Rouse v. State

CourtSupreme Court of Georgia
Citation296 Ga. 213,765 S.E.2d 879
Decision Date17 November 2014
Docket NumberNo. S14A1165.,S14A1165.
PartiesROUSE v. The STATE.

296 Ga. 213
765 S.E.2d 879


No. S14A1165.

Supreme Court of Georgia.

Nov. 17, 2014.

765 S.E.2d 879

Michael Wayne Tarleton, James C. Bonner, Jr., Atlanta, for appellant.

Patricia B. Attaway Burton, Dep. Atty. Gen., Paula Khristian Smith, Senior Asst. Atty. Gen., Samuel S. Olens, Atty. Gen., Christian Alexander Fuller, Asst. Atty. Gen., Atlanta, Robert Bradford Bickerstaff, II, Asst. Dist. Atty., Julia Anne Fessenden Slater, Dist. Atty., Columbus, for appellee.


THOMPSON, Chief Justice.

296 Ga. 213

Appellant Steven Rouse was found guilty of felony murder and robbery in connection with the beating death and robbery of Scott Gillens. His motion for new trial, in which he asserted the general grounds, was denied, and he appeals, arguing that the trial court erred by commenting on the evidence in violation of OCGA § 17–8–57. After reviewing the record and relevant case law, we agree that the trial court's statement to the venire that the murder “happened in Muscogee County” violated OCGA § 17–8–57 and reverse the judgment of the trial court.1

765 S.E.2d 880

1. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence presented at trial revealed that Melissa and

296 Ga. 214

Missy Conaway showed their boyfriends, Charles Mellinger and Brian Dewberry, sexual text messages sent to them by the victim. While Mellinger and Dewberry stated an initial desire to “jump” the victim, all four individuals eventually formulated a plan to lure the victim to their house so that Mellinger and Dewberry could rob him. Dewberry, who is appellant's brother, asked appellant to help with the robbery and appellant agreed.

On the day of the crimes, Melissa invited the victim to an apartment complex near her house in Muscogee County and agreed to have sex with him in exchange for cigarettes. Melissa and the victim later went to the store to get the cigarettes while Missy called appellant. Appellant told Missy to have Melissa take the victim to a nearby parking area next to some woods. After the victim parked near the woods, Melissa walked away from the victim's truck. Appellant, Dewberry and Mellinger, who had been waiting in the woods, then approached the victim. Appellant punched the victim, placed him in a choke hold, and kicked him in the head and throat several times while he lay on the ground. Mellinger took the victim's wallet but threw it in the bushes after discovering it contained no money. The victim died as a result of injuries to his head and neck resulting in asphyxiation. Appellant, who was arrested later that day, admitted to police that he hit and kicked the victim in the head and throat but he claimed he did so in self-defense.

We find the evidence was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979).

2. Appellant contends the trial court violated OCGA § 17–8–57 by improperly expressing to the venire during jury selection its opinion that venue was proper in Muscogee County. OCGA § 17–8–57 provides:

It is error for any judge in any criminal case, during its progress or in his charge to the jury, to express or intimate his opinion as to what has or has not been proved or as to the guilt of the accused. Should any judge violate this Code section, the violation shall be held by the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals to be error and the decision in the case reversed, and a new trial granted in the court below with such directions as the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals may lawfully give.

The language of this statute is mandatory, thus any violation of OCGA § 17–8–57 requires a new trial regardless of whether there has

296 Ga. 215

been any showing of actual prejudice to the defendant. See Patel v. State, 282 Ga. 412, 415, 651 S.E.2d 55 (2007). See also Collier v. State, 288 Ga. 756, 763, 707 S.E.2d 102 (2011) (Nahmias, J., specially concurring) (if violation of OCGA § 17–8–57 is found, “conviction will be reversed without further consideration of the effect of the error on the defendant's substantial rights or the fairness and integrity of the proceeding”); State v. Gardner, 286 Ga. 633, 634, 690 S.E.2d 164 (2010) (because violation of OCGA § 17–8–57 will always constitute plain error, failure to object does not waive issue on appeal).

The record in this case reflects that during its preliminary instructions to the venire, the trial court commented as follows:

This process this morning is what[ ] we call voir dire. Voir dire just simply means to speak the truth. This means that you will be hearing about a case, which is a murder case, that happened in Muscogee County, and you'll be asked questions about this case.

The court's statement that jurors would be hearing a case that happened in Muscogee County clearly and unambiguously suggested

765 S.E.2d 881

that venue in Muscogee County had been established or was not in dispute in this case. Venue is a jurisdictional element that must be proved by the State beyond a reasonable doubt in every criminal case, and the determination of whether venue has been established is an issue soundly within the province of the jury. See Patel, supra, 282 Ga. at 414, 651 S.E.2d 55. We find that when, as in this case, a trial judge makes a statement to jurors, however inadvertent or unintentional, informing them that a crime occurred in a particular county, i.e., a particular venue, the making of the statement violates OCGA § 17–8–57 because it could be construed as a comment regarding a required element of the State's case. Id. See Jones v. State, 189 Ga.App. 232(1), 375 S.E.2d 648 (1988) (fact that court did not intend to express opinion about issue within province of jury did not excuse violation of OCGA § 17–8–57 ). That the critical element about which the comment is made is a jurisdictional element of the State's case makes no difference for purposes of OCGA § 17–8–57 ; a comment made by a trial court affirmatively establishing a disputed element the State has the burden of proving at trial is error, and this Court cannot surmise whether it may have caused actual prejudice to the defendant. See Murphy v. State, 290 Ga. 459(2), 722 S.E.2d 51 (2012) (trial court's favorable comments about witness violated OCGA § 17–8–57 because it is impossible to determine that jurors were not influenced).

This conclusion is supported by and entirely consistent with our recent decision in Patel v. State, supra, where we held violative of

296 Ga. 216

OCGA § 17–8–57 a trial court's statement before jurors that “[v]enue is proper in Fayette County.” Although the trial court in the instant case did not specifically reference “venue” in its statement, we find no substantive difference between a court's statement that “[v]enue is proper in Fayette County” and a statement that the crime “happened in Muscogee County.” Both statements inform or intimate to the jury the trial court's opinion as to a critical element of the State's case, thereby potentially influencing jurors in their evaluation of whether the State has met its burden of proof at trial. See also State v. Anderson, 287 Ga. 159, 161, 695 S.E.2d 26 (2010) (holding that trial court's question whether venue had been established and questioning of a witness as to the location of the crime followed by the comment “I just wanted to make sure” constituted an improper expression of opinion that venue had in fact been proven).

The State asserts that reversal is not required because the court's comment was a “slip of the tongue” or was needed “to orient the venire to the time and place the crime was alleged to have occurred.” None of the cases cited by the State in support of these propositions, however, involved an explicit comment by a trial judge indicating the court's opinion that a critical element that must be proved by the State was not in dispute.2 See Linson v. State, 287 Ga. 881, 883–884, 700 S.E.2d 394 (2010) (statement during preliminary instructions that State may not use all of its witnesses and “may

765 S.E.2d 882

think they don't need them all” provided no basis for reversal under OCGA § 17–8–57 because it did not address credibility of the witnesses or any fact at issue in trial);

296 Ga. 217

Sutton v. State, 263 Ga.App. 188, 191, 587 S.E.2d 379 (2003) (no reversible error when trial court explained to jurors how to use verdict form, but instructed them “to remember to consider each defendant guilty”); Atkins v. State, 253 Ga.App. 169, 170 –171(2), 558 S.E.2d 755 (2002) (court's reference to “facts” in the indictment was not a comment on evidence or opinion of guilt).

Nor can we agree with the State's suggestion that an improper comment made during preliminary...

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17 cases
  • Hartzler v. State, A15A0321.
    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
    • June 30, 2015
    ...700 S.E.2d 868 (same).28 Robinson v. State, 267 Ga.App. 634, 636(2), 600 S.E.2d 729 (2004) (punctuation omitted); see Rouse v. State, 296 Ga. 213, 224(1)(c), 765 S.E.2d 879 (2014) (noting that OCGA § 17–8–57 is “violated only when the trial court's instruction, considered as a whole, assume......
  • Pyatt v. State, S15A1734.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • March 25, 2016
    ...object in this case would be inconsequential. See Ledford v. State, 289 Ga. 70, 84–85(14), 709 S.E.2d 239 (2011). See also Rouse v. State, 296 Ga. 213, 234–238, 765 S.E.2d 879 (2014) (Nahmias, J., dissenting). In 2015, however, the General Assembly amended the statute and added a provision ......
  • Anthony v. State, S17A1722
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • March 5, 2018 this case would be inconsequential. See Ledford v. State, 289 Ga. 70, 84-85 (14), 709 S.E.2d 239 (2011). See also Rouse v. State, 296 Ga. 213, 234-238, 765 S.E.2d 879 (2014) (Nahmias, J., dissenting). In 2015, however, the General Assembly amended the statute and added a provision that l......
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    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • March 5, 2018 this case would be inconsequential. See Ledford v. State, 289 Ga. 70, 84-85 (14), 709 S.E.2d 239 (2011). See also Rouse v. State, 296 Ga. 213, 234-238, 765 S.E.2d 879 (2014) (Nahmias, J., dissenting). In 2015, however, the General Assembly amended the statute and added a provision that l......
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