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SLAUGHTER v. The STATE.
Christopher Slaughter was convicted of malice murder and other crimes in connection with the shooting death of Aikeem Hall. He appeals, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to admit evidence of the victim's prior violent acts and of provocation and that the trial court erred in finding Appellant competent to stand trial. We affirm the judgment below except for Appellant's sentence for aggravated assault for shooting Hall in the leg, which we vacate because the conviction for that offense merged with his murder conviction.1
1. The evidence at trial, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, showed the following. On the evening of October 5, 2009, Appellant and his friend Chaquan Jenkins were walking around the apartment complex where Appellant lived with Maukeda Birdette and their child. Appellant told Jenkins that he was going to kill Aikeem Hall, a friend of Jenkins who was also Birdette's second cousin. Appellant had long been friends with Hall as well, but they had a falling out two weeks earlier.
Appellant and Jenkins ran into Hall, who shook Jenkins's hand before turning to Appellant and asking him, “Why you been acting like a bi*ch lately?” Appellant then reached into his pocket, pulled out a gun, and shot Hall in the chest. Hall, who was unarmed, attempted to flee but fell to the ground. Hall yelled at Appellant to stop shooting, but Appellant kept firing, striking Hall once more in the leg as he emptied his gun. Appellant then fled, telling several eyewitnesses as he ran by, “You didn't see anything .”
Hall died from his chest wound. A bullet removed from Hall's body and two other bullets found at the scene were matched to the gun that Appellant threw into a trash can as he fled, and Appellant's fingerprint was found on the gun's magazine.
Appellant was arrested the next day and spoke to the police after waiving his Miranda rights. In a recorded interview played at trial, Appellant at first denied shooting Hall, claiming that his only role was taking the gun from a shooter (whose name he made up) and disposing of it. Appellant eventually admitted, however, that he was the shooter and claimed that he acted in self-defense. Appellant blamed Hall for spreading rumors that he was gay and said that Hall had threatened him and stolen money from him. But Appellant also admitted that he had a temper and that he was mad when he continued shooting at Hall after the first shot. At trial, Appellant did not dispute that he shot Hall, arguing instead that the State failed to disprove that he shot Hall in self-defense and that his crime was mitigated by provocation.
The evidence presented at trial and summarized above, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979). See also Vega v. State, 285 Ga. 32, 33, 673 S.E.2d 223 (2009) (“ ‘It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence.’ “ (citation omitted)). However, the trial court should have merged, as a matter of fact, Appellant's conviction for aggravated assault for shooting Hall in the leg into his malice murder conviction. When multiple injuries are inflicted on a single victim in quick succession and the defendant is convicted of both aggravated assault and murder, deciding whether there was aggravated assault independent of the fatal assault requires the court to consider “both the order and timing of the assaults.” Sears v. State, 292 Ga. 64, 73 n. 7, 734 S.E.2d 345 (2012). This Court has repeatedly held that convictions and sentences for aggravated assault and malice murder (or felony murder) merged when a fatal injury preceded the infliction of a non-fatal injury and the injuries were not separated by a “ ‘deliberate interval.’ “ Reddings v. State, –––Ga. ––––, ––––, ––– S.E.2d –––– (Case No. S12A1663, decided Feb. 4, 2013, slip op. at 5) (quoting Coleman v. State, 286 Ga. 291, 295, 687 S.E.2d 427 (2009)). See also Alvelo v. State, 290 Ga. 609, 611–612, 724 S.E.2d 377 (2012) (merging aggravated assault conviction with malice murder conviction due to “the absence of evidence that the victim suffered a non-fatal injury prior to a deliberate interval in the attack upon him, and a fatal injury thereafter”).2 As in those cases, in this case the interval between the victim's injuries was minimal, and the fatal gunshot wound to the victim's chest preceded the non-fatal gunshot wound to his leg. Accordingly, Appellant's conviction for aggravated assault for shooting the victim in the leg merged with his malice murder conviction, and Appellant's sentence for that aggravated assault must be vacated.
2. Appellant contends first that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding evidence of prior acts of violence by Hall against third parties. We disagree.
At the time Appellant was tried, evidence of a victim's specific acts of violence against third parties was admissible if a defendant claimed and made a prima facie showing of justification. See Cloud v. State, 290 Ga. 193, 195, 719 S.E.2d 477 (2011).3
“To make a prima facie showing of justification so as to allow evidence of violent acts by the victim against third parties, ‘the defendant must show that the victim was the aggressor, the victim assaulted the defendant, and the defendant was honestly trying to defend himself.’ “
See id. (citations omitted). We review the trial court's decision to exclude evidence of a victim's acts of violence against third parties only for abuse of discretion. See Smith v. State, ––– Ga. ––––, ––––, –––S.E.2d –––– (Case No. S12A1716, decided Jan. 22, 2013, slip op. at 5).
Appellant sought to present evidence of a violent encounter between Hall and third parties less than a year before he shot Hall. The trial court excluded this evidence on the grounds that Appellant failed to show that Hall assaulted him and that Appellant was honestly trying to defend himself. The record supports these holdings. Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Appellant failed to make a prima facie showing of justification and excluding this evidence.4
3. Appellant next claims that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding testimony by his investigator that he asserts was relevant to the issue of provocation. Even assuming that the testimony at issue was relevant in showing provocation, but see Brooks v. State, 249 Ga. 583, 586, 292 S.E.2d 694 (1982) (holding that a provocation defense generally cannot be based on insults), the testimony was properly excluded, and its exclusion was harmless in any event.
(a) When Appellant's investigator testified that Maukeda Birdette had told him that Hall had called Appellant a “f*gg*t,” the State objected on the ground that Birdette had not been asked during her testimony earlier in the trial whether she made such a statement to the investigator. Our review of Birdette's testimony confirms that point. Accordingly, the trial court correctly sustained the objection. See Hall v. Lewis, 286 Ga. 767, 779, 692 S.E.2d 580 (2010) (holding that former OCGA § 24–9–83 required that the witness be confronted with the substance of the alleged prior inconsistent statement before she could be impeached with it).5
In any event, the jury heard the investigator's testimony, and there was no motion to strike it. Moreover, Birdette had admitted on cross-examination that she told the investigator that Hall was spreading a rumor that Appellant was gay. Thus, any error in sustaining the State's objection would be harmless.
(b) After the trial court sustained the State's objection to the defense investigator's testimony that Birdette had told him that Hall called Appellant a “f*gg*t,” Appellant requested the opportunity to proffer further testimony by the investigator. After the jury was excused, Appellant proffered testimony by the investigator that Jenkins had told the investigator that Jenkins had told Appellant that Hall had called him “a f*gg*t, a b*tch, and a punk.”
Appellant contends that the trial court erred in excluding this testimony. As with Birdette, however, a review of Jenkins's trial testimony confirms that he had not been asked whether he made such a statement to the investigator. Accordingly, the proffered testimony was inadmissible. See Hall, 286 Ga. at 779, 692 S.E.2d 580. And again, any error in excluding this testimony would be harmless in any event, since Jenkins had testified that Hall called Appellant a “b*tch” to his face immediately before the shooting, stated that he told Appellant that Hall said that he was going to slap Appellant the next time he saw him, and admitted telling the defense investigator that Hall was one of the people spreading the rumor that Appellant was gay.
4. Appellant finally contends that the trial court erred in finding him competent to stand trial after the bench trial on competency. See OCGA § 17–7–130(b)(2).
The constitutional test for competency [is] whether the defendant is capable of understanding the nature and object of the proceedings, ․ comprehends his own condition in reference to such proceedings[,] and ․ is capable of rendering his counsel assistance in providing a proper defense.
Sims v. State, 279 Ga. 389, 390, 614 S.E.2d 73 (2005). The question on appeal is whether, “after reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, a rational trier of fact could have found that the defendant failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was incompetent to stand trial.” Id. at 391, 614 S.E.2d 73.
Appellant's claim rests primarily on testimony by the defense's forensic psychology expert that because of Appellant's low I.Q. and his religious delusions regarding the trial and the legal process, he lacked a rational understanding of the nature and object of the proceedings and his role in them and was incapable of assisting his attorneys in mounting a defense. Appellant also cites testimony from two family members about the family history of mental illness, Appellant's behavioral problems as a child, and his delusional thinking while awaiting trial, as well as testimony by his lead counsel regarding the difficulties his attorneys had encountered in working with him.
However, there was also substantial testimony from the State's forensic psychology expert that Appellant understood in detail the nature and object of the proceedings and his role in them and that Appellant was able, if not always inclined, to assist his attorneys. In addition, three jailers testified that Appellant's daily interactions with others appeared to be normal. And even the defense's expert conceded that Appellant knew the names and functions of those involved in the trial process, could recall and relate facts pertaining to his actions and whereabouts at the time of the shooting, and knew what was expected of him at trial, what the charges against him were, and the potential sentence he faced if convicted.
Viewed in the light most favorable to the State, the evidence presented at the competency trial and summarized above was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to conclude that Appellant failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was incompetent to stand trial. See id. Accordingly, this enumeration of error provides no basis for reversal.
Judgment affirmed in part and vacated in part.
All the Justices concur.
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Docket No: No. S12A1527.
Decided: March 18, 2013
Court: Supreme Court of Georgia.
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