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Ga. Supreme Court upholds life sentence for mentally-ill man who stabbed elderly father with kitchen utensils

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Among other cases, child molestation conviction thrown out after

Defense mishandled case

 

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 .

 

CHOISNET V. THE STATE (S14A0578)

            The Supreme Court of Georgia has unanimously upheld the life prison sentence given to a Chatham County man found guilty but mentally ill of stabbing to death his 83-year-old father.

            On March 5, 2007, 57-year-old Fredrick Choisnet, Jr. stabbed his elderly father multiple times, using steak knives, carving forks and broken coffee mugs. Police found Fredrick Choisnet, Sr. in a fetal position in the blood-spattered kitchen of his home on Leeds Gate Road. The elder Choisnet told police, “the boy tried to kill me.” He later died at Memorial University Medical Center from more than 200 sharp and blunt force injuries that caused him to bleed to death. He had also been strangled.

 

            Choisnet, Jr. had a history of mental illness dating back to when he was 20 years old and hospitalized in a psychiatric institution in Long Island, NY. Over the years, he was in and out of mental hospitals. At one time he made a threat against President Bill Clinton, and he was diagnosed at different times with bipolar disorder with psychotic features, major depression, schizophrenia, and alcohol dependency. Six weeks before the murder, Choisnet, Jr. was involuntarily committed for being a danger to others after expressing thoughts about killing his father and experiencing paranoia and auditory hallucinations.

 

            The younger Choisnet’s sister, Jheri Galbreath, was a registered nurse and testified she suspected her brother had recently quit taking his medications based on his bizarre behavior. Choisnet’s father told her that Choisnet had been drinking his own urine. (Family members later found nearly 50 prescription pills hidden in a bed.) The day before the murder, Galbreath went to the family’s home out of concern for her father. She testified that her brother was wearing his shirt inside out and his underwear over his pants, and he was dragging the dog around the house by a rope around its neck. That night, after trying unsuccessfully to convince her brother to go to the hospital, Galbreath called 911. But the responding officer did not deem Choisnet’s strange behavior an immediate threat that qualified for involuntary commitment.

            The next day, after stabbing his father, Choisnet, Jr. called 911 and said his father had attacked him with a kitchen knife. When police arrived, Choisnet was acting “extremely erratic” and said, “I think he may have killed my real father.” Later that day at the hospital, he told a police officer his father had attacked him with the phone. However, his only injury appeared to be a bloodied hand he had wrapped in a rag, officers testified, and there were no indications he had been hit with a phone.

            Choisnet, Jr. pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His lawyers claimed he suffered from mental illness that made him unable to distinguish between right and wrong and that caused him to believe his father was planning to kill him and his mother. At trial, while the defense presented a clinical psychologist who testified Choisnet may have experienced a psychotic break and could have been delusional, the State presented the expert testimony of a forensic psychologist who said Choisnet was aware of his actions, was not delusional, and knew right from wrong. As a result, that expert reasoned, Choisnet, Jr. did not meet the criteria for not guilty by reason of insanity, but he did meet the criteria for guilty but mentally ill.

On Sept. 2, 2010, the jury found Choisnet guilty but mentally ill of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, elder abuse and possession of a knife in the commission of the crime. He was sentenced to life in prison plus five years on probation. The state Supreme Court had earlier remanded his case to the trial court when the case first came up on appeal, due to an error by the trial court in denying Choisnet’s motion requesting a new trial. On remand, the trial court used the correct legal standard but again denied Choisnet’s motion for new trial, and for a second time, Choisnet appealed his convictions and sentence to the Supreme Court, arguing the trial court made several errors in instructing the jury, including in its instructions on the insanity defense.

            In today’s unanimous opinion, written by Justice Carol Hunstein, the state Supreme Court has rejected all his contentions. Under Georgia law, the defense of insanity may be established if shown that at the time of the crime, the defendant either could not tell the difference between right and wrong, or he had a mental disease that caused “a delusional compulsion as to such act which overmastered his will to resist committing the crime.”

In this case, “the evidence is far from clear as to whether Choisnet acted as the result of any delusional compulsion,” the opinion says. “Though there is no dispute that Choisnet suffers from serious mental illness and there was some evidence indicating that Choisnet feared his father would kill him and his mother, not even Choisnet’s own expert was willing to testify to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that he was actually delusional at the time he stabbed, beat, and strangled his father.”

            “Thus, even with proper instruction as to what type of delusional belief would constitute sufficient legal justification to commit murder, it is unlikely the jury would have reached a different verdict.”  

Attorney for Appellant (Choisnet): Steven Sparger

Attorneys for Appellee (State): Margaret Ellen Heap, District Attorney, Shalena Jones, Asst. D.A., Isabel Pauley, Asst. D.A., Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Andrew Sims, Asst. A.G.

 

 

MCLAUGHLIN, WARDEN V. PAYNE (S14A0220)

            The Supreme Court of Georgia has upheld a lower court’s ruling that a Douglas County man, who was convicted of aggravated child molestation for having sex with his 11-year-old stepdaughter, had his constitutional rights violated by his attorney’s ineffectiveness.

In today’s unanimous opinion, written by Presiding Justice P. Harris Hines, the high court finds that because then-District Attorney David McDade had a personal interest in the case and testified against William Christopher Payne as a witness, all assistant district attorneys who served under him should have been disqualified as prosecutors.

As a result of today’s opinion, Payne’s convictions and sentences have been thrown out, although the State may still retry him.

This is the second time this case has been before the Supreme Court of Georgia. According to the facts as stated in the briefs, in 2000, the 11-year-old stepdaughter of William Christopher Payne told an officer at her elementary school that her “dad” had been having sex with her. The officer transported the child to the Douglas County Sheriff’s office where she was interviewed on videotape, which was later played to the jury. On tape, the child said Payne had forced her to have oral sex and sexual intercourse since she was about 8. He would hold her down and threaten to hurt her, and she said she was afraid he would kill her.

At Payne’s 2006 trial, the Douglas County judge allowed the State to present “similar transaction evidence” involving the testimony of a nurse who said that in 1994, after she had ended her relationship with Payne, he came to her home in Alabama, disconnected the phone line, broke in and armed with a knife, forced her to have oral sex and sexual intercourse. The trial court allowed in the testimony to establish Payne’s “bent of mind and course of conduct” involving the alleged crimes against his stepdaughter.

The jury subsequently found Payne guilty of aggravated child molestation, child molestation and cruelty to a child, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison plus 10 years on probation. The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld his convictions and sentence, and he then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that the trial court had properly allowed in the similar transaction evidence. In March 2009, the high court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision by a 4-to-3 vote.

 In November 2009, initially representing himself, Payne filed a petition for a “writ of habeas corpus” – a civil proceeding that allows already convicted prisoners to challenge their conviction on constitutional grounds in the county where they’re incarcerated. They generally file the action against the prison warden, who in this case was Gregory McLaughlin. In June 2013, the habeas court ruled in Payne’s favor, finding that McDade had a conflict of interest, had testified falsely at trial, and that Payne had received ineffective assistance of counsel from his appeals attorney for failing to raise both issues on appeal. The habeas court also found that had these issues been raised on appeal, the result would have been different. The state Attorney General’s Office, representing the prison warden, then appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the habeas court erred in finding that the representation by Payne’s appellate attorney was ineffective.

In today’s opinion, the high court disagrees and has upheld the habeas court’s ruling.

“This Court has observed that there is ‘conflict inherent in counsel’s dual rule as advocate and witness,’ and for an attorney to act as both witness and advocate is a circumstance to be avoided,” the opinion says. However, when an attorney cannot act as an advocate at trial, because he is a necessary witness, his status does not automatically extend to other attorneys in his office. “And precedent of this Court did not require that McDade’s role as a witness disqualify all those on his staff,” the opinion says.

“Nonetheless, the habeas court found that McDade had a personal interest in the case that disqualified him from participating in the prosecution of the case at all, not just from serving as trial counsel,” the opinion says. “And this finding does raise an issue implicating not only McDade’s role in the prosecution, but that of his entire office.”

 “The elected district attorney is not merely any prosecuting attorney,” today’s opinion says. “The elected district attorney appoints the assistant district attorneys, the assistant district attorneys serve only at his pleasure, and their authority is derived from him.”

“When the elected district attorney is wholly disqualified from a case, the assistant district attorneys – whose only power to prosecute a case is derived from the constitutional authority of the district attorney who appointed them – have no authority to proceed” under Official Code of Georgia § 15-18-5 (a).

McDade’s personal interest in the case is supported by the record, the opinion says, and includes his testimony that his conversation with his daughter, who knew the victim, was “very troubling,” and that his daughter’s concern caused him to pay particular attention to the case. Also, the habeas court noted that in response to Payne’s motion to disqualify the district attorney’s office, McDade had testified at a hearing that he had ceased to act in Payne’s prosecution shortly after a November 2000 interview with Payne. Yet sometime in 2005 or 2006, McDade was involved in a witness interview with the victim.

 “Accordingly, the habeas court did not clearly err in finding that McDade had a disqualifying conflict of interest in Payne’s prosecution in that he had ‘acquired a personal interest or stake in the defendant’s conviction,’” the opinion says. “As noted, the assistant district attorney who acted at trial did so under the authority vested in McDade as the elected district attorney. McDade’s disqualifying personal conflict of interest removed that authority, and he was not replaced as provided for by statute.”

“Accordingly, it was not error for the habeas court to conclude that, had this issue been raised on appeal, the result of his appeal would have been different.”

Attorneys for Appellant (State): Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Benjamin Pierman, Asst. A.G.

Attorney for Appellee (Payne): August Siemon

 

MILLER ET AL. V. DEAL ET AL. (S13G1197)

            In a 6-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled that five indigent fathers, who were jailed for failing to pay child support, are not entitled to file a class action lawsuit against the State for denying them government-funded lawyers.

            In today’s majority decision, written by Justice Keith Blackwell, the high court has upheld a decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals and ruled that “there is no absolute, inflexible, and categorical right to appointed counsel” for indigent parents in civil contempt proceedings related to their failure to pay child support, even when the State is represented by lawyers and is pursuing the incarceration of a parent.

According to briefs filed in the case, Randy Miller, an Iraq veteran, was jailed for three months for failure to pay child support following a civil contempt hearing at which he had no legal counsel while the State was represented by a Special Assistant Attorney General. He and four other fathers who were held in civil contempt and incarcerated as a result filed a class-action lawsuit against Gov. Nathan Deal, the director of the Department of Human Services and other state officials, contending the State denied them legal counsel, violating their constitutional rights to due process. In their complaint, they alleged they all were incarcerated following contempt proceedings until they paid their debts. They sought the court’s declaration that they and other indigent people have a right to appointed counsel and argued that while Georgia is one of a few states that requires indigent parents to plead for their liberty without counsel while state-funded lawyers seek to jail them, many other state supreme courts have held that indigent parents in child support contempt proceedings have a right to counsel.

In a 32-page opinion, the Fulton County Superior Court ruled in favor of the fathers, granting their motion for class certification. The State then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the decision, finding the fathers were not entitled to class certification because they failed to satisfy the requirements laid out in state law. Under a Georgia statute, to certify a class action, the trial court must find that the plaintiffs meet each of the four following requirements: (1) the members of the class are so numerous that bringing them all before the court would be impractical; (2) the questions of fact or law are common to all the class members; (3) the claims of the parties are typical of those of the entire class; and (4) the representative parties are adequate representatives of the class. Based on the same statute, the plaintiffs also had to show in this case that the relief they sought could be appropriately awarded to the class as a whole. The Court of Appeals found the fathers had not satisfied the second and third requirements because none of the plaintiffs ever requested a lawyer or appealed the decisions leading to their incarceration, and therefore they suffered no common injury. In addition, the appellate court found the plaintiffs failed to show that the class-wide relief they sought was appropriate. The fathers then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In today’s majority decision, Justice Keith Blackwell writes that the Court of Appeals reached the right conclusion but for the wrong reasons. “As we understand its opinion, the Court of Appeals premised all of its conclusions on a fundamental misunderstanding of the constitutional right to counsel,” the majority opinion says. “The Court of Appeals seems to have assumed that the named plaintiffs – and presumably, the other members of the class too – all have a constitutional right to appointed counsel in civil contempt proceedings of the sort about which the plaintiffs complain.” The Court of Appeals reasoned that if an indigent parent failed to assert his right to counsel in his own contempt proceeding, the parent could not be said to have been unconstitutionally denied counsel. “Because the named plaintiffs themselves had not insisted upon counsel in their own contempt proceedings, the Court of Appeals said, they could not show that their claims were typical of those asserted on behalf of the class.”

“Generally speaking, to the extent that the Constitution affords a right to counsel at government expense, it affords a right that is not waived merely by a party unknowingly failing to insist upon a lawyer in a proceeding in which he is not even advised that he might request counsel,” the majority decision says.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals was correct in determining that Miller and the fathers failed to meet all four requirements required by law to certify a class action. “To show these things, the plaintiffs relied entirely on their assertion of a categorical constitutional right to appointed counsel,” the majority says. But under its 2011 decision in Turner v. Rogers, “the United States Supreme Court made perfectly clear that ‘the Due Process Clause does not automatically require the provision of counsel at civil contempt proceedings to an indigent individual who is subject to a child support order, even if that individual faces incarceration.’”

“Moreover, aside from ‘criminal prosecutions or proceedings functionally akin to a criminal trial,’ the United States Supreme Court ‘has never found in the Due Process Clause a categorical right to appointed counsel.’”

“We suppose that due process sometimes may require the appointment of counsel for an indigent parent in a civil contempt proceeding in which the parent is threatened with incarceration,” the majority opinion says. “But even so, presumptions sometimes can be overcome, and whether any particular parent is entitled to a lawyer at government expense depends always, we think, on the particular and unique circumstances of his case, including the complexity of the case, as well as the extent to which alternative measures might be employed to ensure that the proceeding is fundamentally fair.”

“Because there is no categorical right, whether any named plaintiff or other member of the class even has a right to appointed counsel in any particular civil contempt proceeding depends upon highly individualized considerations,” the opinion says. “Accordingly, the plaintiffs cannot show commonality of the claims asserted on behalf of the class, they cannot show that their own claims are typical of those of the class, and they cannot show that class-wide injunctive and declaratory relief is in order. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals was right to conclude that the trial court erred when it certified a class.”

In a dissent, Justice Robert Benham writes that, “I would reverse the Court of Appeals and uphold the trial court’s order granting class certification.” Under Georgia’s Constitution and statutory law, the Department of Human Services has “a categorical right to be represented by a lawyer in any civil contempt proceeding against any parent, whether indigent or not, for nonpayment of child support. It is the state’s position, however, that the parent in such a proceeding, whether indigent or not, has no categorical right to be represented by counsel,” the dissent says. “If found to be in contempt, most indigent parents face incarceration because they lack the means to purge themselves of the contempt.” Miller, for instance, owed $3,000 in child support, “had less than a dollar in his bank account, and had no assets when he was found in contempt and incarcerated for nonpayment of child support. Had he had a categorical or automatic right to counsel, as does [the Department] under state law, perhaps he would have avoided jail when he clearly did not have the ability to pay.”

“Purposefully or not, the State has fostered a fundamentally unfair system for collecting child support from indigent parents,” the dissent says.

Attorneys for Appellants (Miller): Gerald Weber, Atteeyah Hollie, Sarah Geraghty

Attorneys for Appellees (Deal): Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Dennis Dunn, Dep. A.G., Shalen Nelson, Sr. Asst. A.G., Mark Cicero Sr. Asst. A.G., Jason Naunas, Asst. A.G.

 

GEORGIA-PACIFIC CONSUMER PRODUCTS, LP V. RATNER ET AL. (S13G1723)

            In a 5-to-2 ruling, the Supreme Court of Georgia has reversed the decisions of two lower courts and ruled that homeowners in Effingham County are not entitled to bring a class-action lawsuit against a company they claim continues to release harmful hydrogen sulfide gas.

            With today’s majority opinion, the high court has reversed a ruling by the Georgia Court of Appeals and found that the homeowners failed to meet the requirements under state law to qualify as a class.

            “We conclude that the trial court abused its discretion when it certified the class, and we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals,” Justice Keith Blackwell writes for the majority.

            For nearly 30 years, Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products LP has operated the Savannah River Mill which includes more than 100 acres of sludge fields into which Georgia Pacific puts the solid waste generated by the Mill. On Dec. 10, 2010, four homeowners – Kirbi and Aaron Ratner, and David and Kathy McDonald – who lived in a residential neighborhood known as Mallard Pointe, sued Georgia-Pacific for nuisance, trespass, and negligence over the natural release of hydrogen sulfide gas from the Mill’s sludge fields. They alleged that due to contamination caused by the gas, they have been exposed to noxious odors, their use of their property has been impaired, and the value of their property has diminished. The homeowners sought permission to make theirs a class-action lawsuit, and asked the court to certify a class consisting of the owners of 65 additional properties neighboring the plant. Following a hearing, the trial court certified the class, finding that it met the requirements of Official Code of Georgia § 9-11-23. According to the statute, people may sue as representative parties on behalf of a larger group only if: (1) the class is so numerous that including all members in the suit would be impractical; (2) there are common questions of law or fact among the members; (3) the claims of the representative parties are typical of the claims of the class; and (4) the representative parties will fairly protect the interests of the class. Georgia-Pacific appealed the lower court’s ruling, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion by certifying the class. The Court of Appeals, however, upheld the ruling, finding that the trial court’s definition of the class “is unambiguous and the members of the class are readily identifiable from public records.” Under the statute, “a class action is authorized if the members of the class share a common right and common questions of law or fact predominate over individual questions of law or fact,” the appellate court ruled. Georgia-Pacific then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

            Under today’s opinion, the high court finds the Court of Appeals was wrong because the homeowners failed to meet the second requirement under the law, which requires proof of common questions of law or fact.

            “Upon our review of the record, we conclude that the plaintiffs failed to come forward with evidence sufficient to show the commonality of the particular class that was certified,” the majority opinion says. “Because commonality is lacking, the trial court abused its discretion when it certified the class, and the Court of Appeals should have reversed the certification.”

            To show commonality, “not just any ‘common’ questions will do,” the opinion says. “Commonality depends on the presence of a particular sort of ‘common’ question, and simply reciting a list of questions that are ‘common’ in another sense contributes nothing to the commonality inquiry.” To establish the sort of commonality that Official Code of Georgia § 9-11-23 requires, the homeowners had to show “that the class members have suffered the same injury,” the majority states. “To do so, the plaintiffs had to point to a ‘common contention’ that each member of the class had suffered the same instance or course of wrongful conduct, and the plaintiffs had to show that this ‘common contention’ ‘is capable of class-wide resolution – which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.’”

            In this case, the opinion states, the homeowners pointed to a “common contention” that “might properly form the basis for a finding of commonality, namely that their properties were contaminated with hydrogen sulfide gas released from the sludge fields at the Mill. But pointing to a ‘common contention’ is only the first step,” the majority opinion says. “The plaintiffs also had to show that this ‘common contention’ is ‘capable of class-wide resolution’ with respect to the particular class that the trial court certified. And that is where they came up short.”

            “We do not find in the record evidence by which the plaintiffs might be able to prove on a class-wide basis that the entire area by which the class was defined, in fact, was contaminated with hydrogen sulfide gas from the sludge fields,” the opinion says. “There is, for instance, no scientific evidence of the amounts of gas released from the sludge fields, no evidence of the rate of release, no evidence of the extent to which the amounts released and rates of release varied over time, and no evidence of exactly how the gas would be expected to move through the air upon its release.” And while the record contains some anecdotal evidence of hydrogen sulfide gas in some areas around the Mill, “this anecdotal evidence is not enough to satisfy a rigorous analysis with respect to the commonality of the particular class that the trial court satisfied.”

            Nevertheless, today’s opinion says, “[n]o one should misunderstand us to say that commonality never can be shown in the context of environmental mass torts, that it cannot be shown in this case, or even that it cannot be shown in this case as to the class as the trial court defined it. It certainly is conceivable that the plaintiffs might show the requisite commonality of that class or another. But if the plaintiffs are to satisfy the commonality requirement, they have some more work to do.”

            In a brief concurrence, Justice Harold Melton writes that in addition to failing to meet the commonality requirement, “certification of the class in this case would be inappropriate due to a lack of typicality.” “The named plaintiffs in this case have not been shown to be typical of the claims or defense of the proposed class, as its members own different tracts of land subjected to varying uses and located at different distances and directions from the sludge fields in question.”

            In a dissent, Justice Carol Hunstein writes the majority has failed to sufficiently defer to the trial court’s determination in certifying the class. “As this Court has noted, ‘trial judges have broad discretion in deciding whether to certify a class.’” Here, the trial court conducted a “rigorous analysis” and concluded “that common issues, typical of those faced across the class, would predominate over issues of an individualized nature.” The trial court was “well within its discretion in finding the commonality requirement to have been satisfied,” says the dissent, which is joined by Justice Robert Benham. “The plaintiffs have raised a number of common issues with regard to establishing Georgia-Pacific’s liability, including Georgia-Pacific’s operations at the Savannah River Mill, its waste disposal practices, and its safety program; the type and concentration of chemicals emitted from the Mill and sludge fields; and the properties and toxicity of hydrogen sulfide and its capacity to cause property damage and ill health effects. The resolution of all of these issues will depend on the same evidence, no matter the class member.” Similarly, the dissent says, “the trial court appropriately found that the typicality requirement has been satisfied.” “In short, the evidence supported the plaintiffs’ proposed class definition, and the majority is wrong to conclude otherwise.” The dissent points out, however, “that the majority’s opinion expressly contemplates the possibility that the plaintiffs here could still, with additional evidence, establish the existence of a sustainable class. It thus remains to be seen whether this case will move forward as a class action.”

Attorneys for Appellant (Georgia-Pacific): David Hudson, William Keogh, III, R. Clay Raterree, Tracy Ann O’Connell

Attorneys for Appellee (Ratner): John Bell, Jr., Benjamin Perkins, Timothy Roberts, Melissa Bailey

 

HUMPHREY V. WILLIAMS (S14A0395)

            The Supreme Court of Georgia has upheld a lower court’s decision throwing out a man’s convictions for the sexual molestation of his 13-year-old stepdaughter and her 14-year-old friend.

            In today’s unanimous decision, written by Justice David Nahmias, the high court has found that Jimmie Ray Williams of Decatur County was denied effective legal assistance during his trial, in violation of his constitutional rights. As a result, “we conclude that the representation provided by Williams’ trial counsel leaves us without ‘confidence in the outcome’ of the trial,” today’s opinion says.

            According to the evidence presented at trial, in January 2000, 13-year-old Stephanie was living with her mother and Williams, her stepfather, along with a younger brother and sister. On Jan. 24, Stephanie’s mother was out of town on business and Williams, 38, allowed Stephanie to invite a friend, 14-year-old Amanda, to spend the night. That night, the girls got drunk and skipped school the next day.

In the spring of 2002, Stephanie asked her mother if she could go live with her biological father, and when her mother said “no,” Stephanie threatened to run away. When her mother pressed her for an explanation, she said that Williams had sexually molested her several times in 2000. The mother subsequently confronted Williams about her daughter’s accusations, said she wanted a divorce, and asked him to quit his job and move away. Two days later, Stephanie’s mother reported the allegations to the sheriff's department. Williams was charged with three counts of child molestation involving Stephanie, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor for allegedly furnishing alcohol to both girls during the sleepover. After allegations arose that Williams had had sex with Amanda the night of the sleepover, he was also charged with statutory rape and child molestation involving Amanda.

At Williams’ 2002 trial, the State presented “similar transaction evidence” involving Williams’ adult daughter, Jessica. She testified that in 1993 when she was 11 years old, her father had come into her bedroom drunk while they were living in Florida and touched her inappropriately several times during the night. But authorities eventually concluded she was fabricating different stories, and the Florida court ultimately returned her to Williams’ care.

In November 2002, a jury found Williams guilty of all charges, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison and 20 years on probation. In 2003, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld his convictions. Attorney Billy Grantham represented Williams both at his trial and in his appeal.

In 2004, Williams, representing himself “pro se,” filed a petition for a “writ of habeas corpus.” Habeas corpus is a civil proceeding that allows already convicted prisoners to challenge their conviction on constitutional grounds in the county where they’re incarcerated. They generally file the action against the prison warden, which in this case was Carl Humphrey. In his petition, Williams claimed that Grantham had provided “ineffective assistance of counsel” for failing to obtain the Florida court records which would have shown that the allegations involving his daughter had never taken place. He argued that if the attorney had gotten the records, his daughter’s testimony would have been excluded before trial or she would have been shown to be not credible at trial, and as a result the trial verdict likely would have been more favorable to him. The habeas court denied Williams’ petition. But in January 2008, the state Supreme Court granted his application to appeal that denial, threw out the habeas court’s judgment and remanded the case for another hearing because the habeas court had not allowed Williams a reasonable opportunity to present his claims. A different judge heard the case, and in December 2012, granted Williams’ petition for a writ of habeas corpus. As a result, Williams was released from prison and now his address is unknown. Meanwhile, the Attorney General, representing the warden for the State, appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, arguing that the evidence against Williams was “overwhelming,” with or without Jessica’s testimony.

But in today’s 47-page opinion, the high court disagrees. “As the Court of Appeals held on direct appeal, the evidence presented at trial was certainly sufficient legally to allow the jury to find Williams guilty as charged,” the opinion says. “But we cannot say that the trial evidence was overwhelming, or that, had Jessica’s similar transaction testimony been excluded or more substantially and concretely impeached, there is not a reasonable probability that the result of the trial would have been different.”

As a result, “the judgment of the habeas court setting aside Williams’ conviction is affirmed,” the opinion states. The high court concludes, however, that “[b]ecause the evidence presented at trial was legally sufficient to convict, the State may retry Williams on the charges if it chooses.”

Attorneys for Appellant (Warden): Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Clint Malcolm, Asst. A.G.

Attorney for Appellee (Williams): Jimmie Williams, pro se

 

DILLARD LAND INVESTMENTS, LLC V. FULTON COUNTY (S13G1582)

            In this eminent domain case, the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that Fulton County was not entitled to voluntarily dismiss its petition to condemn a company’s property after a court official valued the land at more than what the County believed it was worth.

            According to the facts of the case, in February 2012, Fulton County filed a petition to condemn 12 acres of land on Hollywood Road owned by Dillard Land Investments, LLC to expand the county’s library facilities. The court appointed a “special master” to handle matters pertaining to the case. A special master is generally a lawyer who is officially designated to assist a judge on a particular case and report back to the court with recommendations. Following a hearing, the special master filed his report with the trial judge, concluding that the actual market value of Dillard’s property was $5,187,500. The County believed the land’s value was a fraction of that – about $700,000. On May 16, 2012, the Fulton County Superior Court adopted the special master’s award and entered its judgment, vesting title to the property in the County upon its payment of $5,187,500 award into the court registry. Two days later, Fulton County filed a voluntary dismissal of its condemnation action. On June 12, 2012, Dillard filed an emergency motion asking the court to throw out the County’s voluntary dismissal of the petition. On June 15, the County filed a motion asking the court to set aside its judgment on the special master’s award, which the court had entered prematurely under the law. On Aug. 14, 2012, the trial court granted Dillard’s motion to throw out the County’s dismissal on the ground that once the special master had entered his value award, the County could not voluntarily dismiss the action without the consent of the court or the condemnee. In a second order, the trial court abolished its premature judgment to allow the parties time to file exceptions to the award.

Fulton County instead filed a pre-trial appeal in the Georgia Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial court should have granted its voluntary dismissal of the condemnation petition. The Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the trial court’s ruling. It cited its 2009 decision in Gramm v. City of Stockbridge, in which the Court of Appeals ruled that “upon the payment of the amount awarded by the special master into the registry of the court, the award of the special master and the judgment of the court condemning the property or interest to the use of the condemning body shall be conclusive.” A property owner, “should be allowed to rely upon the condemnation as being final when…the condemnor has obtained a condemnation judgment; the award has been paid and disbursed; the condemnee has filed no exceptions to the taking; and the condemnor has retained possession of the property for a significant period of time,” the appellate court ruled in Gramm. In the current case, however, the Court of Appeals pointed out that unlike Gramm, “Fulton County did not pay the amount of the award to the condemnee or into the court registry, nor did it take title of the land for any period of time. Instead, it obtained the condemnation judgment but dismissed the petition two days after the entry of the trial court’s judgment, which was entered prematurely. Under these circumstances, the trial court erred by concluding that Fulton County could not dismiss its condemnation action.” Dillard then asked to appeal to the state Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case.

            In today’s unanimous opinion, the high court has decided the Georgia Court of Appeals was wrong. “We conclude that a condemnor is not entitled to voluntarily dismiss a condemnation action unilaterally once the special master renders his award, and we reverse the Court of Appeals’ judgment to the contrary,” Justice David Nahmias writes for the Court.

            “It has long been established that a condemnor may not voluntarily dismiss a condemnation action unilaterally after the assessors have made their award as to the value of the property at issue, that is, the amount of just compensation that the condemnor must pay the property owner for taking the property,” the opinion says. Whether an award is rendered by assessors or by a special master, “the value award can be changed only by a jury,” and the trial court “has no discretion to change the value awarded under either method.”

            A condemnor may voluntarily dismiss its action before the special master announces his value award, the opinion states. Once the special master has announced his award, the condemnor may appeal for a jury trial or file certain objections in superior court. “What the condemnor may not do, once it knows how the key issue in its case will be resolved – the value the special master, and necessarily then the court, will place on the property being condemned – is to ‘deprive the opposite party of the victory thus gained’ by voluntarily dismissing the action unilaterally and without prejudice, allowing the condemnor to re-litigate the same issue in a newly filed action in hopes of a better result.” 

            “The relevant question is when a plaintiff is entitled to dismiss the action without the approval of the court and over the objection of the opposing party. And the answer to that question, our precedents demonstrate, is when an actual finding, decision, or judgment on the merits of the action becomes known to the plaintiff, not when it becomes enforceable by the defendant.”

            The relevant event, today’s opinion says, “is when the condemnor knows what the value award will be, and that event occurred in this case before the County moved to dismiss its action. Once the special master announces his award, if the condemnor believes that the value placed on the property is too high, the only remedy is to appeal the award for a…jury determination of value…, a remedy that the County did not pursue in this case.”

Attorneys for Appellant (Dillard): Charles Pursley, Jr., Christian Torgrimson, Angela Robinson, Elizabeth Story, Thomas Bowman, Wendell Willard

Attorneys for Appellee (County): R. David Ware, Kaye Burwell, Larry Ramsey, Jr., Diana Freeman

 

FEDERAL DEPOSIT INSURANCE CORPORATION AS RECEIVER FOR THE BUCKHEAD COMMUNITY BANK V. LOUDERMILK ET AL. (S14Q0454)

            The state Supreme Court has ruled that under Georgia’s “business judgment rule,” the directors and officers of failed Georgia banks are not automatically protected from being held liable for mere negligence.

            In today’s unanimous opinion, Justice Keith Blackwell writes for the Court that “the business judgment rule precludes some, but not all” claims of negligence against bank officers and directors.

According to the facts of the case, in December 2009, the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance closed The Buckhead Community Bank, one of 500 banks that closed nationwide following the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) was named as its receiver, as it has been for most of the failed banks. As the receiver of a failed bank, the FDIC is in charge of selling the bank’s assets and settling its debts. On Feb. 19, 2013, the FDIC sued nine of the Buckhead Bank’s former directors and officers, one of whom was R. Charles Loudermilk, Sr., in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, alleging the officers were negligent and “grossly negligent” in their management of the bank’s lending practices prior to its failure. Specifically, the FDIC alleged that the directors and officers abused their discretion by approving loans without conducting pre-purchase analyses and by extending credit to borrowers who were not creditworthy. The FDIC sought nearly $22 million in losses allegedly suffered as a result of the officers’ negligence.

The Buckhead Bank directors and officers filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the FDIC’s lawsuit, arguing that Georgia’s “business judgment rule” protects directors and officers from claims of ordinary negligence. The rule is a fixture in American law, and although the particulars may vary a bit from one jurisdiction to another, it generally provides that officers and directors will not be subject to liability for negligence in the exercise of making honest business judgments.

 The FDIC opposed the bank officers’ motion, arguing that applying the business judgment rule to the directors and officers of banks conflicts with the Georgia banking and finance statute, Official Code of Georgia § 7-1-490. That statute requires bank directors and officers to “discharge the duties of their respective positions in good faith and with that diligence, care, and skill which ordinarily prudent men would exercise under similar circumstances in like positions…A director or officer who so performs his duties shall have no liability by reason of being or having been a director or officer of the bank or trust company.” The FDIC argued the plain language of the statute made the bank officers liable for ordinary negligence.

The federal court denied the motion to dismiss the case, concluding it was “not convinced that Georgia law affords the defendants the protection of the business judgment rule in a lawsuit by the FDIC,” and noting that “no Georgia state court has explicitly extended the business judgment rule to protect the officers and directors of a bank being sued by the FDIC.” Consequently, before making a final decision in this case, the federal court formally asked the Georgia Supreme Court to answer this question: “Does the business judgment rule in Georgia preclude as a matter of law a claim for ordinary negligence against the officers and directors of a bank in a lawsuit brought by the FDIC as receiver for the bank?”

“With an important qualification, we answer this question in the negative,” today’s 32-page opinion says.

“From our precedents, we conclude that the business judgment rule is a settled part of our common law in Georgia, and it generally precludes claims against officers and directors for their business decisions that sound in ordinary negligence, except to the extent that those decisions are shown to have been made without deliberation, without the requisite diligence to ascertain and assess the facts and circumstances upon which the decisions are based, or in bad faith,” the opinion says. (Common law here refers to case law, or law established by court decisions, as opposed to law established by statutes.) In other words, the opinion says, common law forecloses ordinary negligence claims against officers and directors “when the alleged negligence concerns only the wisdom of their judgment, but it does not absolutely foreclose such claims to the extent that a business decision did not involve ‘judgment’ because it was made in a way that did not comport with the duty to exercise good faith and ordinary care.” Under case law, the standard “was concerned with the way in which business decisions were made – not their wisdom – and in any event, it fit comfortably with the business judgment rule.” Similarly, Georgia statutory law that addresses liability is chiefly concerned “about the way in which a business decision is made, not the merit of that decision.” In light of the statutory history, the opinion says, “we conclude that Official Code of Georgia § 7-1-490 (a) is perfectly consistent with the business judgment rule acknowledged at common law in the decisions of this Court.”

The statute says that an officer or director who acts “in good faith and with that diligence, care, and skill which ordinarily prudent men would exercise under similar circumstances in like positions” “shall have no liability by reason of being or having been a director or officer of the bank or trust company.” No doubt, the opinion says, the statute’s provisions “imply strongly that, if an officer or director fails to act in good faith or with such ordinary care, he is subject to liability.” The implication of the statute’s liability provision is “that bank officers and directors may be liable for a failure to exercise ordinary care with respect to the way in which business decisions are made.”

“Finally, the business judgment rule makes clear that, when a business decision is alleged to have been made negligently, the wisdom of the decision is ordinarily insulated from judicial review, and as for the process by which the decision was made, the officers and directors are presumed to have acted in good faith and to have exercised ordinary care,” the opinion concludes. “Although this presumption may be rebutted, the plaintiff bears the burden of putting forward proof sufficient to rebut it.”

Attorneys for Appellant (FDIC): J. Scott Watson, David Joseph, Charles Lee, Michael Kohler, Laura Ashby

Attorneys for Appellees (Bank officers): Steven Collins, Robert Long, Jeffrey Swart, Brian Boone

 

 

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