Watson v. State

Decision Date08 November 2004
Docket NumberNo. S04A1098.,S04A1098.
PartiesWATSON v. The STATE.
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Sexton & Morris, Lee Sexton, Joseph S. Key, Stockbridge, for appellant.

Paul L. Howard, Jr., District Attorney, Bettieanne C. Hart, Christopher M. Quinn, Assistant District Attorneys, Thurbert E. Baker, Attorney General, Jason C. Fisher, Assistant Attorney General for appellee.

THOMPSON, Justice.

Defendant James Lamar Watson, Jr. was convicted of malice murder in connection with the death of his wife, Beverley Watson.1 He appeals, asserting, inter alia, the trial court erred in admitting, under the necessity exception to the hearsay rule, statements which Beverley made before her death to several friends and a police officer. We find no error and affirm.

Viewing the evidence in a light favorable to the verdict, we find the following: Defendant and Beverley were married in 1983. They lived in Fayette County with two children, Ashley and Todd, who were born in 1984 and 1990, respectively. The Watsons had a stormy, often violent relationship. Defendant was known to stalk Beverley. He telephoned her constantly, and often visited her at work unannounced. On at least one occasion, he threatened her with a shotgun; on another, when Beverley came home with a friend, he threw her against a wall. In 1994 the parties separated and defendant was placed under a restraining order pursuant to divorce proceedings initiated by Beverley. He violated the order by entering Beverley's home, refusing to leave, and physically abusing Beverley. Nevertheless, the Watsons reconciled.

Defendant, who had nine years of law enforcement experience and police academy training, continued to abuse Beverley even after they reconciled. In 1996 defendant and Beverley again discussed a separation. By early January, 1997, Beverley decided to move out of the house and leave defendant. She brought boxes home to prepare for the move. Defendant was aware of Beverley's plan.

On Friday night, January 17, 1997, Beverley came home to take Todd to the movies. (Ashley was spending the night out.) When she arrived home, she discovered that defendant sent Todd out to stay with Kathy Ragsdale, defendant's sister. Beverley and defendant fought. According to defendant, Beverley threw her car keys at him and scratched his nose; he went into the garage to play with his dogs; Beverley walked out the front door of the house. The night was bitterly cold (10 or 11 degrees Fahrenheit). Nevertheless, Beverley did not take her coat; she did not take her purse or jewelry, either.

The next Monday, defendant covered the scratches on his nose with makeup. Then he went to the sheriff's office to report Beverley missing. He did not seem overly concerned or worried. He explained that Beverley often took off for a while after a marital spat. He added that, on the night in question, he went to sleep between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. However, at 3:30 a.m. a neighbor saw defendant in his yard; he was carrying a black bag.

Two years later, a surveyor found the partial skeletal remains of a woman in a wooded area in Fulton County. Dental records confirmed that the remains were those of Beverley.

1. The evidence, although primarily circumstantial, was sufficient to enable any rational trier of fact to find defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of malice murder. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979). See also Atkins v. State, 274 Ga. 103, 104(1), 549 S.E.2d 356 (2001). Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the verdict, the jury could have found that every reasonable hypothesis except Watson's guilt was excluded. Rushing v. State, 271 Ga. 102, 105(3), 515 S.E.2d 607 (1999).

2. Watson's first enumeration of error concerns the trial court's admission of hearsay testimony under the necessity exception, OCGA § 24-3-1(b). At trial, the State was allowed to present the hearsay testimony of three of Beverley's friends, as well as that of Deputy Steve Borders, as to statements made by Beverley over the course of approximately ten years. By this Court's count, approximately 30 hearsay statements were allowed during the testimony of the three friends and the deputy. The substance of the hearsay statements concerned threats made by Watson, episodes of physical and mental abuse, and other instances of prior difficulties between Watson and Beverley.

(a) Beverley's statements to Debbie White, Krista Hinkle, and Ellen Lord. The trial court conducted a two-day pretrial hearing which focused primarily on the admission of hearsay evidence. During this hearing, Debbie White, Krista Hinkle, and Ellen Lord testified as to statements that Beverley made to them. The trial court was able to fully evaluate the credibility of these witnesses prior to trial. This Court concludes, based on the totality of the circumstances, that the admission of the hearsay testimony was proper.2

In order for hearsay to be admitted under the necessity exception, two requirements must be satisfied: "necessity" and "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness." Azizi v. State, 270 Ga. 709, 711, 512 S.E.2d 622 (1999); McKissick v. State, 263 Ga. 188, 429 S.E.2d 655 (1993). "Necessity" is demonstrated when the declarant is deceased, when the statement is shown to be relevant to a material fact, and when the statement is more probative of the material fact than other evidence that may be produced and offered. Chapel v. State, 270 Ga. 151, 155, 510 S.E.2d 802 (1998). The requirement of "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness" is satisfied when the declaration is coupled with "circumstances which attribute verity to [the declaration]." Roper v. State, 263 Ga. 201, 202, 429 S.E.2d 668 (1993). The determination of trustworthiness is "inescapably subjective" and the trial court's determination of the issue will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion. Gissendaner v. State, 272 Ga. 704, 710-711, 532 S.E.2d 677 (2000).

We have no hesitation in concluding that the "necessity" requirement is satisfied in this case. The declarant is deceased and thus, unavailable to testify. The statements are relevant to a material fact, namely to show Watson's intent, motive, and bent of mind. Simmons v. State, 266 Ga. 223, 224, 466 S.E.2d 205 (1996). The statements admitted were more probative of these facts than evidence that could otherwise be produced and offered. Azizi, supra.

Turning to the "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness" prong, this Court has consistently held that hearsay testimony by close, personal friends of the unavailable declarant is admissible under the necessity exception. See, e.g., Bell v. State, supra; Demons v. State, 277 Ga. 724, 595 S.E.2d 76 (2004); McPherson v. State, 274 Ga. 444, 553 S.E.2d 569 (2001); Morrow v. State, 272 Ga. 691, 532 S.E.2d 78 (2000); Ward v. State, 271 Ga. 648, 520 S.E.2d 205 (1999); Chapel v. State, supra. We are mindful that, in specific instances, cases involving statements made to friends may not contain sufficient indicia of reliability. In Slakman v. State, 272 Ga. 662, 668, 533 S.E.2d 383 (2000), for example, this Court held that, under the circumstances of that case, hearsay statements made to friends known by the victim for only a few weeks were inadmissible. However, in this case, the three witnesses adequately demonstrated that they were longtime, close friends of the victim. Beverley knew both Debbie White and Krista Hinkle since childhood; she knew and worked with Ellen Lord for more than a year and they regularly confided in each other about personal matters. Based upon the authorities cited above, the trial court was authorized to find that the statements Beverley made to these witnesses contained particularized guarantees of trustworthiness.

Watson argues that Beverley's statements to her three friends were inconsistent. Of course, inconsistencies and the recanting of statements can undermine the indicia of reliability of the statements and render them inadmissible. See, e.g., Mallory v. State, 261 Ga. 625, 409 S.E.2d 839 (1991) (inconsistent statements not "sufficiently trustworthy"); Higgs v. State, 256 Ga. 606, 351 S.E.2d 448 (1987) (failure to recant statement is factor favoring guarantee of trustworthiness). However, a mere inconsistency does not necessarily render a statement unworthy of belief. The test is whether the totality of the circumstances are such that verity can be attributed to the statement. White v. White, 262 Ga. 168, 415 S.E.2d 467 (1992).

Of the numerous hearsay statements admitted into evidence, the inconsistent statements concerned Beverley's broken arm. With Watson present, Beverley told her friends that she tripped over a pillow; when Watson was away, she told them he pushed her down the stairs. However, these inconsistent statements have a logical consistency of their own. Compare Boehm v. Abi-Sarkis, 211 Ga.App. 181, 183, 438 S.E.2d 410 (1993) (no apparent reason why deceased declarant would make inconsistent statements to sister and friend). The statements were consistent in that Beverley never recanted her reports of abuse. The only inconsistency arose, understandably and quite naturally, when Watson was present. Given the totality of the circumstances under which these statements were made, it cannot be said that the trial court abused its discretion in finding the statements trustworthy and admissible.

Watson also argues that most of the hearsay statements were made while Beverley was seeking a divorce or was in contemplation of divorce and that, therefore, the statements are unreliable and self-serving. However, this Court has determined that declarations "by one who is a party to a divorce action, with the anticipation that the declarations may prove useful" are not subject to a bright-line rule barring their admission under the necessity exception. Wright v. State, 276 Ga. 454, 459, 579 S.E.2d 214...

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