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RUTLAND v. The STATE.
Appellant Israel Rutland was convicted of felony murder in connection with the deaths of Kelly Marie Prescott and Matthew Dean Horton resulting from a vehicular collision following a high-speed police chase.1 On appeal, Appellant contends in two related claims that his convictions for felony murder and homicide by vehicle in the first degree constitute “inconsistent verdicts” requiring reversal. For the reasons explained below, we affirm.
The evidence presented at trial showed that on November 12, 2013, Appellant was driving through Tift County when a law enforcement officer attempted to pull him over to execute a pending arrest warrant. Appellant refused to pull over and led officers on a high-speed chase spanning multiple counties. Once in Berrien County, the Nashville Police Department deployed “stop sticks.” Though Appellant ran over the “stop sticks,” he never reduced his speed, lost control of his vehicle, or left his lane of travel. Shortly thereafter, he drove through an intersection with a stop sign and collided with a Trailblazer driven by Heidi Mancil. Mancil's siblings, Prescott and Horton, were also occupants of the vehicle. Prescott and Horton were declared dead at the scene, and their cause of death was determined to be severe trauma as a result of the collision. Although Mancil survived, she suffered serious injuries and had to be life-flighted to the nearest hospital to treat her injuries.
1. Appellant contends that the trial court erred when it accepted the jury's guilty verdicts on felony murder and homicide by vehicle in the first degree because they were “inconsistent verdicts.” He argues that these verdicts were “inconsistent” because the felony murder convictions required a finding that Appellant “acted with criminal intent” and the homicide by vehicle convictions required a finding that Appellant “acted ․ [with] criminal negligence.” For the reasons explained below, this claim has no merit.
“As a general rule, inconsistent verdicts occur when a jury in a criminal case renders seemingly incompatible verdicts of guilty on one charge and not guilty on another.” McElrath v. State, 308 Ga. 104, 108 (2) (a), 839 S.E.2d 573 (2020) (emphasis in original). See also State v. Owens, 312 Ga. 212, 216 (1) (a), 862 S.E.2d 125 (2021). An example of inconsistent verdicts is when a defendant is convicted of possession of a firearm during the commission of the crime of aggravated assault, but found not guilty of aggravated assault. See Coleman v. State, 286 Ga. 291, 295-296 (4), 687 S.E.2d 427 (2009). Although this Court once viewed inconsistent verdicts as impermissible, we now allow inconsistent verdicts to stand, reasoning that “it is not generally within the court's power to make inquiries into the jury's deliberations, or to speculate about the reasons for any inconsistency between guilty and not guilty verdicts.” McElrath, 308 Ga. at 109 (2) (a), 839 S.E.2d 573 (citation and punctuation omitted). But, we have acknowledged that “repugnant verdicts” require reversal. See id. at 111 (2) (c), 839 S.E.2d 573. “Repugnant verdicts” “occur when, in order to find the defendant not guilty on one count and guilty on another, the jury must make affirmative findings shown on the record that cannot logically or legally exist at the same time.” Id., at 111 (2) (c), 839 S.E.2d 573. An example of “repugnant verdicts” is when a defendant is found guilty but mentally ill of felony murder and aggravated assault and not guilty of malice murder by reason of insanity. See id. at 112 (2) (c), 839 S.E.2d 573 (“Put simply, it is not legally possible for an individual to simultaneously be insane and not insane during a single criminal episode against a single victim, even if the episode gives rise to more than one crime.”).
Here, Appellant contends that, although we no longer hold that inconsistent verdicts necessarily require reversal, the verdicts in this case should nonetheless be reversed. However, the guilty verdicts on felony murder and homicide by vehicle in the first degree cannot be classified as “inconsistent verdicts” or “repugnant verdicts” because the felony murder and homicide by vehicle verdicts consist only of guilty verdicts, rather than a guilty verdict and a not guilty verdict. Thus, Appellant's claim has no merit.
Although two or more guilty verdicts cannot be “inconsistent verdicts” or “repugnant verdicts” as we have defined those terms, they could be “mutually exclusive.” See McElrath, 308 Ga. at 110 (2) (b), 839 S.E.2d 573. But guilty verdicts are not mutually exclusive with one another unless they “cannot legally exist simultaneously.” Id. An example of “mutually exclusive” verdicts is when a defendant is convicted of malice murder, an offense requiring a showing of the presence of malice aforethought, and vehicular homicide, an offense requiring a showing of the absence of malice aforethought. See Dumas v. State, 266 Ga. 797, 799 (2), 471 S.E.2d 508 (1996).
Here, the guilty verdicts on felony murder and homicide by vehicle involve levels of mental culpability that are different in degree but not ones that, as in Dumas, “cannot legally exist simultaneously.” McElrath, 308 Ga. at 110 (2), 839 S.E.2d 573. See also OCGA § 16-5-1 (c) (defining felony murder as “in the commission of a felony, caus[ing] the death of another human being irrespective of malice”); OCGA § 40-6-393 (a) (defining first-degree homicide by vehicle as “caus[ing] the death of another person through [certain traffic offenses]” “without malice aforethought”). We have made clear that “multiple guilty verdicts for the same conduct that are based on varying levels of mens rea are not mutually exclusive.” Springer v. State, 297 Ga. 376, 382 (1), 774 S.E.2d 106 (2015).2 Accord Hinkson v. State 310 Ga. 388, 391-392 (2), 850 S.E.2d 41 (2020). Thus, the verdicts here are neither inconsistent nor mutually exclusive, and Appellant's claim also fails for this reason.
2. Appellant also contends that the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury that it could not find Appellant guilty of both felony murder and homicide by vehicle in the first degree. This claim fails.
“Where a defendant does not request that the trial court give a jury instruction,” as Appellant did not here, “this Court only reviews for plain error.” Munn v. State, 313 Ga. 716, 722 (3), 873 S.E.2d 166 (2022).
To show plain error, the appellant must demonstrate that the instructional error was not affirmatively waived, was obvious beyond reasonable dispute, likely affected the outcome of the proceedings, and seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Satisfying all four prongs of this standard is difficult, as it should be.
Payne v. State, 314 Ga. 322, 325 (1), 877 S.E.2d 202 (2022). This Court does not have to analyze all elements of the plain-error test where an appellant fails to establish one of them. See id.
For the reasons set forth in Division 1, we conclude that there was no error, plain or otherwise, in the trial court's failure to instruct the jury that it could not find Appellant guilty of both felony murder and homicide by vehicle in the first degree and that any such instruction by the trial court would have been error. Cf. Booth v. State, 311 Ga. 374, 376 (1), 858 S.E.2d 39 (2021) (concluding that the trial court made an “incorrect determination at trial that the verdicts were mutually exclusive” when it vacated the verdicts and “charged the jury that they could not enter guilty verdicts on both felony murder and involuntary manslaughter and could not enter guilty verdicts on both neglect to an elder person and reckless conduct”).
1. Prescott and Horton died on November 12, 2013. On February 2, 2015, a Berrien County grand jury indicted Appellant for the following counts: felony murder of Prescott, predicated on fleeing and attempting to elude police officers (Count 1); felony murder of Horton, predicated on fleeing and attempting to elude police officers (Count 2); homicide by vehicle in the first degree of Prescott, predicated on fleeing and attempting to elude police officers (Count 3); homicide by vehicle in the first degree of Horton, predicated on fleeing and attempting to elude police officers (Count 4); serious injury by vehicle of Heidi Mancil (Count 5); fleeing and attempting to elude a police officer (Counts 6-11); aggravated assault on a peace officer (Counts 12-13); reckless conduct (Count 14); reckless driving (Count 15); driving under the influence (Count 16); driving while license suspended (Count 17); and failure to stop at a stop sign (Count 18).Prior to trial, the driving under the influence count (Count 16) was dismissed. Jury selection occurred from September 20 to 21, 2016, and Appellant was represented by counsel during jury selection. At a trial from December 6 to December 15, 2016, Appellant represented himself, and his stand-by counsel presented closing argument. The jury found Appellant not guilty of two counts of aggravated assault on a peace officer (Counts 12 and 13) and reckless conduct (Count 14), but guilty of the remaining counts. The trial court merged the two counts of homicide by vehicle in the first degree (Counts 3 and 4) into the two felony murder counts (Counts 1 and 2), and Appellant was sentenced to serve life in prison plus six years. Appellant filed a timely motion for new trial. After the motion-for-new-trial hearing, the trial court vacated one of Appellant's convictions for fleeing and attempting to elude a police officer (Count 6), re-sentenced Appellant to serve life in prison plus five years, and otherwise denied the motion for new trial. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal, and the case was docketed to this Court's August 2022 term and submitted for a decision on the briefs.
2. We note that Springer explicitly overruled Walker v. State, 293 Ga. 709, 749 S.E.2d 663 (2013), which reversed the defendant's convictions for felony murder based on aggravated assault and homicide by vehicle based on reckless driving because they were “mutually exclusive.” See Springer, 297 Ga. at 383 n.4, 774 S.E.2d 106.
All the Justices concur.
Response sent, thank you
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Docket No: S22A0916
Decided: February 07, 2023
Court: Supreme Court of Georgia.
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