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David Bates was convicted of malice murder and other crimes in connection with the stabbing death of his next-door neighbor. On appeal, he contended that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions. Because the evidence was sufficient to convict him on the murder and armed robbery counts and the jury found him not guilty on the burglary count, the Supreme Court affirmed.Receive FREE Daily Opinion Summaries by Email
In the Supreme Court of Georgia
Decided: October 21, 2013
S13A1095. BATES v. THE STATE.
David Bates was convicted of malice murder and other crimes in
connection with the stabbing death of his next-door neighbor Thelma Ransom.1
On appeal, he contends that the evidence was insufficient to support his
convictions. Because the evidence was sufficient to convict him on the murder
The crimes occurred on August 21, 2006, and the Fulton County
grand jury indicted Bates on November 21, 2006. On September 5, 2008, the
jury found Bates guilty of malice murder, felony murder, armed robbery,
aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and possession of a knife during
the commission of a felony; Bates was found not guilty of burglary. The trial
court sentenced Bates as a recidivist to life imprisonment without parole on
the malice murder and armed robbery counts and a five-year term of
imprisonment on the possession count, with all sentences to run
consecutively; the felony murder and aggravated assault counts merged or
were vacated by operation of law. Bates filed a motion for new trial on
September 8, 2008 and amended the motion on January 8, 2011; June 6,
2011; and January 30, 2012. The trial court denied the motion on February
24, 2012, and Bates filed a notice of appeal on March 12, 2012. The case
was docketed to the Court’s April 2013 term of court and submitted for
decision on the briefs.
and armed robbery counts and the jury found him not guilty on the burglary
count, we affirm.
1. On appeal, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to
support the prosecution and will uphold the verdict if any rational trier of fact
could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U. S. 307 (99 SCt 2781, 61 LE2d 560) (1979); Walker
v. State, 282 Ga. 406 (1) (651 SE2d 12) (2007). It is the role of the jury, not this
Court, to weigh the evidence and determine witness credibility. See Caldwell
v. State, 263 Ga. 560 (1) (436 SE2d 488) (1993).
Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence presented
at trial shows that Bates would periodically borrow small sums of money from
Joe Ransom, the victim’s husband, and repay the money at the end of the week;
Joe also paid Bates to cut the grass in the yard of the duplex they shared. Joe
died in July 2006 and, on the night before his funeral, Bates attempted to borrow
money from Thelma Ransom. He also cut the grass and sought payment from
her; she got upset and asked him not to cut the grass anymore. On Sunday,
August 20, 2006, Ransom’s daughter Melissa Lytle took Ransom to the grocery
store and observed that her mother had approximately $600 in her wallet. On
the next day, Ransom’s sister-in-law Melba Mitchell and her three children
visited Ransom for three hours in the morning. During their visit the storm door
was locked and the front door was open. While watching television in the living
room, the children saw Bates in a tan T-shirt and dark shorts going up and down
the steps of the duplex several times with his bike. The Mitchells left around
12:15 to 12:30 p.m. At approximately 2:20 p.m., Lytle called her mother and,
when there was no answer, went to Ransom’s apartment, arriving around 3 p.m.
Lytle received no response when she knocked on the front door. She found the
storm door unlocked, the front door locked from the inside with a deadbolt lock,
and the back door open, all of which were unusual. Entering the apartment from
the back, Lytle discovered her mother lying on the floor covered with blood and
Police found a knife handle approximately a foot from Ransom’s feet and
a knife blade lying on her shirt beside her neck. She had been stabbed more
than 10 times in the chest and struck on the head with a blunt object. There
were no signs of a forced entry or struggle in the apartment. Ransom’s purse,
which was located in her bedroom, had no cash in it.
Bates’s girlfriend, Avis Astin, testified that she told Bates on the morning
of Ransom’s death that she was breaking up with him because he never had any
money and could not take care of her. She went to a friend’s house down the
street where Bates came and tried to get her to go back to his apartment to talk.
Approximately three hours later, Bates returned to the friend’s house a second
time. He had changed clothes and displayed “a wad of cash.” Astin followed
Bates to his apartment “to get some money.” When Ransom’s body was
discovered a few minutes later, Bates left on his bicycle to go to the Dollar
General store. At trial, Astin identified the knife handle and blade found near
the victim’s body as the steak knife with a loosened handle that she had used
in cooking at Bates’s apartment.
Although Bates told police that he wore the same clothes all day on the
day Ransom was killed, videotapes showed that he was wearing a tan shirt and
black shorts when he visited the Texaco gas station around noon and a red shirt
and green camouflage shorts when he made purchases with a $50 bill at the
Dollar General store in the afternoon. While in jail, Bates told another prisoner
that he had gone next door to get money from Ransom, lost his temper when she
said she did not have any money, and stabbed her and “just kept stabbing her.”
The State introduced evidence of a similar transaction from 1991 in which Bates
had helped a 78-year-old man cut his grass and then pulled a knife on him and
demanded money, stabbing him later when the cash ran out.
Despite this evidence, Bates contends that it was insufficient to support
the murder convictions because there was no fingerprint, fiber, DNA, or other
forensic evidence linking him directly to the crime. To warrant a conviction on
circumstantial evidence, the evidence must exclude every other reasonable
hypothesis save that of the guilt of the accused. OCGA § 24-4-6 (now codified
at OCGA § 24-14-6 in the new Evidence Code). Whether a defendant is guilty
based solely on circumstantial evidence is a question for the jury. See Lindsey
v. State, 271 Ga. 657 (1) (522 SE2d 459) (1999). In this case, the fingerprint
expert found no fingerprints on the handle of the murder weapon and either no
fingerprints, fingerprints of no value, or the victim’s fingerprints on other items
tested. Concerning the absence of DNA evidence, the forensic biology expert
testified that washing hands and cleaning with bleach destroys any DNA. In
searching Bates’s apartment, police found a bucket full of bleach water on his
kitchen floor with a bottle of Clorox bleach nearby. Bates’s girlfriend testified
that the kitchen was messy that afternoon with items around the sink moved out
of place and the bleach bottle on the floor was unusual because she did most of
the washing and cleaning in the apartment. After reviewing the evidence in the
light most favorable to the jury’s determination of guilt, we conclude that a
rational trier of fact could have found Bates guilty beyond a reasonable doubt
of the murder of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U. S.
at 319; see also Murray v. State, 271 Ga. 504 (1) (521 SE2d 564) (1999) (jury
authorized to find that the evidence was sufficient to exclude every reasonable
hypothesis save that of guilt).
2. Bates next alleges that the evidence was insufficient to support his
conviction for armed robbery because the State failed to present evidence on the
“manner and means” by which Ransom’s money was taken. Under Georgia law,
“[a] person commits the offense of armed robbery when, with intent to commit
theft, he or she takes property of another from the person or the immediate
presence of another by use of an offensive weapon.” OCGA § 16-8-41 (a). To
convict a defendant of armed robbery, the State must prove beyond a reasonable
doubt that the defendant’s use of the weapon occurred prior to or
contemporaneously with the taking. See Fox v. State, 289 Ga. 34 (1) (b) (709
SE2d 202) (2011); see also Hester v. State, 282 Ga. 239, 240 (2) (647 SE2d 60)
(2007) (“‘It is well-settled that a defendant commits a robbery if he kills the
victim first and then takes the victim’s property’”) (citation omitted).
Contrary to Bates’s contention, the State presented evidence that Bates
used force against Ransom before taking her money. According to the jailhouse
informant’s testimony, Bates said he went to Ransom’s apartment to get some
money, thought Ransom was lying when she said she did not have any, and lost
his temper and stabbed her when she resisted. Here the evidence was sufficient
to authorize the jury to find that the theft was completed after Bates stabbed
Ransom with a knife. Construing the evidence most strongly in favor of the
prosecution, we conclude that a rational trier of fact could have found Bates
guilty of armed robbery beyond a reasonable doubt. See Jackson v. Virginia,
443 U. S. at 319; Francis v. State, 266 Ga. 69 (1) (463 SE2d 859) (1995)
(conviction for armed robbery authorized when theft was completed after force
was used against the victim regardless of whether the victim was dead).
3. The remaining enumeration alleges that the evidence is insufficient to
support a conviction for burglary. Because the jury acquitted Bates of burglary,
this issue is moot.
Judgment affirmed. All the Justices concur.