Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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The case revolves around the appellant, Justin Christopher Gold, who was convicted of malice murder in connection with the stabbing death of Antonio DePass. Gold was indicted for malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, and possession of a knife during the commission of a felony. A jury found Gold guilty on all counts, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for malice murder, plus a consecutive five years in prison for the weapon charge. Gold filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied, but his sentence was modified to life in prison with the possibility of parole.Gold appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial court erred in charging the jury on excessive force and that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to evidence of DePass’s good character or to a detective’s testimony about whether Gold’s conduct was consistent with an assertion of self-defense.The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the lower court's decision. The court found that the trial court did not err in giving the suggested pattern jury instruction on excessive force as part of its broader instructions on self-defense. The court also found that Gold failed to show that his counsel’s performance was deficient and that such deficiency prejudiced his defense. Therefore, his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel were dismissed. View "GOLD v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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The case involves Darious Jones, who was convicted for felony murder in 2016, related to the beating death of Faith Parke. Jones arranged to meet Parke at the location where she was found dead. His DNA and fingerprints were found at the crime scene, including on a doorstop bar near Parke's body. Parke had injuries matching the pattern on the end of the doorstop bar. Jones challenged his conviction, arguing that the evidence was constitutionally insufficient, that the trial court erred by allowing him to decide whether to testify without further inquiry due to his mental condition, and that the trial court erred in refusing to give voluntary manslaughter-related instructions that he requested.Jones was indicted for malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault by a DeKalb County grand jury in 2015. In 2016, the jury found him not guilty of malice murder but guilty of felony murder and aggravated assault. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for felony murder. Jones filed a timely motion for a new trial, which was denied by the trial court in 2023. He then appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia.The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the lower court's decision. The court found that the evidence was sufficient to uphold Jones' conviction. The court also ruled that Georgia law does not require a trial court to advise a defendant concerning his right to testify or to make the type of inquiry that Jones asserts the trial court should have made. The court further held that the trial court properly refused to give Jones' requested instructions regarding voluntary manslaughter because no evidence supported them. Lastly, the court dismissed Jones' argument that the trial court erred in sentencing him to life without parole. View "JONES v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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Leslie Harris pleaded guilty to malice murder and other crimes related to the shooting death of Michael Anthony Davenport. She later moved to withdraw her guilty pleas, asserting that certain mental health issues had prevented her from entering a knowing and voluntary plea. The trial court denied her motion. Harris was indicted for malice murder, felony murder predicated on aggravated assault, armed robbery, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. She pleaded guilty to all counts except felony murder, which was nolle-prossed. Harris was sentenced to life in prison for malice murder, a concurrent life sentence for armed robbery, and a consecutive 5-year sentence for possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.The trial court denied Harris's motion to withdraw her guilty pleas. Harris timely filed a notice of appeal to the Court of Appeals, which was transferred to the Supreme Court of Georgia. The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the trial court's decision, finding that the record supports the trial court’s conclusion that Harris’s plea was knowing and voluntary.The Supreme Court of Georgia found that the trial court had considered Harris's mental-health diagnoses and treatment and her ability to communicate with counsel and the court to conclude that she understood the nature of the charges, rights she was waiving, and consequences of entering her plea. The court found that Harris's responses and those of plea counsel amply supported the court’s conclusion that Harris’s plea was knowing and voluntary. The court also found that the record contains no evidence that Harris's schedule of taking her medication affected her ability to enter a knowing and voluntary plea. The court concluded that the trial court did not err in determining that Harris entered her plea of her own free choice, with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences. The trial court therefore acted within its discretion when it denied Harris’s motion to withdraw her guilty pleas. The judgment was affirmed. View "HARRIS v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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Tyler Jarel Thomas was indicted for the murder of Ashley Brown in February 2014. Prior to his indictment, law enforcement obtained Thomas's phone records, including cell site location information (CSLI), through a court order. At the time, no appellate precedent in Georgia required a warrant for such records. However, Thomas moved to suppress the CSLI, arguing it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court granted his motion, relying partly on an Eleventh Circuit decision that later reversed its stance on the necessity of a warrant for CSLI.The State asked the trial court to reconsider its suppression order in light of the Eleventh Circuit's reconsideration. Thomas argued that the end-of-term rule prohibited the trial court's reconsideration. The trial court agreed with Thomas, stating that the end-of-term rule divested it of the authority to reconsider its own prior interlocutory ruling. Thomas was found guilty of malice murder and related crimes, but a new trial was granted due to a Brady violation by the State.Upon remand to the trial court, the State again moved for reconsideration of the CSLI suppression order. This time, the trial court agreed with the State, vacated the earlier suppression order, and held that the CSLI could be tendered at trial. Thomas appealed this decision.The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the trial court's decision. The court held that when a new trial has been granted, trial courts are not prohibited from reconsidering their previous orders. Therefore, because the final judgment in this case was vacated by the grant of a new trial, the trial court could reconsider rulings from earlier terms. View "THOMAS v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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Sherman Lamont Allen was convicted for the murder of his cousin, Treston Smith, following a physical altercation. Allen had suspected his partner, Tia, of having an affair with Smith. One night, Allen found Tia and Smith together at a gas station. After Tia drove away, Allen engaged in a verbal altercation with Smith, which escalated into a physical fight. Surveillance footage showed Allen beating and kicking Smith, who was on the ground. Smith later died from his injuries. Allen was indicted for one count of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and one count of aggravated battery. He was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole for malice murder.Allen appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial court erred in denying his request to instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter as a lesser offense of murder. He contended that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury instruction, as he had acted out of a sudden, violent, and irresistible passion resulting from serious provocation, namely, discovering Tia's infidelity with Smith.The Supreme Court of Georgia agreed with Allen. It held that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter. The court found that there was at least slight evidence to support the instruction, namely, Allen's discovery of Tia's infidelity. The court also found that the State failed to show that it was highly probable that the error did not contribute to the verdict. As a result, the court reversed Allen’s murder conviction. View "ALLEN v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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The case involves Christopher Vargas Zayas, who was convicted for malice murder and a related crime in connection with the shooting death of his girlfriend, Carly Andrews. The shooting occurred in September 2018, and Zayas was indicted for multiple charges, including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, family violence, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and three counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Zayas was found guilty on all five counts and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. He filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied by the trial court.Zayas appealed his convictions, arguing that the circumstantial evidence at trial was insufficient to exclude the alternative hypothesis that the pistol discharged accidentally as Andrews grabbed it. He also argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to move to suppress statements he made to investigators at the police station before he received Miranda warnings. The Supreme Court of Georgia, however, affirmed the convictions, concluding that the circumstantial evidence authorized the jury to reject Zayas's alternative hypothesis as unreasonable, that trial counsel was not deficient for failing to seek to suppress Zayas's statements, and that Zayas suffered no prejudice from any instructional error. View "ZAYAS v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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Isaac Taqai Howard was sentenced as a first offender to two concurrent fifteen-year sentences, with the first eighteen months in confinement and the balance served on probation. In November 2022, the State filed two petitions alleging that Howard violated the conditions of his probation. After a hearing, the trial court entered an adjudication of guilt on both petitions and resentenced Howard as a felon to fifteen years, with the first five years in confinement and the balance served on probation. Howard appealed, but the Court of Appeals dismissed his appeal for lack of jurisdiction because he failed to file an application for discretionary appeal.The Court of Appeals applied its decision from nearly 40 years ago in Dean v. State, which held that the revocation of a defendant’s first-offender probation was controlled by the discretionary appeal procedure in OCGA § 5-6-35. The court reasoned that OCGA § 5-6-35 (a) required a discretionary application for appeals from orders revoking probation, making no distinction between first-offender probation and probation otherwise provided for in criminal cases.The Supreme Court of Georgia granted certiorari to determine whether Howard had the right to a direct appeal under OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) or was instead required to file a discretionary application under OCGA § 5-6-35 (a). The court concluded that the entry of an adjudication of guilt and revocation of a defendant’s first-offender status is directly appealable. The court reasoned that the entry of an adjudication of guilt and sentence constitutes a final judgment and triggers the defendant’s right to an immediate appeal under OCGA § 5-6-34 (a) (1). The court further reasoned that an appeal in this context is not an appeal from an order revoking probation and thus does not require a discretionary application. Therefore, the court reversed the Court of Appeals’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "HOWARD v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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The case involves an appeal from an in rem civil-asset-forfeiture proceeding against over $1 million held in various bank accounts, real property, and other property. The State alleges that the property was used, intended for use, or constituted the proceeds derived from the commission of numerous crimes related to the theft, purchase, and sale of catalytic converters and other regulated metal property. The appellants, Garrett Smith, Stacey Smith, SmithCo Recycling, LLC, and SmithCo Transfer, LLC, claimed to be the owners of the seized property and moved to dismiss the complaint. They argued that the trial court had failed to timely hold a bench trial or order a continuance, and that the State had failed to allege the essential elements of a crime. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.The Supreme Court of Georgia granted certiorari to address three questions. The court concluded that the appellants are estopped from arguing on appeal that the date SmithCo Transfer filed its answer was not equivalent to the date it was served with the complaint. On that basis, the court affirmed the trial court’s denial of appellants’ motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to timely hold a bench trial or continue the trial. The court also held that the trial court and the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the second amended complaint adequately alleged the essential elements of theft by taking. The court therefore reversed the portion of the Court of Appeals’ opinion holding otherwise. The case was remanded for further proceedings without answering the third certiorari question. View "SMITH v. THE STATE" on Justia Law

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The case involves Clark Ryan Ramsey, an attorney who represented Justin Kalina in a felony assault case. Jessica Foote, a witness in the assault case, was investigated for alleged theft from Kalina's Uber Eats account, but no charges were brought against her. Ramsey sought information from the prosecutor in the assault case that had been gathered in the theft investigation, which he believed could be used to impeach Foote. He submitted a modified form to the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) requesting copies of the Confidential Criminal Justice Information (CCJI) in the theft case, noting he sought copies of CCJI regarding Foote. The YCSO disseminated the CCJI to Ramsey.The State filed a motion in the Justice Court, seeking to charge Ramsey with misdemeanor forgery and misdemeanor solicitation of the misuse of confidential criminal justice information, stemming from Ramsey’s submission of the form to the YCSO and subsequent receipt of CCJI from that agency. Ramsey filed a Motion to Dismiss, asserting the matter must be dismissed due to a lack of probable cause because, as a matter of law, the State could not prove the elements of forgery or solicitation. The Justice Court denied Ramsey’s motion to dismiss.Ramsey then petitioned the Supreme Court of the State of Montana for a writ of supervisory control directing the Yellowstone County Justice Court to reverse its order denying Ramsey’s motion to dismiss. The Supreme Court found that there was not probable cause to believe Ramsey committed either offense charged in this case and the Justice Court should not have granted the State’s motion for leave to file a complaint. The Supreme Court accepted and granted Ramsey’s petition, reversed the Justice Court’s finding of probable cause and accompanying order allowing filing of amended complaint, and remanded the matter to the Justice Court with instructions to dismiss. View "Ramsey v. Yellowstone County Justice Court" on Justia Law

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John David Panasuk was pulled over by Officer Riediger and Lieutenant Frank Martell for towing a trailer without trailer plates. After Panasuk was unable to initially provide his license, registration, and proof of insurance, Riediger asked him to exit his vehicle. The other occupants, Camilla TalksDifferent and Dustin Hickman, were also asked to exit. Riediger and Martell knew TalksDifferent as a drug user, but they did not know Panasuk or Hickman. When Hickman produced a North Dakota driver’s license, Riediger contacted the Williams County Task Force in North Dakota and was told Hickman had a history of being a drug dealer and user. Riediger also recalled a previous incident where Panasuk was suspected of selling methamphetamine. TalksDifferent gave consent to search her purse, where Riediger found two syringes. She also told Riediger there was methamphetamine in Panasuk’s vehicle. Riediger seized the vehicle and applied for a search warrant. Law enforcement recovered 6.4 grams of methamphetamine from the vehicle’s center console after searching the vehicle. Panasuk was charged with criminal possession of dangerous drugs and drug paraphernalia.The District Court denied Panasuk’s motion to suppress the evidence, noting Panasuk’s previous incident and that TalksDifferent had said there was methamphetamine in the vehicle. The court found that law enforcement had sufficient particularized suspicion to expand the scope of a traffic stop to a drug investigation.The Supreme Court of the State of Montana reversed the District Court's decision. The Supreme Court found that the initial detention was unconstitutionally extended beyond what was necessary to effectuate the initial purpose of the stop. The court concluded that there were no articulable facts, other than prior suspected criminal histories, which were offered as justification to expand the search into a drug investigation. The court held that knowledge of a person’s prior criminal involvement is alone insufficient to give rise to the requisite reasonable suspicion. The court remanded the matter for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. View "State v. Panasuk" on Justia Law