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Georgia Supreme Court: Cumulative Effect of Trial Errors Requires Reversal of Murder Conviction

Benjamin Finney, a drug dealer in Macon, Georgia, was the victim of a home invasion during which he and his girlfriend were bound and held at gunpoint He was robbed of $330,000 in cash and drugs. He could not identify the perpetrators.

After the home invasion, Finney, who had a previous felony conviction, gave his girlfriend money to buy two Glock pistols and an AR-15 rifle. Soon thereafter, Finney asked his friend Bobby Mack to buy two AR-l5s from a pawn shop. Mack gave the rifles to Finney.

Two nights later, one of the rifles Mack bought and another unidentified rifle of similar caliber were used to shoot at the house of Recardo Jackson, another drug dealer who was a very close friend of Finney. Finney suggested to Jackson that the same person might have attacked them both. Later, Jackson learned there was a rumor “in the streets” that he knew who had committed the home invasion. Finney accepted his explanation that the rumor was untrue.

Frankie Barnes came to a house Finney, Mack, and some friends were visiting. Barnes was carrying a rifle and said he was looking for Finney because he heard Finney was looking for him. Barnes began shooting, and a gunfight ensued. But no one was shot.

Soon thereafter, a man who was at the home of Marlon Jackson, a drug dealer who Finney hung out with, heard Finney tell Jackson they needed to “get” Alphonso Rose, Jr., a drug dealer who had previously worked with Finney. Within a day or two, Finney approached Rose at a Super Bowl party, hit him on the head with a pistol, fought with him, and at gunpoint asked him if he participated in the home invasion. He then snatched a necklace worth $10,000 from Rose’s neck and walked away. That night, he called Rose and threatened his mother.

The next morning, Marlon was told that drug houses belonging to him and his brothers had been shot at. He called Rose and accused him of the shootings. Rose then went looking for Marlon at Tim Spradley’s house, saw Finney, and opened fire on him with a pistol while driving by, hitting Spradley’s uncle. That night, the AR-15 bought by Finney’s girlfriend was used to shoot through the door of the house of Rose’s mother, killing her.

Five years later, Finney and Marlon were indicted for malice murder and tried separately. Two witnesses who had been imprisoned with Marlon testified that he had told them he and his “co-defendant” had gone to Rose’s house, talked with his mother, opened fire, and “Swiss-cheesed the whole house up” such that the scene looked like “something out of Baghdad” after she said he was not home. Finney’s hearsay-based objections were overruled, and the prosecutor emphasized the witnesses’ testimony during closing arguments.

Other witnesses testified about all of the aforementioned incidents. The trial court permitted this under the extraneous offense exception to prove motive. However, the prosecutor essentially used them to argue that Finney was a violent and dangerous person. The trial court also failed to give an instruction on the requirement for corroboration of accomplice testimony for the statements allegedly made by Marlon. Finney was convicted and appealed.

The Georgia Supreme Court held that the trial court erred when it admitted the testimony of Marlon’s former prison-mates under the exception to the prohibition against hearsay for statements by a co-conspirator made in furtherance of the conspiracy during its concealment phase. The statements neither furthered the conspiracy nor its concealment and thus were not subject to the exception, and the court abused its discretion by admitting them.

OCGA § 24-14-8 requires the testimony of an accomplice to be corroborated by other evidence even if admitted through another witness. On appeal, Finney argued that the trial court should have given an instruction to the jury to that effect. However, Finney failed to object to the missing instruction.

The Court ruled that the trial court clearly and obviously committed plain error when it failed to issue the accomplice corroboration instruction and compounded that error by instructing the jury that there was no general legal requirement for a witness’ testimony to be corroborated. The Court explained that the statutory requirement that accomplice testimony must be corroborated by other evidence applies even when the accomplice doesn’t testify in court if the statements are nevertheless admitted through another witness. State v. Johnson, 824 S.E.2d 317 (Ga. 2019).

The trial court also committed error when it admitted evidence of the various other shootings for the purpose of showing motive because it did not give an instruction to the jury to limit their consideration of that evidence to motive, and the shootings did not show motive, according to the Court. Although Finney allegedly committed some of the shootings, there was nothing linking them to the murder or linking them and the murder to the motive alleged by the prosecution – revenge for the home invasion. Other shootings were instigated by other actors and appeared to be Finney defending himself rather than motivated by revenge.

The Court found that the motive the prosecutor “really ascribed to [Finney] based on these incidents was the generic motive that he regularly engages in violent acts against others, and that is not a proper purpose under Rule 404 (b) [OCGA § 24-4-404 (b)].”

The Court considered the cumulative effect of all the foregoing errors, determined that they were not harmless, and concluded that “even applying the more stringent plain error standard” the cumulative errors required reversal. In doing so, the Court noted that the evidence was unquestionably legally sufficient when viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution. However, it was not overwhelming. Even the use of the rifle purchased by Finney’s girlfriend was not conclusive as she had lost track of it months before the murder, and testimony indicated weapons changed hands with great frequency among the drug dealers. In fact, evidence showed that very rifle had changed hands at least once after the murder. Further, many of the witnesses against Finney gave testimony in conflict with statements given to police or harbored animosity toward Finney, and evidence showed other people had potential motives and the means to shoot at Rose’s mother. The Court concluded that it did not “have confidence that without the trial errors, the outcome” would have been the same.

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Related legal case

Finney v. State

 

 

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