers told him his story was inconsistent with the injuries doctors found on the child, Wyatt changed the account, saying Andrea had been disobeying him and sliding down the stairs on her back. He grabbed her and took her to the bathroom, and it was then that she defecated on herself and him. He then admitted that while he was trying to calm Andrea in the bathroom, he hit the toddler on her head once or twice with his open hand. Once he admitted he’d hit the child, the officers then explained to Wyatt that he had something that could result in his being charged with battery, and they read him his Miranda rights. They resumed questioning him, during which Wyatt confirmed he had struck Andrea and he demonstrated to them how he had struck her.

On July 8, 2009, Wyatt was indicted for one count of felony murder, two counts of aggravated battery, and one count of cruelty to children in the first degree. The indictment stated that Wyatt had committed aggravated battery by depriving Andrea “of a member of her body, to wit: her brain, by striking her head against a hard object.” After he was indicted, Wyatt’s attorney filed a motion to suppress the statements he had made to police, and the case subsequently languished for nearly four years. Following a hearing in 2013 to determine whether Wyatt’s statements to police were given involuntarily and should be suppressed as evidence when the case went to trial, the State re-indicted Wyatt. This time it charged Wyatt with three counts of felony murder, and one count each of aggravated battery, aggravated assault, and cruelty to children. In the new indictment, the State removed the language that Wyatt had struck Andrea against a hard object. Instead, it said that Wyatt rendered Andrea’s brain useless “by causing bleeding to and damage to her brain.” The indictment said Wyatt committed aggravated assault against Andrea by assaulting her “with an object the exact nature of which is unknown to the members of the grand jury, which, when used offensively against another person is likely to result in serious bodily injury.”

Following the second indictment, Wyatt’s attorney filed “special demurrers,” challenging four of the six charges, including felony murder based on aggravated battery, and felony murder based on aggravated assault. The trial court held a hearing, at which the State introduced reports from the hospitals where Andrea had been treated and from the medical examiner who conducted the child’s autopsy. The hospital reports included a CT scan that showed she had a large subdural hematoma, which is bleeding beneath the outer sheath that covers the brain. The medical examiner’s report concluded that the cause of death was “closed head trauma with subdural hematoma, delayed effects” and that the manner of death was homicide. At the hearing, the State argued the indictment was sufficiently specific and it was permitted to allege in the aggravated assault count that the object Wyatt used to assault the toddler was unknown because her head could have been hit by “the toilet or the tub or by the defendant’s own hand.”

In August, 2013, the trial court ruled in Wyatt’s favor, granting the special demurrers and throwing out the indictment. The State then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

“The true test of the sufficiency of an indictment to withstand a special demurrer ‘is not whether it could have been made more definite and certain, but whether it contains the elements of the offense intended to be charged, and sufficiently apprises the defendant of what he must be prepared to meet,’” today’s opinion says, quoting the state Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in State v. English. Wyatt argues that the aggravated assault accusation, which states the object used to assault Andrea is unknown, and the aggravated battery accusation, which does not say how the battery was committed, don’t allow him to prepare for trial on those charges and the corresponding felony murder charges. But in today’s opinion, the high court disagrees.

“Based on the indictment he will defend against at trial, Wyatt knows that the State intends to prove that on April 11, 2009, a day when Wyatt admits Andrea was in his custody, he used an object that is likely to result in serious bodily injury when used offensively to fatally injure her by causing damage to her brain,” the opinion says. “Wyatt also knows that the State claims not to know – and thus does not intend to prove – what specific object he used to assault Andrea. That is sufficient notice for Wyatt to prepare a defense to the charges of aggravated assault and felony murder based on aggravated assault….”

Similarly, just as the State cannot specify the object used to assault Andrea, “it cannot specify the manner in which Wyatt committed aggravated battery against her, because the nature of her brain injuries and the attempts to treat them obscured the source of those injuries,” the opinion says. “We conclude that even if the State could determine the specific manner in which the aggravated battery was perpetrated, it was not required to include that detail in the indictment.” “The element that distinguishes aggravated battery is not the way the battery was committed, but rather the resulting injury, and here the indictment properly identified the injury by alleging that Wyatt caused bleeding and damage to Andrea’s brain, rendering it useless,” the opinion says. “Thus, like the counts alleging aggravated assault, the counts alleging aggravated battery sufficiently apprise Wyatt of what he must defend against at trial.”

Attorneys for Appellant (State): Daniel Porter, District Attorney, Lindsay Gardner, Asst. D.A.

Attorney for Appellee (Wyatt): David Whitman

 

 

BROWN V. THE STATE (S13G1612)

            In a 5-to-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled against Dwight T. Brown in his attempt to get theft and racketeering charges against him thrown out. The former president and CEO of the Cobb County Electric Membership Corporation argued that his due process rights were violated by the District Attorney’s use of grand jurors who were biased against him because they were members of the EMC he was charged with victimizing.

But in today’s majority decision, written by Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, the high court has upheld lower courts’ decisions that refused to throw out the indictment, finding that grand jurors are not required to be “impartial and unbiased.”

This is the second time the case against Brown has been before the Georgia Supreme Court. The case began on Jan. 6, 2011, when a Cobb County grand jury indicted Brown for violations of the Georgia Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, theft by taking, false statements and conspiracy to defraud political subdivisions of the state. He was charged with the theft of millions of dollars from the Cobb EMC and its members, including Cobb County and the Cobb County School District, and with making false statements to conceal those thefts from the members. Brown filed a motion to throw out the indictment, arguing it was not returned in an open court. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the indictment. The District Attorney, representing the State, appealed and the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling. On Sept. 9, 2013, the state Supreme Court affirmed the rulings by the trial court and the appellate court, agreeing that the indictment had not been returned “in a place that was open to the public,” because at the time the indictment was formally read, the new courthouse in Marietta was still undergoing final construction. In July 2011, while the State’s first appeal was pending, the District Attorney’s office obtained a second indictment against Brown that contained essentially the same charges as the first. Prior to the second indictment, Brown had filed a motion to disqualify from his case the grand jurors who were also members of the Cobb EMC. Brown’s attorneys, who include former Gov. Roy Barnes, filed various motions, including a motion to quash the second indictment on the ground that four of the 20 grand jurors, including the foreperson, were members of the Cobb EMC and thus victims of the alleged crimes. The trial court denied the motion to quash the indictment, although it never ruled on his motion to disqualify the grand jurors. Brown again appealed to the Court of Appeals, which again upheld the trial court’s decision, finding that because state law (Official Code of Georgia § 15-12-137.1) specifically provides that a person’s membership in an EMC alone does not prohibit him from serving as a juror in a case involving the EMC, then that person certainly would not be prohibited from serving as a grand juror in such cases. Brown then asked to appeal to the state Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case, posing this question: Did the Court of Appeals err in affirming the denial of Brown’s challenge to the impartiality of the grand jurors who returned his second indictment?”

In today’s opinion, the majority states: “Our straightforward answer to this question is ‘no.’”

“In determining whether or not grand jury proceedings are biased against an accused, it is an unquestioned rule of law that members of a grand jury may not be selected in a manner that discriminates against persons of a particular race or religion,” the opinion says. However, the “basic theory of the functions of the grand jury does not require that grand jurors should be impartial and unbiased.” The opinion points out that a grand jury is different from a trial jury in a criminal case because the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that only a jury trial must be “impartial.” “A grand jury does not pass on the guilt or innocence of the defendant, but merely determines whether he should be brought to trial. It is purely an accusatory body.”

Brown argued that based on the Georgia Supreme Court’s 1927 decision in Bitting v. State, the trial court should have removed members of the Cobb EMC from the grand jury. Bitting explained: “It would seem that the main reason why the court should remove partial grand jurors from the panel before the inquiry begins is the inexpediency of putting the public to the trouble and expense of trying an alleged defendant, unless those who are impartial are willing to accuse him on the testimony which the prosecution…is able to produce against him; and further, there is incidentally the other reason that an injustice is done to the individual citizen when he is subjected to accusation of crime by those who would be more than normally willing to exalt bare unsupported suspicion into a reasonable ground for indictment and trial.”

 However, today’s opinion points out, the Bitting decision goes on to say that once a grand jury has acted, “If the accusation against the defendant is unjust and untrue, that fact can be established much more surely, satisfactorily, and quickly under the plea of not guilty than it can be by quashing the indictment, and ordering a new preliminary and inconclusive inquiry before another grand jury.”

A proper reading of the Bitting decision and similar cases, today’s opinion says, “demonstrates that any suggestion that a court should purge potentially partial panel members was primarily to avoid the trouble and expense associated with trying a defendant who may have been indicted without a proper legal foundation.”

In a concurrence, Justice Keith Blackwell writes that he agrees with the majority decision, but he writes separately with “the hope that the General Assembly will reconsider the principle of the common law on which our decision rests.”

“When a principle of the common law has been settled so well for so long, and especially when the General Assembly has legislated upon the same subject without disturbing the principle, the courts generally ought not abandon the principle solely upon the ground that it may be unsound policy,” he writes. “To be sure, there are good reasons to doubt that the principle to which we adhere today reflects sound policy. Although the majority is right that grand jurors need not be wholly unbiased and impartial, it nevertheless is unseemly for grand jurors to pass upon an indictment that charges the accused with crimes of which the same grand jurors are alleged to be victims.” The current remedy for one who is wrongly indicted by biased grand jurors is a public and speedy trial by an unbiased and impartial petit jury, but that “is hardly a complete remedy,” the concurrence says. “Even if the accused is eventually acquitted at trial, his acquittal does not keep him from the trouble and expense to which he has been put by the wrongful indictment, and it cannot ensure the restoration of his reputation, which may have been sullied by the wrongful indictment. Our precedents express a concern that permitting a more complete remedy…would be too great a burden for the criminal justice system, but federal law permits such a remedy, and the work of the federal courts does not seem to have been seriously impaired as a result.” Such a remedy, however, “is fundamentally a political question, and it is one, therefore, that is committed principally to the political branches.”

In a 14-page dissent, Justice Carol Hunstein writes: “I firmly believe that the grand jury’s duty to protect individuals against unfounded criminal prosecutions requires grand jurors to be unbiased and impartial, particularly where as in this case, grand jurors are victims of the alleged crimes of which the accused has been charged. I believe that the accused may assert his right and challenge grand juror bias by filing a pretrial motion. Because Brown filed timely pretrial motions and demonstrated grand juror bias in this case, I must respectfully dissent.”

“The grand jury that issued the July 7, 2011, indictment against Brown should be deemed biased and partial,” says the dissent, which is joined by Justice Robert Benham. The indictment itself asserted that Brown allegedly stole millions of dollars from Cobb EMC members; that he gave false statements to conceal these thefts from the members; and that the members suffered financial loss because of Brown’s alleged theft and racketeering. “Four persons who served on the grand jury, including the foreperson, who indicted Brown on July 7, were members of the Cobb EMC. As the victims of the alleged theft and racketeering committed by Brown, Cobb EMC members had a direct financial stake in the prosecution of Brown.”

A line of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have been interpreted by a number of courts “as recognizing a constitutional requirement that an indictment be returned by an unbiased grand jury,” the dissent says. “We have recognized that the grand jury historically has been thought of as the primary security to the innocent against ‘hasty, malicious and oppressive prosecution.’” “Consistent with this responsibility to protect citizens against unfounded criminal prosecutions, we require grand jurors in Georgia to take an oath swearing to not present anyone ‘from envy, hatred, or malice.’”

The grand jury has a role to protect citizens, the dissent says. “Therefore, in order to effectively protect against prosecuting citizens based on an intimidating power, malice, personal ill will, envy, or hatred, I agree with the line of cases…that grand jurors must be impartial and unbiased. Accordingly, I would overrule any authority from this Court and the Court of Appeals to the extent it holds otherwise.”

Attorneys for Appellant (Brown): Roy Barnes, John Salter, J. Cameron Tribble, Craig Gillen, Thomas Withers, Anthony Lake

Attorneys for Appellee (State): John Melvin, Dep. Chief Asst. District Attorney, John Floyd, Spec. Asst. D.A., John Butters, Spec. Asst. D.A.

 

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