Champ v. State, S20A1552

CourtSupreme Court of Georgia
Citation854 S.E.2d 706
Docket NumberS20A1552
Parties CHAMP v. The STATE.
Decision Date15 February 2021

854 S.E.2d 706



Supreme Court of Georgia.

Decided: February 15, 2021

Brian Steel, The Steel Law Firm, P.C., 1800 Peachtree Street, N.W., Suite 300, Atlanta, Georgia 30309, for Appellant.

Patricia B. Attaway Burton, Deputy Attorney General, Paula Khristian Smith, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Christopher M. Carr, Attorney General, Eric Christopher Peters, Assistant Attorney General, Department of Law, 40 Capitol Sq SW, Atlanta, Georgia 30334, Bradford Lee Rigby, District Attorney, Cordele Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office, PO Box 5510, Cordele, Georgia 31010, for Appellee.

Nahmias, Presiding Justice.

Appellant Dekito Champ was convicted of malice murder and a firearm offense in connection with the shooting death of his former girlfriend, Jana Watson. Appellant's sole claim on appeal is that the trial court erred by violating his Georgia constitutional right to be present at numerous bench conferences that occurred during jury selection. We conclude that the evidence presented at Appellant's trial was sufficient to support his convictions, so we affirm that part of the trial court's judgment. However, as explained further below, because Appellant's right-to-be-present claim was raised for the first time on appeal, there was no opportunity for the State to develop the record and no findings or rulings by the trial court as to that claim, particularly as to whether Appellant acquiesced to his absences from the bench conferences. We therefore vacate the trial court's judgment in part and remand the case for that court to hold a hearing and rule in the first instance on Appellant's constitutional claim.1

1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at Appellant's trial showed the following. Appellant and Watson started dating in 2012 and at times had a tumultuous relationship, during which Watson called the police about Appellant on multiple occasions. In January 2016, Watson ended the relationship. Appellant then began harassing her by phone and in person, including an occasion when he showed up at her workplace with a pistol. He also repeatedly threatened to commit suicide if she refused to resume their relationship.

On March 17, 2016, Appellant told Watson that he planned to euthanize the dog they had shared, and Watson offered to take it. Later that day, Appellant sent Watson text messages threatening to send sexually explicit images of her to her mother and her father's colleagues, prompting Watson to inform Appellant that if he did not stop contacting her, she would take legal action. Appellant replied, "Wow. Okay. I'm done."

On the morning of March 20, Watson drove from Atlanta to Fitzgerald, where Appellant was living with his mother and grandmother, to retrieve the dog. As Watson was preparing to leave, Appellant's mother saw him standing by the open door of Watson's car while she sat in the driver's seat; they were having a "heated conversation." Appellant's mother went inside the house, and shortly thereafter, she heard gunshots. She ran outside, saw that Watson had been shot,

854 S.E.2d 710

and called 911. Two neighbors also saw Appellant and Watson talking at Watson's car before the neighbors went inside their house. Moments later, they heard two rounds of gunfire – three muffled shots soon followed by three louder shots – and looked out their window to see Appellant crawling along the ground outside the driver's side of Watson's car. Appellant's 9mm pistol was found on the ground nearby. Watson, who had suffered four contact gunshot wounds to her upper left chest, died at the scene. Appellant, who had three contact gunshot wounds to his upper left chest, was airlifted to a hospital.

Appellant testified at trial, claiming that Watson had found his gun in his truck, taken it, and then shot him as he squatted by her car, before he took the gun from her and shot back while still squatting. But the police found a four-page suicide note in Appellant's jacket pocket that said in part: "The woman I've done everything possible for doesn't want me. She doesn't care about me nor our family." And the forensic evidence presented at trial indicated that Watson's contact wounds were not consistent with a struggle over the gun and that the downward trajectory of the bullets that struck her was not consistent with the shooter's being in a squatting position.

Appellant does not challenge the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions. Nevertheless, in accordance with this Court's practice in murder cases, we have reviewed the record and conclude that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial and summarized above was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia , 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979). See also Vega v. State , 285 Ga. 32, 33, 673 S.E.2d 223 (2009) (" ‘It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence.’ " (citation omitted)).2

2. Appellant contends that his absences from a number of bench conferences during the jury selection process at his trial violated his right under the Georgia Constitution to be present during all critical stages of the criminal proceedings against him, and that he did not waive his right to be present or acquiesce to his absences. As explained below, this claim, and particularly whether Appellant acquiesced to his absences from the bench conferences, should be addressed in the first instance by the trial court on remand.

(a) The transcript of Appellant's trial provides the following information about what he could see or hear while present in the courtroom during the jury selection process, what the trial court explained about that process, and what occurred at the series of bench conferences described below that Appellant could see, but not hear.

(1) Preliminary instructions : In the trial court's preliminary instructions to the prospective jurors, the court explained that the law gives the attorneys for the State and the defendant the right to question prospective jurors concerning their qualifications to serve as trial jurors. The court also explained that the lawyers would ask questions to panels of 14 jurors until they had enough potential jurors to select from.

(2) Prospective Juror M3 : When the trial court asked the first panel of prospective jurors if they could hear or understand the court, Juror M said that she did not understand English very well and did not know if that would prevent her from understanding everything going on in the trial. The court asked the lawyers to approach for a bench conference, where it asked them if there were any problems with excusing Juror M for cause. Neither lawyer objected. The court then announced in open court that Juror M was being "excuse[d] for cause."

(3) Prospective Jurors C.S., C.Z., and R.H.: When the prosecutor asked the panel if

854 S.E.2d 711

any of them knew Appellant, Juror C.S. said that he knew Appellant's mother and uncles; he added that he considered his relationship with them to be a close relationship and indicated that it would make it hard for him to be fair and impartial. Later, defense counsel asked the panel if any jurors felt that because this case involved a homicide, it was not appropriate for them to serve, or if they had religious or philosophical reasons for not wanting to be selected to serve. Juror C.S. reiterated that Appellant's mother and uncles were "like family" and that it would be hard for him to find Appellant guilty.

When the prosecutor asked the panel if any of them lived in the area where the incident occurred, Juror C.Z. said that her husband's uncle lived across the street and that she and her husband had been there on the date of the shooting. The prosecutor requested a bench conference, where he asked to reserve the right to question Juror C.Z. later to avoid tainting the jury pool. The trial court decided to bring Juror C.Z. up to the bench to question her at that time. When she was at the bench, the court told her they were going to ask her questions in a low tone of voice so the other jurors could not overhear. Counsel for both parties then questioned her about what she knew regarding the incident prior to coming to court. Juror C.Z. told them that she and her husband were "pulling up as all the ambulance[s] and stuff were there"; however, she also said that they had heard gunshots and looked out the window, but they had not really observed anything until the ambulance and the police arrived. Juror C.Z. said she knew "it happened in a vehicle and all that, but that's about it." She also confirmed that she had not spoken to the police, but she was not sure if her husband's uncle had.

Later, during further questioning of the panel in open court, Juror C.Z. said that her husband was a convicted felon, but that she did not have any bias for or against the district attorney's office as a result of its prosecution of her husband's case. In response to a question about whether any of the jurors’ attention would be divided if they had to serve for a multiple-day trial, Juror C.Z. said that she would have a problem because her place of employment had only a...

To continue reading

Request your trial
1 cases
  • Champ v. State, S20A1552
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • February 15, 2021
    ...Ga. 832854 S.E.2d 706CHAMPv.The STATE.S20A1552Supreme Court of Georgia.Decided: February 15, 2021854 S.E.2d 709 Brian Steel, for appellant.Bradford L. Rigby, District Attorney, Christopher M. Carr, Attorney General, Patricia B. Attaway Burton, Deputy Attorney General, Paula K. Smith, Senior......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT