A Supreme Court of Georgia decision upholding a man's conviction for a 2014 murder in Whitfield County but vacating his convictions for aggravated assault and aggravated battery won't affect the man's time in prison, District Attorney Bert Poston said, as Aaron Jerome Howell was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder.
Howell was sentenced in August 2017 by Whitfield County Superior Court Judge Cindy Morris for the beating death of Paul Edward Guerrant in December 2014 on Dozier Street.
In an opinion (www.gasupreme.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/s19a1182.pdf) released Monday written by Presiding Justice David Nahmias, the court upheld Howell’s conviction for the murder of Guerrant but vacated his convictions for aggravated assault and aggravated battery "as they should have been merged into his murder conviction for sentencing purposes," a court summary said. Justice Charlie Bethel of Dalton did not participate in the opinion.
"Appellant contends that the evidence presented at his trial was legally insufficient to support his convictions and that the trial court erred by admitting other-act evidence ... ," the opinion said. "As explained below, we affirm appellant’s murder conviction, although we vacate his convictions for aggravated assault and aggravated battery to correct merger errors."
"Appellant contends that the evidence presented at his trial was wholly circumstantial and did not exclude every other reasonable hypothesis except that of his guilt. ... ," the opinion said. "We disagree. Contrary to the premise of appellant’s argument, the state presented some direct evidence of his guilt. During appellant’s police interview, a detective asked if appellant had killed Guerrant, and appellant nodded his head yes (while saying no). Appellant then indicated his involvement in the murder again when he was left alone in the interview room and spoke to Guerrant’s photo, saying that Guerrant would still be alive if he had not been 'playing with (appellant’s) ----.'
"In addition, appellant confessed to (James) Williams — an essentially disinterested witness who initially reported the confession not to the police but to his mother — that appellant had recently beaten and killed a white man who had been 'talking smack' to him and that he had thrown 'everything' related to the murder in a wooded area nearby. ... Although appellant challenged the credibility and interpretation of these incriminating statements, which may have affected the weight of that evidence, those challenges did not render the evidence circumstantial. ...
"Moreover, the state also presented compelling circumstantial evidence that appellant killed Guerrant."
"Viewed as a whole and in the light most favorable to the jury’s verdicts ... the state’s evidence, including appellant’s own confessions, incriminating comments and false statements as well as the circumstantial evidence, was strong and ... certainly sufficient for the jury to reject as unreasonable the hypothesis that someone other than appellant killed Guerrant," the opinion said.
The opinion did say, "Although appellant does not raise the issue, the trial court erred by failing to merge the guilty verdicts on the aggravated assault and aggravated battery counts into his malice murder conviction. Those counts all were based on the same act of appellant striking Guerrant in the head with a blunt object, and there was no evidence that the crimes were separated by a deliberate interval. ... Accordingly, we vacate appellant’s convictions and sentences for aggravated assault and aggravated battery."
Morris had sentenced Howell to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault and 20 years for aggravated battery. They were to run concurrent with the sentence for murder.
The opinion also rejected a claim that the trial court made a mistake in allowing evidence that at a homeless shelter in Florida about two years before Guerrant’s murder, Howell "stabbed another homeless man in the back with a fork after they argued," and Howell pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery.
"Finally, appellant argues that during the state’s closing argument, the prosecutor suggested to the jury that the other-act evidence proved appellant’s propensity to commit the charged crimes," the opinion said. "Most of the prosecutor’s comments about the evidence of the Florida incident, however, were focused on the issue of intent. And even if some of the comments could be interpreted as suggesting that the evidence showed appellant’s criminal propensity, the prosecutor also reiterated that the evidence was offered for the 'very limited purpose' of showing intent and directed the jury’s attention to the court’s limiting instructions.
"In any event, the trial court charged the jury that closing arguments are not evidence, that the court determines the law that applies and instructs on that law, and that the jury is bound by those instructions. And as both the prosecution and the defense emphasized, the crucial issue in this case was the murderer’s identity, not his intent, so additional evidence of intent — even if wrongly admitted — was of lesser importance to the jury’s decision.
"Considering all of these circumstances, we conclude that it is highly probable that the admission of the other-act evidence, even if erroneous, did not contribute to the jury’s guilty verdicts."