Georgia Supreme Court Reverses Conviction for Failure to Give Accomplice-Corroboration Jury Instruction
by Douglas Ankney
The Supreme Court of Georgia reversed the convictions of Matthew Doyle because the trial court failed to charge the jury on the requirement for corroboration of accomplice testimony.
At Doyle’s murder trial, Keith Richardson testified that he picked up Lewis Parks and Doyle in his blue Ford Explorer. Richardson testified that he heard the two men discuss “hurting somebody or jumping on somebody” and “getting payback” for something. Parks told Richardson to drive to Midtown Towing. When they arrived, Doyle jumped from the truck. Richardson testified he was going to drive away after hearing gunshots, but Parks told him to wait for Doyle. Richardson then drove the men back to Parks’ house and dropped them off. The body of Lyndon “Pookie” Tucker was later discovered in the guard shack at Midtown Towing, dead from bullet wounds fired from either an SKS or an AK-47 rifle.
The lead detective on the case testified that Richardson initially denied having any knowledge of the shooting. He also testified that Richardson had stated he (Richardson) saw Parks “rack” a gun while seated in the truck and that he saw Doyle with a gun when Doyle exited the truck at Midtown Towing. The detective also testified that Kerry Henderson reported seeing Parks as a passenger in a blue SUV on the morning of the shooting. Henderson reported that Parks and another man named “Matt” told her they had done the shooting. However, when Henderson testified, she stated that she did not see “Matt” in the courtroom.
The trial court instructed the jury: “The testimony of a single witness, if believed, is sufficient to establish a fact. Generally, there is no legal requirement of corroboration of a witness — provided you find the evidence to be sufficient.” Doyle’s attorney neither requested an accomplice-corroboration instruction nor objected to the court’s failure to give one. The jury found Doyle guilty.
Doyle filed a pro se Out of Time Motion for a New Trial. The trial court denied the motion. Doyle appealed, arguing, among other things, that the trial court erred by failing to charge the jury on the requirement for corroboration of accomplice testimony.
Because Doyle’s counsel failed to either object or to request the instruction, the Georgia Supreme Court reviewed for plain error. Hamm v. State, 756 S.E.2d 507 (Ga. 2014). To prevail, Doyle had to show a clear error occurred that affected his substantial rights and that the error seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings. Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129 (2009).
The Court observed that “Georgia law requires corroboration in felony cases where the only witness testifying to the defendant’s participation in the crime is an accomplice.” OCGA § 24-14-8. While the corroborating evidence may be slight and circumstantial, it must also be independent of the accomplice’s testimony and either directly connect the defendant to the crime or lead to an inference of guilt. Lewis v. State, 804 S.E.2d 82 (Ga. 2017). If there is evidence to support a finding that a witness was an accomplice, it is for the jury to determine if the witness acted as an accomplice. Walter v. State, 822 S.E.2d 266 (Ga. 2018). “[C]riminal intent may be inferred from presence, companionship, and conduct before, during, and after the offense.” Belsar v. State, 577 S.E.2d 569 (Ga. 2003). A witness’ presence at a shooting, his subsequent flight, and his failure to inform authorities could support a finding that the witness was an accomplice. Hamm.
The Court determined that clear error occurred when the trial court failed to instruct the jury to decide whether Richardson acted as an accomplice and when the trial court failed to give the accomplice-corroboration instruction. Due to the instruction that the trial court did give, it was likely in this case that the jury convicted Doyle based solely on Richardson’s testimony. Affirming Doyle’s conviction would render the accomplice-corroboration rule meaningless. Thus, the Court concluded that plain error occurred.
Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the trial court. See: Doyle v. State, 2020 Ga. LEXIS 6 (2020).
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Related legal case
Doyle v. State
|2020 Ga. LEXIS 6 (2020)
|State Supreme Court