Harris v. State

Decision Date19 October 2020
Docket NumberS20A0786
Citation310 Ga. 372,850 S.E.2d 77
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court
Parties HARRIS v. The STATE.

Matthew Kyle Winchester, Law Offices of Matthew K. Winchester, 1800 Peachtree Street, NW, Suite 430, Atlanta, Georgia 30309, Attorneys for the Appellant.

Patricia B. Attaway Burton, Deputy Attorney General, Paula Khristian Smith, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Christopher M. Carr, Attorney General, Michael Alexander Oldham, Assistant Attorney General, Department of Law, 40 Capitol Square, S.W., Atlanta, Georgia 30334, Julia Anne Fessenden Slater, District Attorney, George Epps Lipscomb, II, A.D.A., Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office, 100 Tenth Street, Columbus, Georgia 31902-1340, Attorneys for the Appellee.

Warren, Justice.

A jury found Vincent Martinez Harris guilty of the malice murders of Tina Green-Hall and her six-year-old son, Jeremy Green-Hall.1 On appeal, Harris contends that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting certain evidence and committed plain error by failing to give the jury a limiting instruction regarding that evidence. Harris also contends that his trial counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance in various respects. We affirm.

1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. In October 2011, Tina agreed that Harris could live with her and Jeremy in her house in Columbus because Harris had been ousted from the house he previously shared with his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Sherrod, who had taken out a temporary protective order ("TPO") against Harris. The original arrangement was for Harris to be out of Tina's house by December 2011, but Harris continued living there through January 2012 and into February. Only Tina and Harris had keys to Tina's house. Tina told her neighbors and her ex-husband, Jerry Hall, that she wanted Harris out and that she was going to ask Harris to leave. Hall testified that on Thursday, February 23, the day before the killings, he visited Tina and she told him she wanted to get a legal document forcing Harris to leave her house. Hall suggested that they do so together on the following Monday.2 At trial, Tina's neighbor, Emma Stokes, testified that Harris told her that "[‘]another woman will not put me out of – would never put me out, I will kill her first.[’] Those [we]re his exact words." On Friday, February 24, Tina and Jeremy both died from gunshot wounds to the chest.

According to Harris, when he returned home from work at approximately 1:30 p.m. that day, he found Tina's and Jeremy's bodies next to each other in Jeremy's bed. Harris called 911 and told the operator, "I need to report a double murder," before then saying, "two people just killed themselves in my house." Harris informed the operator that "they [are] beyond hope." When the operator asked if Harris knew whether Tina "happened to be in any kind of altercation with anybody," Harris responded "no," and noted that Tina and her ex-husband "have a good relationship." Harris also volunteered that Tina "was going through a lot of problems, financial problems," that "she had told her mother I guess two months or so ago that she ... was planning on doing it," and that her mom "didn't really care and told her to go ahead and do it," implying that Tina was suicidal.3

Responding officers found no signs of forced entry, and nothing was taken from the house. Tina and Jeremy were cold to the touch. Officers recovered a .38-caliber Rossi revolver from Jeremy's bedroom; it was lying on the floor near the foot of the bed, out of Tina's reach. In Harris's bedroom (which he did not share with Tina), officers found a set of keys that unlocked a safe also located in Harris's bedroom. Officers found an empty Rossi gun case and an ammunition box with bullets missing inside the safe.

Harris told responding officers that when he left for work at 5:30 a.m. that morning, Tina and Jeremy were asleep together in Jeremy's bed; that the door was locked when he returned home; that he had to unlock both locks on the door before entering; and that he found Tina and Jeremy dead when he got inside the home. Harris also told responding officers that Tina "struggled with depression," and that "Tina was probably thinking that she was doing him a favor" by killing herself and her son.

The same day, February 24, Harris was transported to the Columbus police station, where he agreed to give a statement to police. That six-hour interview was video-recorded and played for the jury at trial. Harris was not given the Miranda4 warnings before that interview; Sergeant Michael Dahnke testified that at that time, Harris was a witness, not a suspect. During that interview, Harris again claimed that Tina had discussed suicide with her mother, who told Tina to "go ahead and do it."

Harris consented to having buccal swabs and multiple gunshot residue tests taken. Testing of Harris's pants "revealed a small quantity of gunshot primer residue," and testing of his jacket "revealed particles that are associated with [gunshot residue]."5

Dr. Douglas Posey, the medical examiner who performed autopsies on Tina and Jeremy, determined that they each died from a single gunshot wound to the chest and initially classified the manner of Tina's death as suicide. In August 2012, a detective closed the case as a murder-suicide with a notation to re-open it if other pertinent evidence arose. On April 2, 2013, Columbus police asked Dr. Posey to "reassess" Tina's autopsy report. Dr. Posey amended Tina's manner of death from "suicide" to "undetermined" based on "additional investigative information." At trial, Dr. Posey testified that Tina—who was right-handed—was shot in the chest, "from the left to right, from the front to back and downward."

Columbus Police Sergeants Randy Long and David Jury testified that after further examination of the file and of crime-scene evidence, they believed that Tina had been shot before Jeremy. Dr. Kris Sperry, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's chief medical examiner, testified that "after [Dr. Posey] had retired, then I was contacted by representatives from the Columbus Police Department in order to look at really the scene photographs and review the report and kind of re-evaluate the case from my perspective as a forensic pathologist or medical examiner." Dr. Sperry concluded that, based on the movement of the bedding in conjunction with the placement of the bodies, "the order of the gunshot wounds [was] that [Tina] had been shot first and then the boy had been shot second, which would be of course the opposite of what would have occurred if this were a suicide." On December 15, 2014, Dr. Sperry amended Tina's manner of death from "undetermined" to "homicide." Harris was arrested, waived his Miranda rights, and gave a second statement to law enforcement denying that he killed Tina and Jeremy.

Harris does not contest the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions. Nevertheless, consistent with this Court's general 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 was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Harris guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which he was convicted.6 See Jackson v. Virginia , 443 U.S. 307, 318-319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.E.2d 560 (1979).

2. Harris contends that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing certain evidence to be presented to the jury. Specifically, Harris complains that evidence regarding an incident with his ex-girlfriend, Sherrod, that resulted in a TPO being entered against him, as well as evidence regarding his ex-wife, Charlene Doleman, and ongoing alimony disputes with her, should not have been admitted in his trial for the murders of Tina and Jeremy because, according to Harris, it was extrinsic evidence that did not satisfy the requirements of OCGA § 24-4-404 (b) ("Rule 404 (b)").7 But because the trial court neither abused its discretion nor plainly erred in admitting the Sherrod/Doleman evidence, we disagree.

(a) The Sherrod/Doleman evidence.

The bulk of the evidence that Harris complains about on appeal was introduced through the video recording of his February 24 interview with police. The vast majority of that interview did not have anything to do with Sherrod or Doleman, and even the parts of the interview that did for the most part only generally touched on the nature of Harris's difficulties with Sherrod, which caused him to leave the house he shared with Sherrod and move in with Tina. For example, when asked about his current residence, Harris responded, "right now, I'm just staying with [Tina] because I got kicked out my house." However, some of Harris's statements to police revealed more details about the underlying facts of the Sherrod TPO and the Doleman alimony dispute.

Those more specific statements included that "a judge ordered me out of my house.... [b]ecause [Sherrod] said she felt like her life was threatened." Harris told the investigator that Sherrod "was trying to figure a way to steal my house and she did." Harris further explained that Sherrod was "highly upset" because Harris had "met another girl," and that one night when he came home from work, his bedroom door had been taken off its hinges and was missing. Harris explained that he suspected Sherrod, so he "busted out about four windows," "broke up some other stuff," and "wrote some things on the wall" because he was "angry as hell." According to Harris, Sherrod "said she feel like she threatened and I'm gonna kill her, and the Judge said ‘I believe you; 6 months out your house.’ So that's how I end up with Tina in October."8 Harris also stated that "now the house" he previously lived in with Sherrod was "supposed to be sold on the courthouse steps."

Later in the interview, Harris told the investigator that Harris's ex-wife, Doleman, was "dragg...

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