Lucas v. State

Citation274 Ga. 640,555 S.E.2d 440
Decision Date19 November 2001
Docket NumberNo. S01P1069.,S01P1069.
PartiesLUCAS v. The STATE.
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

555 S.E.2d 440
274 Ga. 640

LUCAS
v.
The STATE

No. S01P1069.

Supreme Court of Georgia.

November 19, 2001.

Reconsideration Denied December 14, 2001.


555 S.E.2d 443
Adams, Jordan & Treadwell, Donald J. Jordan, Brian G. Combs, Milledgeville, Patrick Keenan, Atlanta, for appellant

Fredric D. Bright, Dist. Atty., Thurbert E. Baker, Atty. Gen., Karen A. Johnson, Asst. Atty. Gen., for appellee.

555 S.E.2d 441

555 S.E.2d 442
FLETCHER, Chief Justice.

Daniel Anthony Lucas was found guilty by a jury on three counts of malice murder, three counts of felony murder, two counts of burglary, and one count of kidnapping with bodily injury.1 The jury [274 Ga. 641] found beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder of Bryan Moss was committed while Lucas was engaged in the murder of Kristin Moss, that it was committed while Lucas was engaged in a burglary, that it was committed while Lucas was engaged in a kidnapping with bodily injury, and that it was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved depravity of mind.2 The jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder of Kristin Moss was committed while Lucas was engaged in the murder of Steven Moss and while Lucas was engaged in a burglary.3 The jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder of Steven Moss was committed while Lucas was engaged in the murder of Bryan Moss and while Lucas was engaged in a burglary.4 The jury fixed the sentence for each of the murders at death. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the convictions and sentences in this case.

1. The evidence adduced at trial, which included Lucas's videotaped confession to investigators and testimony regarding his inculpatory statement to a friend, showed the following. Lucas and Brandon Joseph Rhode burglarized the home of Steven and

555 S.E.2d 444
Gerri Ann Moss twice on April 23, 1998. During the second burglary of the Moss home, 11-year-old Bryan Moss returned home from school. Lucas and Rhode confronted Bryan and forced him to sit in a chair, and then Lucas fired at Bryan with a.25 caliber handgun, inflicting a non-fatal wound to his upper arm and shoulder. Lucas led Bryan to a bedroom where he shot the boy repeatedly with the .25 caliber handgun. In the meantime, Rhode met 15-year-old Kristin Moss as she arrived from school, placed her in a chair, and shot her twice with a .357 caliber handgun. Rhode then shot Steven Moss four times with the .357 caliber handgun as Steven arrived home. Finally, Lucas obtained a .22 caliber handgun from Rhode's automobile and shot Bryan and Kristin Moss both again. Both Bryan and Kristin as well as their father Steven Moss died as a result of any number of these gunshot wounds inflicted by Lucas.

Several witnesses observed Rhode's automobile as Lucas and Rhode fled in it from the Mosses' home. One of these witnesses identified Lucas as the passenger in the automobile. A search of the automobile revealed a recently-used spare tire and damage to both the front and rear bumpers. The damage to the bumpers was shown to be consistent with damage to a propane tank and a cinder block at the Mosses' home. Expert testimony demonstrated that paint left on the [274 Ga. 642] cinder block matched the paint on Rhode's automobile. Further expert testimony showed that an impression left in the Mosses' dirt driveway could have been made by the spare tire.

We conclude, viewing the evidence adduced at the guilt/innocence phase of Lucas's trial in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, that the evidence was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Lucas was guilty on all charges.5

Victim Impact Comments and Testimony

2. Lucas contends that certain comments during the State's opening statement and certain testimony during the guilt/innocence phase of the trial improperly raised the worth of the victims and the impact wrought by their deaths. We conclude that the trial court erred in allowing the comments and testimony in question, but we also conclude that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

(a) Lucas filed a pretrial motion for an order barring the introduction of victim worth and victim impact evidence entirely or, alternatively, for a pretrial hearing for the purpose of reviewing and limiting such evidence. The State agreed that it would not seek to introduce any such evidence. Nevertheless, the State's opening statement, almost at its very beginning, made reference to Bryan Moss's being "an A-B student" and to his having made the "All Star team every year," as well as to Kristin Moss's having been voted "most likely to succeed" by her classmates. The State also noted in its opening statement that the Moss family "had been through some hard times" but that "finally life was looking good for them" in light of Steven Moss's recent success in his own trucking business. Lucas objected to the State's opening statement and moved for a mistrial, but the trial court ruled that the State's remarks were not improper. After the trial court overruled Lucas's renewed objection and denied his request for a hearing to voir dire the testimony of Gerri Ann Moss, the State purposefully elicited testimony from Ms. Moss about Bryan's and Kristin's being "good students" and "good kids," about Bryan's excelling at football, and about Kristin's being voted most likely to succeed. The State also purposefully elicited testimony about Steven's trucking business and about how Steven and Bryan liked to fish. When the State's second witness, Cary Moss, began testifying further about Steven Moss's trucking business, Lucas again objected on grounds that the testimony was improper. The trial court overruled the objection on grounds related to victim impact and victim [274 Ga. 643] worth but sustained the objection on the ground that the testimony was not relevant.

(b) Georgia law authorizes the admission of evidence regarding "the victim's personal characteristics and the emotional

555 S.E.2d 445
impact of the crime on the victim, the victim's family, or the community" in a death penalty trial, but such evidence is admissible only "subsequent to an adjudication of guilt...."6 Even when such evidence is to be introduced at the sentencing phase, trial courts are to use great caution in ensuring that the rights of the defendant are secured.7 In Lucas's case such evidence was improperly admitted during the guilt/innocence phase of the trial, despite his repeated objections.

Some information about victims can offer jurors "those details of context that allow them to understand what is being described"8 in the guilt/innocence phase, and, accordingly, we have held that "incidental characterizations" of a victim are not improper in the guilt/innocence phase when they are necessary to show something sufficiently relevant.9 However, upon our review of the record in Lucas's case, we are unable to say that the opening statements and testimony described above concerning Bryan and Kristin Moss were relevant at all to the question of Lucas's guilt or innocence. Some limited information regarding Steven Moss's business might have had some relevance to the timing of his arrival at home on the day of the murders and his possessing some money that apparently was removed from his wallet after his murder. However, even this information was first introduced in the State's opening statement in the unnecessary context of the Moss family's going through "some hard times...." We conclude, therefore, that the trial court erred by allowing improper reference to victim impact in the State's opening statement and in the testimony of the first two witnesses.

(c) Although we conclude that the trial court erred in overruling Lucas's objections to victim impact references in the State's opening statement and in the testimony of two witnesses, we need not reverse Lucas's convictions and sentences, because the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The comments and testimony in question would have been admissible in the sentencing phase, and, therefore, our analysis of possible harm is limited to any harm that might have been suffered in the guilt/innocence phase. We note that Lucas had confessed both to a friend, who testified at trial, and to law enforcement officers, in a videotaped confession that was played for the jury. [274 Ga. 644] Thus, particularly in light of the State's corroborating evidence, there was no room for any reasonable doubt that Lucas had actively participated in the murders. Although Lucas argued that he was unable to form the intent to murder, we conclude, in view of the evidence as a whole and the relevant law presented to the jury in the guilt/innocence phase charge, that the jury's consideration of that theory of defense in the guilt/innocence phase was not affected by the trial court's error. Because we conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Lucas suffered no harm, we need not reverse his convictions or sentences.

Pretrial Issues

3. Lucas moved for a change of venue, the State consented to the motion, and the trial court ruled that venue would be changed and informed the parties that it would select a new county for trial. Thereafter, but before a new venue had been selected by the trial court, the State moved that the jury be selected in another county and then returned to Jones County for the trial, pursuant to OCGA § 17-7-150(a)(3). Upon our review of the record, we find no abuse of the trial court's discretion in its final ruling on venue, and we reject Lucas's contention that the trial court was not authorized to modify its ruling on the motion to change venue in the manner described here.10

4. Upon our review of the record, we conclude that the trial court did not err in

555 S.E.2d 446
finding that Lucas's videotaped confession was voluntarily made after he had been advised of and had waived his rights under Miranda v. Arizona.11 We also conclude that the trial court did not err in...

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