The Supreme Court of Georgia on Monday upheld 10 murder convictions and life sentences, including that of Gregory Johnson.
Johnson was found guilty in 2006 Bartow County Superior Court of felony murder, armed robbery and two counts of theft by receiving in the Nov. 1, 2002, stabbing death of Carol Kaye Lewis at the bookstore she owned and operated.
On Dec. 21, 2006, Johnson filed for a new trial, claiming trial court error and ineffective assistance of trial counsel. His motion was denied on Dec. 30, 2012. He then filed a notice of appeal on Jan. 20, 2013, with the case docketed before the state Supreme Court in September.
In their unanimous decision, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson wrote, the “appellant has failed to demonstrate deficient performance as to this ground and his claim of ineffective assistance fails.”
According to the opinion, the jury was authorized to reach the conclusion that Johnson entered the store and waited until Lewis was alone, based on the evidence presented. He then stabbed her, took several rings from her fingers and cash from the register, leaving her body in the back of the business.
“Appellant, who was seen after the crimes wearing the victim’s rings, told one witness he had rings to trade for crack cocaine and that the rings, which he ‘removed from a lady,’ came off easily ‘because of the blood,’” the opinion reads.
In the document, evidence showed Lewis had called her husband and mentioned the “creepy guy” had been in. Lewis’ husband, Harold, was familiar with the man and told her to exit the store. Less than an hour later, Lewis’ son located her body.
“A few days after the murder, Harold Lewis told police he remembered the name of the person he and his wife referred to as the ‘creepy guy,’ Gregory Johnson, and he identified appellant in a photographic lineup,” the opinion stated. “Construed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, we find the evidence was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which he was convicted.”
The court upheld the admission of Harold Lewis’ testimony about the conversation with his wife just prior to her death, saying, “Whether a statement is trustworthy is a matter for the trial court’s discretion which will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion.”
In addition, the high court said a challenge to the admission of testimony by a customer and employee was allowable.
“Assuming for purposes of appeal that the victim’s statements to [the customer and employee] constituted inadmissible hearsay, we find any error in the admission of this evidence to be harmless,” the opinion stated. “As discussed above, Lewis testified that his wife told him the ‘creepy guy’ was in the store and he made her feel uncomfortable, and Lewis identified appellant by name and photograph as the person about whom they were speaking. Therefore, even assuming the victim was referring to appellant in her statements to [the customer and employee], their testimony was merely cumulative of Lewis’ properly admitted testimony, and we find it highly probable that its admission did not affect the outcome of the proceedings.”
Johnson also appealed the identification process, during which a group worked with a sketch artist and Harold Lewis was shown the lineup of photographs three days later, identifying Johnson. Lewis then asked to see a single photo of Johnson and confirmed the identification, the court documents show.
“Accordingly, we find nothing about the identification procedures used in this case that required suppression of evidence related to Lewis’ identification of appellant. As correctly recognized by the trial court, the weight to be given Lewis’ delayed identification of appellant was for the jury to decide,” the opinion stated.
On the question of the state allowing “similar transaction evidence,” the Supreme Court paused.
During the trial, the state was allowed to present similar transaction evidence related to Johnson having a prior conviction for an aggravated assault against a woman as she rested in her vehicle outside her place of employment. According to the court documents, the evidence of the previous case showed Johnson’s “bent of mind.
“... Specifically, the trial court found similarities based on the personal characteristics of the victims and the fact that in that both cases appellant used a knife to assault a woman at her place of employment after waiting for the victim to become vulnerable and alone or isolated from others during either the early morning or early evening, generally at times of low light. In addition, in both instances he took personal possessions of minor value.”
In the opinion, Thompson wrote that the court saw the question about sufficient evidence between the two incidents to be close.
“Although we find the question of the sufficiency of the evidence of similarities between the two incidents is a close one under the facts of this case, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion in ruling that evidence of the prior aggravated assault was admissible under the law applicable at the time of appellant’s trial,” the opinion states.
The court also disagreed with Johnson’s argument that admission of statements made by the now-deceased victim of the previous assault violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause.
“The Confrontation Clause prohibits the admission of statements only if the statements were testimonial,” the opinion stated. “... Here, the challenged statements were made by the victim of the prior crime to a law enforcement officer minutes after the crime to meet an ongoing emergency; therefore, they were not testimonial and their admission was not prohibited by the Confrontation Clause.”
In his final enumeration of error, Johnson said he was denied effective assistance at trial because counsel failed to object on hearsay grounds to Harold Lewis’ testimony about his telephone conversation with the victim and failed to object to testimony about a prison note.
To prove the claim of ineffective assistance, Johnson had to prove his counsel’s performance was deficient and that the “deficiency prejudiced him so that there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for the deficiency, the outcome of his trial would have been different,” the court documents stated.
In the unanimous opinion, Thompson wrote that the court found Johnson failed to prove counsel met the two requisites.
“Accordingly, appellant has failed to demonstrate deficient performance as to this ground and his claim of ineffective assistance fails,” the opinion stated.
For the full opinion, visit http://www.gasupreme.us/.