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Georgia Supreme Court Grants New Trial After Trial Transcript Lost

by Christopher Zoukis

The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled on October 2, 2017 that a convicted murderer was entitled to a new trial because the original trial transcript was destroyed in a fire, and the State’s efforts to recreate it were wholly insufficient.

Craig Johnson was found guilty of malice murder and other crimes relating to the stabbing death of Nicole Judge. The evidence against Johnson was strong and included videotaped custodial statements by Johnson in which he alternately claimed that he was not there; he was there but Judge stabbed herself to death; and her (nonexistent) boyfriend was there and fought with Johnson.

After his conviction, Johnson timely appealed. When his appellate counsel requested the trial transcript, he learned that the verbatim transcript had been destroyed in a fire at the court reporter’s house. Lacking a complete transcript upon which to base a meaningful appeal, Johnson moved for a new trial.

Instead of granting Johnson a new trial, the trial court ordered the State to “recreate” the transcript, as permitted under Georgia law. After a hearing, the trial court concluded that the recreated transcript was correct and sufficient for purposes of Johnson’s appeal. He objected and appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Court instructed that whether Johnson is entitled to a new trial “rests on two fundamental principles: a defendant convicted of a crime has a right to appeal, and a defendant convicted of a felony has a right to a transcript of the trial to use in bringing that appeal.” In felony cases, the State has the responsibility of ensuring that a “correct and complete transcript is created, preserved, and provided to the defendant….”

Notably, the Court explained that the trial court’s ruling that the recreated transcript was correct was not reviewable because appellate review is available only on the issue of “whether the recreated transcript is complete—meaning sufficient for Johnson to identify errors and this Court to evaluate the errors then enumerated.”

The Supreme Court observed that Johnson’s trial lasted for six days and was followed by a sentencing hearing, yet the State’s recreated transcript was a mere 14 pages. The Court described the State’s efforts and resultant transcript as follows: “The result of this lackluster information-gathering process was a 14-page transcript—double-spaced, with wide margins and much additional white space—purporting to summarize a six-day trial and sentencing hearing.” According to the high court, the recreated transcript “when considered as a whole … lacks sufficient accounts of crucial parts of Johnson’s trial.” Accordingly, he “has been deprived of the ability to appeal his conviction,” ruled the Court.

The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s denial of Johnson’s motion for a new trial. See: Johnson v. State, 805 S.E.2d 890 (Ga. 2017). 

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