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Defendant was convicted of murder, felony murder, cruelty to children, and aggravated battery for the death of his four-month-old baby. Defendant appealed, contending, among other things, that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict and that he received ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The court held that the evidence adduced at trial was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the charges for which he was convicted. The court held that defendant failed to support his contention of ineffective assistance of counsel with any evidence other than his own speculation and, as such, his argument in this regard was rejected. The court further held that there was no error in the admission of evidence of defendant's prior difficulty in which he squeezed and threw the baby at his mother where the evidence was properly admitted to show defendant's bent of mind towards and course of conduct with the baby. The court further held that the photographs and testimony regarding the baby's prior healing rib fracture both served as part of the basis of the medical expert's opinion regarding the mechanism of death and was relevant to prior difficulty testimony showing that defendant had improperly squeezed the baby in the past. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting this relevant evidence. Accordingly, the judgment was affirmed.Receive FREE Daily Opinion Summaries by Email
In the Supreme Court of Georgia
Decided: September 12, 2011
S11A1011. STOKES v. THE STATE.
Following his convictions for murder, felony murder, cruelty to children,
and aggravated battery, Jeremy Antonio Stokes appeals, contending, among
other things, that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict and that he
received ineffective assistance of trial counsel.1 For the reasons set forth below,
On April 30, 2008, Stokes was indicted in Clayton County for two
counts of malice murder, three counts of felony murder, two counts of cruelty
to children, and aggravated battery. Following a jury trial, Stokes was found
guilty of all counts on June 26, 2009, and he was sentenced to life
imprisonment for malice murder with twenty consecutive years for each
count of cruelty to children and twenty concurrent years for aggravated
battery. The felony murder counts were vacated by operation of law,
Malcolm v. State, 263 Ga. 369 (4) (434 SE2d 479) (1993), and the remaining
counts were merged for purposes of sentencing. Stokes filed a motion for
new trial on July 20, 2009, and amended it on March 29, 2010. The trial court
denied the amended motion on December 16, 2010. Thereafter, Stokes filed a
motion for out-of-time appeal, which the trial court granted, and he filed a
notice of appeal on March 10, 2011. The resulting appeal, which has been
docketed to the April 2011 Term of this Court, was submitted for decision on
1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the record shows that
Stokes and Tamara Riley were the parents of four-month-old Jeremiah Stokes
(“the baby”). On the morning of March 2, 2008, the baby was alive and well.
Later, Stokes was alone with the baby for approximately two hours. During that
time, paramedics were dispatched to the apartment, where they found Stokes
holding the lifeless baby. At the hospital, Stokes gave varying versions of the
events of the morning. At first, Stokes stated that the baby was crying in the
other room, so he went in and held the baby to stop his crying. Stokes later said
that the baby must have fallen off the sofa where Stokes was sleeping because,
when Stokes woke up, the baby was shaking and gagging on the ground. After
being confronted with the results of an autopsy, however, Stokes was
interviewed again, and he confessed that his prior stories had been lies.
In Stokes’ interview and in his testimony at trial, Stokes admitted to a
number of actions consistent with the fatal injuries suffered by the baby. Stokes
stated that the baby began to cry and would not stop, so Stokes grabbed him and
squeezed him to make him stop. Stokes then put the baby down on his face.
Stokes also said that he grabbed the baby’s face and neck, squeezed him with his
fingers, attempted to force a pacifier in the baby’s mouth, and bit the baby on
his back. In addition, at one point, Stokes quickly flipped the baby over, pinning
one of his arms behind him. After his mishandling, the baby began drifting in
and out of consciousness.
These actions taken against the baby and the resulting injuries were
reflected in the autopsy findings. The medical examiner discovered that the baby
had broken ribs, a torn gum and lip, bruises along the face and neck, a broken
arm, and a swollen brain. The medical examiner determined that the baby’s
death was “very characteristic of a death by a manual, forcible suffocation with
hands in and around the mouth.” At trial, Stokes largely admitted that his actions
were the cause of the baby’s injuries, but he maintained that he never actually
intended to cause harm. The medical examiner’s testimony, however, showed
that the injuries suffered by the baby could not have been accidental, but,
instead, were the result of considerable force being used against the child.
In addition to this evidence, Riley testified that, on a previous occasion,
she admonished Stokes about hurting the baby by squeezing him too tightly.
During this inappropriate squeezing, the baby cried loudly. After being
criticized, Stokes threw the baby at Riley.
This evidence was sufficient to enable a jury to find Stokes guilty of the
crimes for which he was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v.
Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 SC 2781, 61 LE2d 560) (1979).
2. Stokes contends that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by
failing to raise a Batson challenge2 after the State used five of its eight
peremptory strikes against African -American potential jurors. Stokes, however,
has not satisfied his burden of proof in making this claim.
“To succeed on [his] claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, [Stokes]
was required to show not only that trial counsel should have raised a Batson
challenge, but also that the challenge would have been successful.” Pierce v.
There are three steps involved in a Batson challenge:
First, the defendant must make out a prima facie case “by
showing that the totality of the relevant facts gives rise to an
inference of discriminatory purpose.” Second, once the defendant
has made out a prima facie case, the “burden shifts to the State to
explain adequately the racial exclusion” by offering permissible
race-neutral justifications for the strikes. Third, “[i]f a
race-neutral explanation is tendered, the trial court must then
decide . . . whether the opponent of the strike has proved
purposeful racial discrimination.”
(Citations and footnote omitted.) Johnson v. California, 545 U.S. 162, 168
(II) (125 SC 2410, 162 LE2d 129) (2005). See also, Batson v. Kentucky, 476
U.S. 79 (106 SC 1712, 90 LE2d 69) (1986).
State, 286 Ga. 194, 199 (4) (686 SE2d 656) (2009). Stokes, however, has wholly
failed to make the latter showing.
Had a Batson objection been raised at trial and the inference of
purposeful discrimination accepted, the burden would have then
shifted to the State to come forward with race-neutral explanations
for its peremptory strikes. However, in the context of an ineffective
assistance of counsel claim, it was [Stokes’] burden, not the State's,
to ensure that the trial court had sufficient information to determine
the merit of a Batson challenge. See Stanley v. State, 283 Ga. 36, 39
(656 SE2d 806) (2008) (holding that to show ineffectiveness based
on counsel's failure to file a motion to suppress, the defendant must
make a strong showing that the evidence would have been
suppressed if the motion had been filed, even though the State
would have had the burden of proving the search was lawful at a
pre-trial suppression hearing).
Pierce, supra, 286 Ga. at 200-201 (4).
The record shows, however, that Stokes neither called the State’s
prosecutors to testify at the motion for new trial hearing, nor sought out or
attempted to introduce their notes regarding the striking of jurors prior to trial.3
To the contrary, only the State attempted to elicit this information during its
cross-examination of Stokes’ trial counsel, and the resulting testimony indicates
that the State did have race-neutral reasons for using its peremptory strikes. In
The trial court could have requested such evidence on its own, but it
was not required to do so. See Trammel v. State, 265 Ga. 156 (1) (454 SE2d
any event, Stokes wholly failed to support his contention of ineffective
assistance with any evidence other than his own speculation. As such, his
argument in this regard must be rejected. Id.
3. Stokes argues that the trial court erred by admitting evidence of his
prior difficulty in which he squeezed and threw the baby at Riley without a
sufficient showing of similarity. As an initial matter, Stokes’ reliance on a
similarity argument is misplaced.
Unlike similar transactions, prior difficulties do not implicate
independent acts or occurrences, but are connected acts or
occurrences arising from the relationship between the same people
involved in the prosecution and are related and connected by such
nexus. Thus, the admissibility of evidence of prior difficulties does
not depend upon a showing of similarity to the crime for which the
accused is being tried. Evidence of the defendant's prior acts toward
the victim, be it a prior assault, a quarrel, or a threat, is admissible
when the defendant is accused of a criminal act against the victim,
as the prior acts are evidence of the relationship between the victim
and the defendant and may show the defendant's motive, intent, and
bent of mind in committing the act against the victim which results
in the charges for which the defendant is being prosecuted.
(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Dixon v. State, 275 Ga. 232, 232–233 (2)
(564 SE2d 198) (2002). In this case, the prior difficulty evidence was properly
admitted to show Stokes’ bent of mind towards and course of conduct with the
baby. Moreover, even if similarity were an issue in this matter, both the prior
difficulty and the crimes for which Stokes was being tried involved
inappropriate squeezing of the child. There was no error in the admission of the
disputed evidence. Id.
4. Stokes contends that the trial court erred by admitting photographs
which depicted the fatal injuries suffered by the baby as well as prior injuries to
the baby’s ribs. In addition, Stokes maintains that the trial court erred by
allowing the medical examiner to give any testimony regarding the existence of
these prior injuries.4 Specifically, Stokes maintains that, although the evidence
might have been relevant, its probative value was outweighed by its prejudicial
effect. Stokes’ argument is misplaced. “When a trial court is faced with the
challenge that the probative value of evidence is outweighed by its tendency to
unduly prejudice the jury, it must exercise its discretion in determining
admissibility.” (Citation omitted.) Woods v. State, 265 Ga. 685, 687 (3) (461
SE2d 535) (1995). In this case, the photographs and testimony regarding the
baby’s prior healing rib fracture both served as part of the basis of the medical
expert’s opinion regarding the mechanism of death and was relevant to prior
The record shows that the trial court did exclude one autopsy
photograph which showed only the prior rib fracture and not the fatal
difficulty testimony showing that Stokes had improperly squeezed the baby in
the past. Under these circumstances, the trial court did not abuse its discretion
in admitting this relevant evidence.
Judgment affirmed. All the Justices concur.