Mitchell v. State

Decision Date07 September 2022
Docket NumberS22A0771
Citation314 Ga. 566,878 S.E.2d 208
Parties MITCHELL v. The STATE.
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

William Davis Hewitt, Davis Hewitt Law Firm, 100 Bull Street Suite 200, Savannah, Georgia 31401, for Appellant.

Patricia B. Attaway Burton, Deputy Attorney General, Paula Khristian Smith, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Meghan Hobbs Hill, Assistant Attorney General, Christopher M. Carr, Attorney General, Department of Law, 40 Capitol Square, S.W., Atlanta, Georgia 30334, Deborah D. Wellborn, Destiny H. Bryant, A.D.A., Dekalb County District Attorney's Office, 556 North McDonough Street, Decatur, Georgia 30030, Lenny I. Krick, A.D.A., Sherry Boston, District Attorney, Buffy Dionne Thomas, A.D.A., Dekalb County District Attorney's Office, 556 North McDonough Street, Suite 700, Decatur, Georgia 30030, for Appellee.

Colvin, Justice.

Following a jury trial, Kashawn Mitchell was convicted of malice murder and related offenses in connection with the shooting death of Jaron Acklin.1 Mitchell claims that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support his convictions, that the trial court erred by admitting his custodial statements into evidence, and that the trial court erred during sentencing. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

1. Mitchell raises two challenges to the evidence supporting his convictions. First, he asserts that the trial court applied the incorrect legal standard by reviewing his claims under OCGA §§ 5-5-20 and 5-5-21 only for legal sufficiency of the evidence. See Holmes v. State , 306 Ga. 524, 527–528 (2), 832 S.E.2d 392 (2019) (holding that, "when the record reflects that the trial court reviewed the motion for new trial [on the general grounds] only for legal sufficiency of the evidence, the trial court has failed to exercise [its] discretion" as the "thirteenth juror" (citation and punctuation omitted)). In its order denying Mitchell's motion for new trial, however, the court noted that it had reviewed "the record, pleadings, and applicable law," and that it had also taken into consideration "the testimony, evidence, exhibits, and arguments of the parties, as well as the demeanor, credibility, and veracity of the witnesses presented at the [motion for new trial] hearing." Accordingly, "[t]he court did not state the incorrect standard in its order, and nothing in the record indicates that the court was unaware of its responsibility" in reviewing the evidence pursuant to the general grounds. Hodges v. State , 309 Ga. 590, 592 (2), 847 S.E.2d 538 (2020) (citation and punctuation omitted). Therefore, this portion of Mitchell's claim fails.

Mitchell also claims that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support his convictions. When evaluating the sufficiency of evidence as a matter of constitutional due process, we must determine whether, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdicts, "any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Jackson v. Virginia , 443 U. S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 1979 (emphasis omitted). "This Court does not reweigh evidence or resolve conflicts in testimony; instead, evidence is reviewed in a light most favorable to the verdict, with deference to the jury's assessment of the weight and credibility of the evidence." Hayes v. State , 292 Ga. 506, 506, 739 S.E.2d 313 (2013) (citation and punctuation omitted).

Viewing the evidence in this light, the record shows that, on the morning of November 16, 2015, a maintenance worker entered Acklin's apartment after one of Acklin's friends voiced concerns that she had not heard from him for two days. Upon entering the residence, the maintenance worker found Acklin dead of a single gunshot wound to the head. When the police responded to the scene, they found Acklin leaning against the wall of his living room with his hands bound behind his back. Detectives noted that there were no signs of forced entry or of a struggle. A spent 9mm cartridge casing was on the living room floor along with empty money clips. Officers learned that a number of items were missing from the apartment, including two hoverboards (one red and one blue) and designer bags.

A forensic examination of Acklin's laptop showed that it was last used on November 13, 2015, around 12:13 p.m. Detectives reviewed surveillance video of the apartment complex from that time, which showed two men entering Acklin's building. Approximately an hour later, the same two men exited the building carrying bags and two hoverboards. The men got into Acklin's car and drove off.

During their investigation, detectives learned that Acklin ran a large, illegal, check-cashing scheme and, because of this, he was very cautious about whom he allowed into his apartment, almost never permitting strangers or surprise visitors inside. The State presented evidence that Mitchell and Julius Bynum-Horn were friends with Acklin and that they had previously helped him move into his apartment. Phone records showed that the last call Acklin received on November 13 was from a phone used by Mitchell. On that day, that same cell phone had pinged a cell tower near Acklin's apartment.

Surveillance video recovered from a nearby Walmart showed Mitchell and Bynum-Horn riding on hoverboards in the parking lot on the afternoon of November 13, 2015. The men went inside the store, purchased gold spray paint and, according to a witness, used it to change the color of the hoverboards from red and blue to gold. Detectives searched the residence where Mitchell was staying and located bullets that matched the caliber and brand of the spent casing found at the crime scene. They also located a red hoverboard that had been spray-painted gold.

Detectives called Mitchell after they obtained a warrant for his arrest. Mitchell told detectives that he was in New Jersey. However, based upon a previously obtained order, officers were able to track Mitchell's cell phone to his girlfriend's apartment in Stone Mountain. Mitchell was arrested at his girlfriend's residence and, while inside, officers found one of Acklin's missing designer bags.

After his arrest, Mitchell was interviewed by police on two separate occasions – first on December 21, 2015, and again on December 23, 2015. During the first interview, Mitchell admitted that he drove to Acklin's apartment complex on November 13, but denied going inside, claiming he could not get through the front security gate. During the second interview, Mitchell stated the following. He drove Bynum-Horn over to Acklin's apartment so that they could discuss money Acklin owed to Bynum-Horn. While the three men were in the apartment, Acklin and Bynum-Horn got into an argument, which turned so heated that both men pulled guns. They eventually calmed down and put their weapons away, but Bynum-Horn pulled his gun out again during the conversation. Bynum-Horn forced Acklin against the wall, tied him up and held him at gunpoint. During this time, Mitchell took about $2,000 in cash, a hoverboard, and the keys to Acklin's car and then walked outside. Bynum-Horn exited the apartment shortly after with another hoverboard, a designer backpack, and clothing. Mitchell and Bynum-Horn then left in Acklin's car and abandoned it at another apartment complex located nearby. Mitchell denied shooting Acklin.

Mitchell alleges that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions because there was no physical evidence connecting him to the scene of the crime. Viewing all of the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to the verdicts, however, it was sufficient as a matter of constitutional due process to authorize a rational jury to find Mitchell guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes charged. See OCGA §§ 16-2-20 (defining "party to a crime"); 16-5-1 (a) (defining "malice murder"); 16-8-41 (a) (defining "armed robbery"); 16-11-106 (b) (defining "possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony"). See also Johnson v. State , 296 Ga. 504, 505 (1), 769 S.E.2d 87 (2015) (explaining that "the State was not required to produce any physical evidence, as the testimony of a single witness is generally sufficient to establish a fact, and the lack of corroboration with physical evidence only goes to the weight of the evidence and the credibility of the testifying witness, which is solely within the purview of the jury" (citation and punctuation omitted)).

2. Mitchell claims that the trial court erred by failing to grant in full the motion to suppress his December 21 and December 23 custodial statements. First, Mitchell contends that his statements were obtained in violation of OCGA § 24-8-824,2 alleging that his December 21 statement was induced by the "remotest fear of injury" because officers threatened him with physical violence, and that his December 23 statement was induced by "the slightest hope of benefit" because he was promised a lesser charge in exchange for a statement. Second, he claims that his statements were not made freely and voluntarily as a matter of constitutional due process. We see no reversible error.

As an initial matter, there are questions as to whether Mitchell's fear of injury and constitutional due process claims are preserved for ordinary appellate review rather than plain error. However, we need not decide the preservation issues in this case because, as discussed below, these claims fail even if we apply ordinary appellate review. See State v. Kelly , 290 Ga. 29, 33 (2) (a), 718 S.E.2d 232 (2011) (when reviewing for plain error, a defendant must show, among other things, that the legal error was "clear or obvious, rather than subject to reasonable dispute") (citation and punctuation omitted). See also Dolphy v. State , 288 Ga. 705, 710 (3), 707 S.E.2d 56 (2011) (explaining that, where there is no reversible error, "it follows that there could be no plain error either since plain error does not exist in the absence of reversible...

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