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WHITE v. STATE (2020)

Court of Appeals of Georgia.



Decided: April 30, 2020

The Armond Firm, Richard C. Armond, for appellant. Daniel J. Porter, District Attorney, James A. Carmichael, Assistant District Attorney, for appellee.

Gerald White appeals from his aggravated battery conviction, challenging two jury instructions and the effectiveness of his trial counsel. But the jury instructions, which were not objected to, did not amount to plain error. And White has failed to show that his trial counsel's performance was both deficient and prejudicial. So we affirm the judgment of conviction.

1. Facts and procedural posture.

Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, see Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U. S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979), the evidence shows that White had a personal relationship with Shawn Price. On March 2, 2017, White and Price were driving home from a restaurant when they got into an argument. The argument escalated into a physical altercation, during which White bit off the end of Price's left index finger.

White was indicted for aggravated battery for biting off a portion of Price's finger. White was also indicted for offenses arising out of other incidents with Price, including charges of aggravated assault, criminal damage to property, and two counts of aggravated stalking. White pled not guilty, and the case proceeded to a jury trial. After the close of the state's evidence, the trial judge granted White's motion for a directed verdict of acquittal as to the criminal damage to property charge, but denied the motion as to the other charges. The jury found White guilty of aggravated battery, and found him not guilty of the remaining offenses. The trial judge sentenced White to serve ten years in confinement and ten years on probation. The trial court denied White's motion for a new trial, and this appeal followed.

2. Jury instructions.

White claims that the trial court erred in its jury instructions on malice and self-defense. White acknowledges that he did not object to those instructions at trial, so we review them only for plain error. See Williams v. State, 306 Ga. 717, 720 (2), 832 S.E.2d 805 (2019). In reviewing for plain error, “the proper inquiry is whether the instruction was erroneous, whether it was obviously so, and whether it likely affected the outcome of the proceedings.” Manning v. State, 303 Ga. 723, 727 (3), 814 S.E.2d 730 (2018) (citation and punctuation omitted).

(a) Malice instruction.

In response to a question from the jury, the trial court gave the jury the following pattern definition of malice for the offense of aggravated battery:

Malice is not ill will or hatred. For the purpose of this [C]ode section, malice means an actual intent to cause the particular harm produced, that is, bodily harm, without justification or excuse. Malice is also the wanton and willful doing of an act with an awareness of a plain and strong likelihood that such particular harm may result. Intention may be shown by the circumstances connected with the offense.

(Emphasis supplied.) White contends that the use of the phrase “the offense,” as emphasized above, presumed the existence of a crime and thus constituted an improper comment on the evidence by the trial court. We disagree.

OCGA § 17-8-57 (a) (1) provides that “[i]t is error for any judge, during any phase of any criminal case, to express or intimate to the jury the judge's opinion as to whether a fact at issue has or has not been proved or as to the guilt of the accused.” But “[t]hat statute is violated only when the court's charge assumes certain things as facts and intimates to the jury what the judge believes the evidence to be.” Camphor v. State, 272 Ga. 408, 414 (6) (c), 529 S.E.2d 121 (2000) (citation and punctuation omitted). “And in order to determine whether a trial court has improperly expressed an opinion in its charge as to what has or has not been proved, the whole charge may be considered.” Hartzler v. State, 332 Ga. App. 674, 681-682 (4), 774 S.E.2d 738 (2015) (citations and punctuation omitted).

Considering the jury charge as a whole, “we find that the trial court did not intimate its opinion that the evidence showed that [an offense had been committed]. The trial court merely stated [the definition of malice for aggravated battery].” Buffington v. State, 171 Ga. App. 919, 923-924 (8), 321 S.E.2d 418 (1984) (rejecting claim that jury charge defining murder improperly expressed court's opinion that crime had in fact been committed). The use of the phrase “the offense” within that definition referred to the charged crime and “did not assume or seem to assume[ the existence of an offense], as contended.” McMullen v. State, 199 Ga. 521, 525 (1), 34 S.E.2d 892 (1945) (punctuation omitted).

Furthermore, ․ we note that the trial judge [had] specifically instructed the jury that ‘‘[b]y no ruling or comment that the court has made during the progress of the trial [has the court] intended to express any opinion [up]on the facts of [this] case, [upon] the credibility of the witnesses, [upon] the evidence[,] or [upon the guilt or innocence of the defendant].’’ Thus, the trial court did not err by referring to [“the offense”] in [the definition of malice].

Hartzler, 332 Ga. App. at 682 (4), 774 S.E.2d 738 (citations and punctuation omitted). See also Mullinax v. State, 255 Ga. 442, 445 (4), 339 S.E.2d 704 (1986) (finding that trial court's reference to “the slayer” in voluntary manslaughter charge did not constitute improper expression of opinion by court that the defendant had committed the offense). Since “we [have] conclude[d] that the charge regarding malice did not improperly comment on the evidence,” Carter v. State, 269 Ga. 891, 893 (6), 506 S.E.2d 124 (1998), it follows that there was no plain error.

(b) Self-defense instruction.

White claims that the jury charge on self-defense was insufficient because it did not include the principle of law that the state had the burden of disproving such a defense beyond a reasonable doubt. While that principle was not set forth in the court's self-defense charge, it was included at another point in the jury instructions. During its charge on the state's burden of proof, the court instructed the jury that White bore no burden of proof and that “[w]hen a defense is raised by the evidence, the burden is on the [s]tate to negate or disprove it beyond a reasonable doubt.” Thus, considering the jury instructions as a whole, “[w]e find no error, as the court gave a charge that adequately covered the same principle[ ] of law as the [suggested] charge.” Carver v. State, 258 Ga. 824, 825 (3), 375 S.E.2d 599 (1989). Accord Chapman v. State, 259 Ga. 706, 707 (3), 386 S.E.2d 129 (1989) (rejecting claim that court failed to give requested charge on state's burden when an affirmative defense is raised because the court charged that general principle of law); Shackleford v. State, 198 Ga. App. 768 (1), 403 S.E.2d 74 (1991) (jury charge not incomplete where trial court charged on self-defense and instructed jury that burden was on the state to disprove self-defense).

3. Ineffective assistance of counsel.

White claims that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the malice and self-defense jury charges, in failing to object to the general criminal intent jury charge, and in failing to impeach the victim with evidence that she had been arrested for obstruction of a police officer. To prevail on these claims, White “must show that counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance so prejudiced [him] that there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the trial would have been different.” Puckett v. State, 342 Ga. App. 518, 525 (2), 804 S.E.2d 648 (2017) (citation and punctuation omitted). Because White must show both deficient performance and prejudice, “an insufficient showing on either of these prongs relieves the reviewing court of the need to address the other prong.” Id. (citation and punctuation omitted). White has not shown both prongs on any of his ineffectiveness claims.

(a) Failure to object to self-defense charge.

White claims that his counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the self-defense charge on the ground discussed above in Division 2 (b). But as explained in that division, viewed in the context of the entire jury charge, the self-defense jury charge was not erroneous. “Accordingly, trial counsel's failure to make [a meritless] objection [to the charge] does not amount to ineffective assistance.” Jackson v. State, 306 Ga. 475, 479 (4) (a), 831 S.E.2d 755 (2019).

White also claims that counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the self-defense charge because feminine pronouns were used in the charge, so the jury would not know that it applied to White. But it is apparent that the pronouns were used in a generic sense and “[i]t may be assumed that a jury of average intelligence would take into consideration the defendant's sex in applying the court's charge on the law[.]” Wright v. State, 206 Ga. 644, 645 (2), 58 S.E.2d 181 (1950). See also Ramsey v. State, 145 Ga. App. 60, 63 (8), 243 S.E.2d 555 (1978), reversed on other grounds, 241 Ga. 426, 246 S.E.2d 190 (1978). Here, “the jury clearly would recognize [the self-defense charge] applied to the [male] defendant [who had raised such a defense] without the necessity of the court explaining that.” Bailey v. Todd, 126 Ga. App. 731, 736 (8), 191 S.E.2d 547 (1972). Such “an instruction which when giving the jury credit for ordinary intelligence is not confusing, is not prejudicial.” Id. Accordingly, the claim of ineffective assistance fails.

(b) Failure to object to malice charge.

White claims counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the malice charge on the ground discussed above in Division 2 (a). But as explained in that division, viewed in the context of the entire jury charge, the malice charge was not erroneous. So the lack of a meritless objection to the charge “does not amount to ineffective assistance.” Jackson, 306 Ga. 479 (4) (a), 831 S.E.2d 755.

White further argues that counsel should have objected on grounds that the jury charge on malice likely confused the jury and failed to adequately cover the issues of justification and excuse. We find nothing confusing about the pattern instruction which clearly defined malice, and the jury charge as a whole fully instructed the jurors on the defenses of justification and excuse. Thus, White has failed to show ineffective assistance of counsel. See Millen v. State, 267 Ga. App. 879, 881 (2) (a), 600 S.E.2d 604 (2004) (failure to object to jury charge may constitute ineffective assistance only if the charge was erroneous or incomplete).

(c) Failure to object to general criminal intent jury charge.

The trial court's jury instructions included a charge that “[c]riminal intent does not mean an intention to violate the law or to violate a penal statute but means simply the intention to commit the act that is prohibited by a statute.” White contends that his trial counsel should have objected to the charge because it did not specify that the indicted crime of aggravated battery required the specific intent of malice. The contention is without merit.

As an initial matter, we note that the contested jury charge was a correct statement of the law as to general criminal intent. See State v. Ogilvie, 292 Ga. 6, 8-9 (2) (a), 734 S.E.2d 50 (2012). In addition to that correct charge, the trial court also correctly instructed the jury that a person commits the offense of aggravated battery by maliciously causing bodily harm to another, that the indictment charged White with aggravated battery in that he maliciously caused bodily injury to the victim, and that the state must prove every material allegation of the indictment and every essential element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. As set out above in Division 2, the trial court also charged the jury on the definition of malice applicable to aggravated battery.

Viewed as a whole, it is apparent that the court's jury charge properly instructed the jury on the malicious intent required for the indicted offense of aggravated battery. Under these circumstances, White has not shown deficient performance since an objection to a correct statement of the law would have been meritless, and he has not shown prejudice because there is no reasonable likelihood that the outcome of the trial would have been different had counsel made the suggested objection. “Consequently, we cannot find [White's] lawyer[ ] ineffective for failing to object to the ․ jury instruction[ ] on [general] intent.” Downey v. State, 298 Ga. 568, 574 (4) (b), 783 S.E.2d 622 (2016).

(d) Failure to impeach victim.

White claims that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to impeach the victim with evidence that several months after the incident in this case, she was arrested for obstructing a police officer. But even assuming, without deciding, that counsel performed deficiently, given “the wealth of evidence against [White], including [the undisputed fact that White bit off a portion of the victim's finger, he] has failed to establish [a reasonable probability] that the results of his proceeding would have been different if his lawyer had brought out the victim's [arrest].” White v. State, 265 Ga. App. 155, 157 (1) (a), 592 S.E.2d 920 (2004).

Judgment affirmed.

McFadden, Chief Judge.

Doyle, P. J., and Hodges, J., concur.

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WHITE v. STATE (2020)

Docket No: A20A0616

Decided: April 30, 2020

Court: Court of Appeals of Georgia.

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