BLANTON v. STATE

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Court of Appeals of Georgia.

BLANTON v. The STATE.

No. A13A1200.

Decided: November 12, 2013

Jody Donald Peterman, for Appellant. Tracy K. Chapman, J. David Miller, for Appellee.

After the State indicted him for multiple counts of incest and child molestation, Dean Blanton filed a plea of former jeopardy and a motion to dismiss the indictment. He appeals from the trial court's denial of the motion, contending that prosecution on the indictment is barred because the State charged him with the same offenses in two previous indictments. He also contends, in the alternative, that the court erred in denying his special demurrer to the most recent indictment, arguing that the State failed to show that it was unable to identify specific dates, or reasonably narrow the ranges of dates, during which he allegedly committed the offenses. For the following reasons, we affirm.

The record shows the following undisputed, relevant facts. In October 2010, the Lowndes County Grand Jury returned an indictment (hereinafter, “the first indictment”) charging Blanton with two counts of incest, three counts of child molestation, and one count of making a terroristic threat. The indictment alleged that Blanton committed acts of incest involving the older of his two daughters “on or about the 1st day of May, 2008 and the 30th day of April, 2010, the exact date and time unknown to the Grand Jury, but known to the accused[.]” It charged him with committing child molestation against his younger daughter “on or about the 1st day of May, 2008 and the 13th day of December 2009, the exact date and time unknown to the Grand Jury, but known to the accused[.]” Blanton filed general and special demurrers to the indictment, and, although the court denied the demurrers, the State decided to obtain a new indictment in order to narrow the ranges of dates alleged in the child molestation counts.

In April 2011, the State re-indicted Blanton for the same crimes (“the second indictment”); the only substantive changes to the allegations were that the acts of child molestation occurred “on or about the 1st day of June, 2008 and the 1st day of February, 2009[.]” Blanton again filed a special demurrer asserting that the court should quash the incest and child molestation charges because the State had failed to identify the specific dates (or, at least, to sufficiently narrow the ranges of dates) during which the offenses allegedly occurred.1 During a hearing on the demurrer (“the June 2011 hearing”), the State argued that it was unable to identify the actual dates of the offenses and, in support of this argument, it presented the testimony of a police detective who had interviewed the incest victim and the victims' mother and had observed the forensic interview of the child molestation victim. Following the hearing, the court ruled that the State had met its burden of demonstrating that it had tried to narrow the ranges of dates given in the indictment and that, under the circumstances presented, it had been unable to do so. As a result, it denied Blanton's special demurrer.2

Then, during an April 2012 motion hearing, Blanton raised a new challenge to the second indictment, arguing that it was defective because the range of dates identified in each count did not include the word “between,” for example, “between the 1st day of May, 2008 and the 30th day of April, 2010.” He argued that, as drafted, each count alleged that the offense at issue occurred “on or about” two distinct and separate dates. The trial court found that Blanton's argument had merit, so it gave the State two options as to how to proceed: the court could dismiss the indictment and the State could re-indict Blanton, or the court could overrule the special demurrer and the State could proceed to trial with the risk that the indictment could later be deemed defective.

The State decided to re-indict Blanton, and, on April 27, 2012, it filed another indictment (“the third indictment”) in which it had added the word “between” to each of the counts in reference to the range of dates; this was the only difference between the second and third indictments. Blanton filed, inter alia, a special demurrer to the third indictment, again arguing that the ranges of dates given in the indictment were unreasonably broad, as well as a plea of former jeopardy and a motion to dismiss. The court denied Blanton's motions,3 and, pursuant to the grant of a motion for an out-of-time appeal, Blanton filed a notice of appeal in November 2012. Then, on December 11, 2012, the trial court granted the State's motion to enter an order of nolle prosequi as to the first indictment,4 and issued an order quashing the second indictment.

1. On appeal, Blanton contends that the trial court erred in denying his plea of former jeopardy and motion for judgment of acquittal, pursuant to OCGA § 17–7–53.1.5 The court denied the motions based upon its conclusion that OCGA § 17–7–53.1 did not bar his prosecution on the third indictment because, at the time of its ruling, neither the first nor the second indictment had been quashed.

OCGA § 17–7–53.1 provides as follows:

If, upon the return of two “true bills” of indictments or presentments by a grand jury on the same offense, charge, or allegation, the indictments or presentments are quashed for the second time, whether by ruling on a motion, demurrer, special plea or exception, or other pleading of the defendant or by the court's own motion, such actions shall be a bar to any future prosecution of such defendant for the offense, charge, or allegation.

This statute “specifies that the bar to further prosecution intervenes after a second quashing” and “refers only to action on a matter initiated by the defendant or the court, but not the State.” Redding v. State, 205 Ga.App. 613, 614(2), 423 S.E.2d 10 (1992). Unlike a court's order quashing an indictment, a motion to enter a “nolle prosequi” is a formal action made by the State based upon its decision not to further prosecute that indictment. Id. “It is the prerogative only of the State, which may enter it with court approval,” pursuant to OCGA § 17–8–3.6 (Citations omitted.) Id. at 614–615(2), 423 S.E.2d 10.

Thus, this Court has ruled that to disregard the plain language of OCGA § 17–7–53.1 that limits its application to cases in which two previous indictments have been “quashed” as a result of some action initiated by the defendant or the court would “render such language meaningless. A statute is to be interpreted so as to give meaning to its entire content rather than to find parts to be surplusage. It follows that entries of nolle prosequi do not trigger the bar to prosecution in OCGA § 17–7–53.1.” (Citation omitted.) Redding v. State, 205 Ga.App. at 615(2), 423 S.E.2d 10. See also State v. Lejeune, 276 Ga. 179, 184(4), 576 S.E.2d 888 (2003) (“Nothing in [OCGA] § 17–7–53.1 evidences an intent [by the General Assembly] to include actions initiated by the State in the enumerated matters giving rise to application of the statutory bar to future prosecution.”).

Blanton argues, however, that the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the State to enter a nolle prosequi to the first indictment, because he had moved to quash the indictment and, more importantly, because the entry of a nolle prosequi (instead of an order quashing the first indictment) rendered OCGA § 17–7–53.1 inapplicable and disabled the statute's bar to his prosecution on the third indictment.7 The Supreme Court of Georgia, however, has already addressed and decided a similar argument adversely to Blanton in Layman v. State, 280 Ga. 794, 631 S.E.2d 107 (2006). In Layman, the trial court approved the State's requests for the entry of orders of nolle prosequi on two indictments, even though Layman had moved to quash each of them and had objected to the State's requests. Id. On appeal, Layman argued that the trial court had abused its discretion by entering the orders of nolle prosequi over his objection. Id. The Court ruled, however, that, under OCGA § 17–8–3, the State does not need a defendant's consent to obtain an order of nolle prosequi before the case has been submitted to a jury and that the entry of such orders renders the motions to quash moot. Id. at 794–795, 631 S.E.2d 107. More importantly, the Supreme Court also reiterated that “the trial court has discretion to order the entry of a nolle prosequi, instead of quashing the indictment, to avoid the application of OCGA § 17–7–53.1.” (Punctuation and footnote omitted.) Id. at 795, 631 S.E.2d 107, quoting State v. Lejeune, 276 Ga. at 184(4), 576 S.E.2d 888. See also Funk v. State, 321 Ga.App. 737, 738, 742 S.E.2d 766 (2013) (accord); Shane v. State, 320 Ga.App. 1, 2, 739 S.E.2d 9 (2013) (accord).

Accordingly, we find no abuse of discretion by the trial court in granting the nolle prosequi as to the first indictment, nor did the court err in denying Blanton's plea of former jeopardy and motion to dismiss the third indictment. Layman v. State, 280 Ga. at 795, 631 S.E.2d 107; Funk v. State, 321 Ga.App. at 738, 742 S.E.2d 766; Shane v. State, 320 Ga.App. at 2, 739 S.E.2d 9; Redding v. State, 205 Ga.App. at 614–615(2), 423 S.E.2d 10.8

2. Blanton contends that the trial court erred in denying his special demurrer to the third indictment, arguing that the State failed to demonstrate that it was unable to narrow the range of dates identified in each count of the indictment.

In reviewing a ruling on a special demurrer, we apply a de novo standard of review, because it is a question of law whether the allegations in the indictment are legally sufficient. Further, because we are reviewing an indictment before any trial, we do not conduct a harmless error analysis to determine if the defendant has actually been prejudiced by the alleged deficiencies in the indictment; rather, we must apply the rule that a defendant who has timely filed a special demurrer is entitled to an indictment perfect in form and substance.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) State v. Corhen, 306 Ga.App. 495, 497–498, 700 S.E.2d 912 (2010).

Generally, an indictment which fails to allege a specific date on which the crime was committed is not perfect in form and is subject to a timely special demurrer.[ 9] However, where the State can show that the evidence does not permit it to allege a specific date on which the offense occurred, the State is permitted to allege that the crime occurred between two particular dates.

(Footnotes omitted.) State v. Layman, 279 Ga. 340, 340–341, 613 S.E.2d 639 (2005). In such a situation, though, “the range of dates alleged in the indictment should not be unreasonably broad.” Mosby v. State, 319 Ga.App. 642, 643(1), 738 S.E.2d 98 (2013).

In meeting its burden of showing that it is unable either to identify a specific date on which an offense occurred or to narrow the range of possible dates, the State is required to present some evidence and may not rely solely upon argument by counsel or mere speculation. Mosby v. State, 319 Ga.App. at 643–644(1), 738 S.E.2d 98; Blackmon v. State, 272 Ga.App. 854, 854–855, 614 S.E.2d 118 (2005); State v. Gamblin, 251 Ga.App. 283, 284(1), 553 S.E.2d 866 (2001). If the State fails to meet this evidentiary burden, or if the evidence presented demonstrates that the State is, in fact, reasonably capable of narrowing the range of dates alleged in the indictment, the indictment is subject to a special demurrer. State v. Layman, 279 Ga. at 340–341, 613 S.E.2d 639; Mosby v. State, 319 Ga.App. at 643(1), 738 S.E.2d 98; see Howard v. State, 281 Ga.App. 797, 798–799(1), 637 S.E.2d 448 (2006) (“Where the State's own evidence shows that the State reasonably could narrow the range of dates, a special demurrer should be granted.”) (citation omitted).

(a) The incest charges in Counts 1 and 2. As shown above, the State alleged that Blanton engaged in two counts of incest with his older daughter “between the 1st day of May, 2008, and the 30th day of April, 2010, the exact date of the offense being unknown to the Grand Jury, but known to the accused [.]” Count 1 alleged that he committed incest by having sexual intercourse with the victim, while Count 2 alleged that he committed incest by engaging in oral sodomy with the victim.

To show that it was unable to identify specific dates, or to narrow the ranges of dates, during which Blanton allegedly committed these offenses, the State presented the testimony of the police detective who had investigated the crimes.10 The detective testified that he had interviewed the incest victim and that she had told him that the first incident occurred in late May or early June 2008, at the end of her senior year of high school.11 She and Blanton were alone on a car trip to Georgia; they were moving some of their family's belongings from their home in Florida to their new home in Lowndes County. Blanton committed the first act of incest on the first night that he and the victim stayed in the new home. The victim also reported that Blanton made her perform oral sex on him sometime during the summer of 2008. In addition to these incidents, the victim reported that Blanton engaged in incestuous acts with her approximately 50 more times throughout the two years alleged in the indictment, although the victim was unable to identify the dates of any specific incidents. She knew, however, that the last possible date that the incest could have occurred was May 7, 2010, because that was when her mother, who had been attending nursing school in Florida, moved back to Georgia to rejoin the rest of the family. The detective testified that, in an effort to get more specific dates, he asked the victim if she remembered whether any of the incidents had occurred around birthdays or other memorable dates or if she had written about any of the incidents in a diary or on a calendar, and she responded that she did not.12

Blanton argues that the evidence presented demonstrates that the State could have narrowed the two-year time periods identified in Counts 1 and 2 of the indictment to between May 1 and July 31, 2008, and between December 1, 2009 and January 31, 2010, because there was evidence that he had engaged in sexual intercourse and/or oral sodomy with his older daughter during these time periods. In fact, on appeal, Blanton suggests that these are the only time periods during which the acts allegedly occurred and, therefore, the indictment should have been limited to these ranges of dates.

In support of this argument, Blanton relies solely on this Court's ruling in Howard v. State, 281 Ga.App. at 798–799(1), 637 S.E.2d 448. Our ruling in Howard, however, is inapplicable here because the material facts upon which that ruling was based are clearly distinguishable from those in this case. In Howard, the indictment alleged that the defendant committed acts of sexual misconduct against the victim between November 5, 2002, and February 28, 2003. Id. at 798(1), 637 S.E.2d 448. At the hearing on the special demurrer, the State presented no evidence; instead, it simply told the trial court that it could not identify more specific dates. Id. During a similar transaction hearing that took place later that day, however, the State called the victim as a witness, and she testified that the acts of sexual misconduct alleged in the indictment only occurred during the latter half of February 2003. Id. As a result, this Court concluded that, because the State's own evidence showed that it could have narrowed the range of dates in the indictment, the special demurrer should have been granted.13 Id. at 798–799(1), 637 S.E.2d 448.

In contrast, as shown above, the evidence in this case showed that Blanton had engaged in at least 50 individual acts of incest with his older daughter throughout the two-year time period alleged in the indictment, not just during the months Blanton identifies in his brief.

Consequently, we conclude that Blanton has failed to demonstrate that the trial court erred in denying his special demurrer to Counts 1 and 2 of the indictment. Cf. Mosby v. State, 319 Ga.App. at 643–644(1), 738 S.E.2d 98 (The trial court erred in denying the defendant's special demurrer because the State failed to present any evidence to show that it was unable to more specifically identify the dates of the alleged crimes.); State v. Meeks, 309 Ga.App. 855, 858(1), 711 S.E.2d 403 (2011) (The trial court did not err in sustaining the defendant's special demurrer when the record showed that the State gave no explanation as to why an investigating officer failed to ascertain the dates the offenses allegedly occurred.).

(b) The child molestation charges in Counts 3 through 5. The State indicted Blanton for committing three acts of child molestation against his younger daughter “between the 1st day of June, 2008, and the 1st day of February, 2009, the exact date of the offense being unknown to the Grand Jury, but known to the accused[.]” According to the police detective, the 15–year–old victim moved from Florida to the family's home in Lowndes County in June 2008, after she finished her school year on June 8. She lived in Lowndes County until February 2, 2009, when she moved back to Florida, where her mother was then living. According to the victim, Blanton committed acts of child molestation against her on a regular basis throughout that eight-month period, although she could not provide any specific dates. There is no evidence that the victim had written about any of the acts in a diary or on a calendar.

On appeal, the only cognizable challenge to Counts 3 through 5 that Blanton asserts is his contention that the victim may have turned sixteen years old at some point during the eight-month range of dates identified in each count and that, as a result, any act of molestation that he committed after she reached the age of sixteen was not punishable under OCGA § 16–6–4(a)(1).14 Blanton has failed, however, to cite to any evidence in the record establishing the victim's date of birth. Further, Blanton did not challenge the indictment on this basis in his special demurrer or the hearings thereon. In fact, in his special demurrer, he stated that the victim was “almost sixteen (16) years of age when [the indicted] acts allegedly happened[,]” and, during the June 2011 hearing, Blanton stated that the victim was “14 and 15 [years old] when [these acts] occurred.” Thus, Blanton has failed to demonstrate that he was entitled to a special demurrer on this basis.

Accordingly, because the record supports the trial court's conclusion that the State was unable to narrow the range of dates during which Blanton allegedly molested his younger daughter, we find no error in its denial of his special demurrer as to Counts 3, 4, and 5 of the indictment. See Arnold v. State, 305 Ga.App. 45, 48–49(2), 699 S.E.2d 77 (2010) (The trial court did not err in denying the defendant's special demurrer, because evidence showed that the victim was a minor at the time defendant molested her, that she could not recall specifically when the molestation occurred, that she did not keep a diary or calendar that might aid her memory, and that the molestation occurred on at least a weekly basis during the three-year period alleged in the indictment.).

Judgment affirmed.

ELLINGTON, Presiding Judge.

PHIPPS, C.J., and BRANCH, J., concur.