Whatley v. State

Decision Date14 September 2017
Docket NumberA17A0940
Citation805 S.E.2d 599
Parties WHATLEY v. The STATE.
CourtGeorgia Court of Appeals

Genevieve Holmes, for Appellant.

Joshua Daniel Morrison, Paul L. Howard Jr., Atlanta, for Appellee.

Reese, Judge.

A Fulton County jury found Fernandez Whatley guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of kidnapping, aggravated assault, two counts of robbery (as lesser included offenses on armed robbery charges), and two counts of false imprisonment.1 He appeals from the denial of his motion for new trial, contending that the trial court violated his right to a public trial, that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, and that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions. For the reasons set forth, infra, we affirm.

Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict,2 the record reveals the following facts. On November 27, 2010, Hannibal Heredia was doing yard work at his Atlanta home while his wife, Angela Fox, and his nine-year-old daughter, A. H., were inside. Two men drove up, approached Heredia, assaulted him, and forced him inside his home. The assailants, who were both carrying guns, tied up Heredia, his wife, and his daughter and stole Heredia's and Fox's jewelry and wedding rings. In addition, the assailants stole several flat screen televisions, Heredia's and Fox's cell phones, and their Audi vehicle. The Audi, televisions, and cell phones were later recovered by law enforcement officers after they tracked Heredia's phone to an address associated with the Appellant. A friend of the Appellant subsequently testified that he saw the Appellant and an unidentified man arrive at a nearby apartment complex in an Audi shortly after the crimes in this case had been committed.

Detective Vincent Velasquez, who worked with the homicide division of the Atlanta Police Department, responded to a 911 call about the crimes at issue (hereinafter, the "home invasion"). The detective believed that the home invasion may have been related to a gang-related crime spree that he was investigating; those crimes included a homicide, a rape, armed robberies, and other felonies. After conducting further investigation, Detective Velasquez identified the Appellant and another man, Tamario Wise, as suspects in the home invasion. The detective arrested the Appellant and transported him to the police station, where the detective conducted a custodial interview. According to Detective Velasquez, the Appellant admitted that he went to the home of Heredia and Fox with the intention of committing a robbery and that he tied up Heredia with a scarf, backed Heredia's Audi out of the garage, loaded the televisions into the car, and left the scene in the Audi. Those facts were consistent with Heredia's statements to the detective about the home invasion, as well as Heredia's testimony at the joint trial of the Appellant, Wise, and Robert Veal, a third suspect in the gang-related crime spree.

In a 90-count indictment charging the Appellant, Wise, Veal, and three other individuals with an assortment of violent felonies, the State jointly indicted the Appellant and Wise for participation in criminal street gang activity (based upon the armed robbery of Heredia); the kidnapping of Heredia; the aggravated assault of Heredia; the armed robbery of Heredia and Fox; the false imprisonment of Fox and A. H.; and cruelty to children in the first degree. The jury acquitted the Appellant on the gang-related activity and child cruelty charges, found him guilty on two counts of robbery as lesser included offenses to the armed robbery counts, and found him guilty on the remaining charges. The court denied the Appellant's motion for new trial, and this appeal followed.

On appeal from a criminal conviction, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and an appellant no longer enjoys the presumption of innocence. This Court determines whether the evidence is sufficient under the standard of Jackson v. Vir ginia ,[3 ] and does not weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility. Any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence are for the jury to resolve. As long as there is some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State's case, we must uphold the jury's verdict.4

The standard of Jackson v. Virginia , supra, is met if the evidence is sufficient for any rational trier of fact to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes charged.5 With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to the Appellant's specific claims of error.

1. The Appellant contends that the trial court violated his constitutional right to a public trial6 by closing the courtroom to the defendants' family members and other observers during voir dire.7 Although the attorney for the Appellant's co-defendant, Wise, unsuccessfully objected to the alleged closure and moved for a mistrial, the Appellant's attorney did not object, nor did she join Wise's objection or motion. Consequently, any error by the trial court related to the alleged closure is waived,8 and the issue of closure may only be raised in the context of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.9

2. The Appellant claims that the State failed to present sufficient evidence to support his convictions on Counts 85 and 86 of the indictment. Count 85 charged the Appellant with committing an armed robbery10 of "Angela Fox" by taking her wedding ring from her persona and immediate presence, while Count 86 charged him with the false imprisonment of "Angela Fox." The Appellant argues that the State failed to present evidence that a woman named "Angela Fox" was present during the home invasion or that he stole a wedding ring from her, because Heredia only referred to her as his "wife" and never stated her name during his testimony. This argument lacks merit.

First, the Supreme Court of Georgia rejected the same argument in its opinion affirming the conviction of the Appellant's co-defendant, Wise.11 The Appellant has offered no authority or argument that would support a different ruling by this Court.

Second, Heredia testified that his "wife" was present during the home invasion, that one of the assailants tied her up, and that one of them removed his and his wife's jewelry, including their wedding rings. Although Heredia did not mention his wife's name during his testimony, and Fox, herself, did not testify at trial, Detective Velasquez testified that he had interviewed Heredia shortly after the home invasion was committed, that he had conducted further investigation of the home invasion, and that the victims were Heredia, his wife, Angela Fox, and their daughter, A. H.

Thus, we conclude that the evidence, when viewed in favor of the jury's verdict, was sufficient for the jury to find the Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes at issue.12

3. Citing several alleged oversights by his trial counsel before and during trial, the Appellant asserts that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

In order to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a criminal defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance so prejudiced the client that there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the trial would have been different.[13 ] The criminal defendant must overcome the strong presumption that trial counsel's conduct falls within the broad range of reasonable professional conduct. We accept the trial court's factual findings and credibility determinations unless clearly erroneous, but we independently apply the legal principles to the facts.14

"An appellate court evaluates counsel's performance from counsel's perspective at the time of trial. As a general rule, matters of reasonable tactics and strategy, whether wise or unwise, do not amount to ineffective assistance of counsel."15 Further, the burden of demonstrating prejudice that resulted from counsel's deficient performance, "although not impossible to carry, is a heavy one."16 Thus,

a court need not determine whether counsel's performance was deficient before examining the prejudice suffered by the [Appellant] as a result of the alleged deficiencies. The object of an ineffectiveness claim is not to grade counsel's performance. If it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice, which we expect
will often be so, that course should be followed. Courts should strive to ensure that ineffectiveness claims not become so burdensome to defense counsel that the entire criminal justice system suffers as a result.17
(a) The Appellant claims that he was prejudiced by his counsel's failure to file a motion to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants.

As an initial matter, the Appellant's assertion is not supported by the record, which shows that his counsel filed a comprehensive motion to sever the Appellant's trial from that of his co-defendants as part of a consolidated motion packet in February 2011, almost 20 months before the October 2012 trial. However, there is no order by the trial court on this motion in the record. Therefore, for the sake of this appeal, we will address this issue as if counsel had not filed a motion to sever.18

[T]he decision not to file a motion to sever is a matter of trial tactics and the fact that such a motion was not filed does not require a finding that trial counsel was ineffective. A defendant must do more than raise the possibility that separate trials upon the charges against him would have provided him a better chance of acquittal. Such a defendant must make a clear showing of prejudice proximately causing a denial of due process.19

In its order denying the Appellant's motion for new trial, the court made the following observations regarding severance in this case:

While there may have been some theoretical risk that [the Appellant] would be tainted by the charges and actions of his co-def

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5 cases
  • Evans v. State
    • United States
    • Georgia Court of Appeals
    • June 17, 2021
    ...this procedure was allowed by the trial court, we will accept it for purposes of review in this case. Compare Whatley v. State , 342 Ga. App. 796, 798 (1), (805 S.E.2d 599) (2017) (appellant waived alleged error by failing to raise own objection or join in co-defendant's objection); Maxwell......
  • Jenkins v. State
    • United States
    • Georgia Court of Appeals
    • February 13, 2020
    ...Under these circumstances, we conclude that the judge's comment did not violate ... OCGA § 17-8-57. Whatley v. State , 342 Ga. App. 796, 809 (3) (f), 805 S.E.2d 599 (2017).4. Sentencing . Lee enumerates that the trial court erred in its sentence. But he does not support the enumeration with......
  • Winn v. State, A17A1550
    • United States
    • Georgia Court of Appeals
    • February 21, 2018
    ...plain error that affected the substantive rights of the parties.(Footnote and punctuation omitted.) Whatley v. State , 342 Ga. App. 796, 808 (3) (f), 805 S.E.2d 599 (2017). "Because OCGA § 17–8–57 is a procedural law and it does not provide otherwise, the appellate courts will apply the law......
  • Sutton v. State
    • United States
    • Georgia Court of Appeals
    • March 11, 2020
    ...cannot say that trial counsel’s decision to withhold them from the jury’s consideration was unreasonable. See Whatley v. State , 342 Ga. App. 796, 799 (3), 805 S.E.2d 599 (2017) ("As a general rule, matters of reasonable tactics and strategy, whether wise or unwise, do not amount to ineffec......
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