Ford v. Tate

Decision Date31 October 2019
Docket NumberS19X0826,S19A0825
Citation835 S.E.2d 198,307 Ga. 383
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court
Parties FORD v. TATE; and vice versa.

Christopher M. Carr, Attorney General, Patricia B. Attaway Burton, Deputy Attorney General, Tayo Popoola, Sabrina Dawn Graham, Assistant Attorneys General, for Appellant.

Mark Evan Olive, Vanessa J. Carroll, for Appellee.

Benham, Justice.

In 2005, Nicholas Cody Tate pleaded guilty to the murders of Chrissie Williams and her three-year-old daughter, Katelyn Williams, and to numerous related crimes. He waived his right to a jury trial as to sentencing for the murders. At the conclusion of a sentencing bench trial, the trial court found the existence of several statutory aggravating circumstances and sentenced Tate to death for each of the murders. This Court unanimously affirmed Tate's convictions and death sentences. See Tate v. State, 287 Ga. 364, 695 S.E.2d 591 (2010). On January 31, 2012, the same day that his execution was scheduled to occur pursuant to an order signed by the trial court, Tate filed through counsel a petition for a writ of habeas corpus and a motion for a stay of execution. Tate's scheduled execution was stayed, and he amended his petition on May 16, 2013. The habeas court conducted an evidentiary hearing on June 9-10, 2014, and, in an order filed on December 27, 2018, the court denied relief with respect to Tate's convictions but granted relief with respect to his death sentences after finding that Tate received ineffective assistance of counsel at the sentencing trial.

In Case No. S19A0825, the Warden appeals the habeas court's vacation of Tate's death sentences, contending that the habeas court committed reversible error in concluding that trial counsel were prejudicially deficient in investigating and presenting mitigating evidence at the sentencing trial and in denying the Warden the opportunity to call Tate as a witness at the habeas evidentiary hearing. In Case No. S19X0826, Tate cross-appeals, contending that the habeas court committed reversible error in denying several claims, including several instances of ineffective assistance of counsel, the violation of his constitutional right to a speedy trial, the State's pursuit of contradictory theories, and post-conviction counsel's conflict of interest. In the Warden's appeal, we reverse and reinstate Tate's death sentences. In Tate's cross-appeal, we affirm.1

I. Factual Background.

The evidence presented at Tate's sentencing trial, including his videotaped custodial interview, showed the following. On the morning of December 11, 2001, 21-year-old Tate and two of his brothers, 18-year-old Dustin Tate and 15-year-old Chad Tate, loaded a number of weapons into Tate's truck and left their mother's home, where they resided. They drove to a local sporting goods store with a shopping list that included ammunition, duct tape, and extra-long zip ties. Tate went inside, accompanied by Dustin Tate, and purchased duct tape, a knife, and ammunition for various firearms, including a Winchester rifle, a nine-millimeter pistol, a .357 Magnum revolver, and an AR15 semi-automatic rifle. The three brothers then drove to the home of Barry Williams and his wife, Chrissie Williams, whose sister was married to Tate's oldest brother, Curtis Tate. Tate had previously purchased methamphetamine from Barry Williams, and he and his younger brothers planned to burglarize the home, to steal drugs and money from the home, and to use a stun gun to rape Chrissie Williams.

Although Tate was aware that the Williams couple had temporarily lost custody of their children, he was not aware that Chrissie Williams had the children with her during the day pursuant to a reunification plan. Therefore, he expected Chrissie Williams to be home alone. However, when the three brothers arrived at the house, the Williamses's three-year-old daughter, Katelyn Williams, answered the door. Although the child recognized Tate and called him "Big Nick," her name for him, she was obviously frightened by the three males, who entered the home armed, and she began screaming and running throughout the house. Tate and Chad Tate cut the telephone lines to the home, and Dustin Tate found Chrissie Williams sleeping in a bedroom with her two-year-old son in a crib beside her. When he shocked her with a stun gun, she awoke screaming, and Dustin Tate forced her to move to the bedroom across the hallway, intending to rape her there. At some point, both Tate and Chad Tate assisted Dustin Tate either in taping Chrissie Williams's mouth and eyes with duct tape or in handcuffing her hands to the bed's headboard and taping her legs to its footboard.

During an intense search for drugs and money, Tate rummaged through Chrissie Williams's purse, and he and Chad Tate ransacked the home, including turning furniture over, ripping the blinds off the windows, and removing heating vents. Tate attempted to silence Katelyn Williams's screams by taping her mouth with duct tape. After she continued to scream and run throughout the house, he placed her in the crib with her younger brother and told her to "shut up." When her brother started crying, Tate took her out of the crib, and she ran from him. Tate angrily ordered Chad Tate to "take her in the back bedroom" and quiet her. Chad Tate complied with Tate's order, and he strangled Katelyn Williams with a telephone cord, rendering her unconscious. When she revived and began crying again, Tate allowed Chad Tate to have his knife. Chad Tate slit Katelyn Williams's throat multiple times and then pushed her off the bed and onto the floor, where she eventually bled to death.

When Tate and Dustin Tate saw what Chad Tate had done, Tate took Katelyn Williams's younger brother out of the crib and "let him go in the living room," and "Dustin w[ent] ape" and insisted that they had "to get out of [t]here." He was so distressed that Tate directed him to wait outside. Bound to the bed with her eyes and mouth taped, Chrissie Williams became "hysterical," and Tate pointed his Smith and Wesson nine-millimeter pistol at her face and threatened to beat her with it if she did not cease her attempts to scream. Then Tate placed a cushion over Williams's head and shoved his pistol into it, firing one shot into the side of Williams's head and killing her. Tate and Chad Tate locked the door behind them as they left the home, leaving Chrissie Williams's toddler son inside. The three brothers fled Georgia, kidnapped a woman and stole her vehicle in Mississippi, and finally surrendered to authorities in Oklahoma. At the sentencing trial, the children's aunt testified that Katelyn Williams was wearing footed zip-up pajamas when she dropped Katelyn off at the home early on the morning of the crimes. When the victims were discovered, Katelyn Williams's body was completely nude, and Tate admitted at his guilty plea hearing that he removed her pajamas for his sexual gratification.

II. Claims of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel.

In Case No. S19A0825, the Warden appeals the habeas court's determination that trial counsel were ineffective in the investigation and presentation of mitigation evidence. In Case No. S19X0826, Tate appeals the habeas court's denial of his claims that trial counsel were ineffective regarding Tate's guilty plea, his interview by an acquaintance of the trial judge, his waiver of a jury trial as to sentencing for the murders, and the failure to present Chad Tate as a witness or to submit into evidence at the sentencing trial Chad Tate's custodial interview and the plea colloquies of Chad Tate and Dustin Tate.

A. Applicable Law.

To prevail on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Tate must show both that counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance prejudiced his defense. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668, 687 (III), 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984) ; Smith v. Francis, 253 Ga. 782, 783 (1), 325 S.E.2d 362 (1985). In determining whether counsel's performance was deficient, the relevant inquiry is "whether, in light of all the circumstances, the identified acts or omissions were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance." Strickland, 466 U. S. at 690 (III) (A), 104 S.Ct. 2052. We must "indulge a strong presumption" that counsel's performance fell within "the wide range of reasonable professional assistance" and that counsel's decisions were made "in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Id. at 689, 690 (III) (A), 104 S.Ct. 2052. The reasonableness of counsel's conduct is examined from counsel's perspective at the time of trial and under the particular circumstances of the case. Id. at 689 (III) (A), 104 S.Ct. 2052.

With respect to Strickland 's second prong, a petitioner must affirmatively prove prejudice by "show[ing] that there is a reasonable probability (i.e., a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome) that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Smith, 253 Ga. at 783 (1), 325 S.E.2d 362 (citing Strickland, 466 U. S. at 694 (III) (B), 104 S.Ct. 2052 ). To determine prejudice in the sentencing phase of a case challenging a death sentence, "the question is whether there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the sentencer ... would have concluded that the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death." Strickland, 466 U. S. at 695 (III) (B), 104 S.Ct. 2052.

"In reviewing a habeas court's ruling on an ineffective assistance claim, we accept the habeas court's findings of fact unless clearly erroneous and independently apply the law to those facts." Sears v. Humphrey, 294 Ga. 117, 119 (II) (A), 751 S.E.2d 365 (2013) (citation and punctuation omitted). See Humphrey v. Morrow, 289 Ga. 864, 866 (II), 717 S.E.2d 168 (2011) (explaining that this Court adopts the habeas court's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous but...

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10 cases
  • Ford v. Tate, S19A0825
    • United States
    • Georgia Supreme Court
    • October 31, 2019
    ...835 S.E.2d 198FORDv.TATE; and vice versa.S19A0825S19X0826Supreme Court of Georgia.Decided: October 31, 2019835 S.E.2d 201 Tayo Popoola, Sabrina Dawn Graham, Christopher M. Carr, Patricia B. Attaway Burton, Department of Law, Atlanta, for Appellant in S19A0825, Appellee in S19X0826.Mark Evan......
  • Butler v. State
    • United States
    • Georgia Supreme Court
    • May 3, 2022
    ...of the case." Taylor v. State , 312 Ga. 1, 15, 860 S.E.2d 470 (2021) (citation and punctuation omitted). See also Ford v. Tate , 307 Ga. 383, 422, 835 S.E.2d 198 (2019). And here, the record shows that there were multiple strategic reasons that could have supported counsel's advice to choos......
  • Arnold v. State
    • United States
    • Georgia Supreme Court
    • August 10, 2020
    ...errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Ford v. Tate , 307 Ga. 383, 386 (II) (A), 835 S.E.2d 198 (2019). As Arnold must show both deficiency and prejudice in order to succeed on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, this Co......
  • Arnold v. State
    • United States
    • Georgia Supreme Court
    • August 10, 2020
    ...unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Ford v. Tate , 307 Ga. 383, 386 (II) (A), 835 S.E.2d 198 (2019). As Arnold must show both deficiency and prejudice in order to succeed on his ineffective assistance of counsel......
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