In State v. Rhodes, a Cobb County trial court’s decision to grant the defendant a new trial following his conviction for child molestation offenses was upheld by the Georgia Court of Appeals.
In the defendant’s motion for new trial, he contended that the jury’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence. This came after the jury found the defendant guilty of two counts of aggravated child molestation which resulted in a sentence of 25 years in prison. After considering this motion, the trial court judge agreed and granted the defendant’s request for a new trial. On appeal, the State claimed that the trial court’s ruling was erroneous.
The Defendant argued that the jury’s guilty verdicts were against the weight of the evidence that was presented at trial. Following a hearing on the defendant’s motion, the trial court held that it was granting the defendant a new trial “after considering the credibility of witnesses, conflicts in the evidence, and the weight of the evidence.” The court ruled that the jury’s verdict was “contrary to the evidence and contrary to the principles of justice and equity.”
The State argued on appeal that the trial court abused its discretion when granting the new trial. Their claim was based on the argument that the judge showed signs of distress during and after the trial with the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence that he was required to impose.
Just prior to the start of the trial, the State and the defense agreed to a plea that would have resulted in a sentence of just eight years for the defendant. However, during the plea, the defendant was seen mouthing the words “I can’t do this.”
The trial judge then warned the defendant about the sentence he was facing and said, “if you’re found guilty, I will have to give you twenty-five years in prison . . . and you’ll serve every single day of it.” The defendant then responded, “I just can’t admit to something that I honestly didn’t do.” The defendant then rejected the plea offer and proceeded to trial.
Immediately following the jury’s verdict, the case proceeded to sentencing. The trial judge remarked that he had no discretion and was required by law to sentence the defendant to 25 years in prison. After imposing sentence, the judge wished the defendant “good luck.”
The appellate court concluded that the State could not demonstrate that the trial court abused its discretion. Under Georgia law, OCGA § 5-5-50 provides that the judge’s decision to grant a new trial should not be overturned on appeal unless it is shown that the judge abused his or her discretion when granting it and that the evidence presented at trial requires that the verdict stand.
The Court noted that the State’s argument essentially was that the reasons stated by the trial court for granting the new trial were not the actual reasons – but rather, the trial court’s ruling was based on the judge’s discomfort with imposing the mandatory minimum sentence. The Court agreed that the judge’s feelings about the sentence would not be a proper basis for granting the new trial, however, the Court could not find that this factored into the judge’s decision.
For these reasons, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision granting the defendant a new trial.
In his concurring opinion, Judge Pipkin warned that while trial courts do have discretion to grant motions for new trial, this discretion “is not unbounded.” Of particular note was his concern that it is the legislature, and not trial court judges, who decides what sentencing parameters are available to the trial court.
He also used the concurring opinion to remind trial courts that it is the prosecutors who decide what charges are to be brought against a particular defendant and that judges must not participate in plea discussions with the parties. He noted that the trial judge almost crossed this line when he encouraged the State to make the defendant a plea offer to a lesser offense prior to trial. Since the defendant decided not to accept the plea, Judge Pipkin concluded that there was ultimately no harm that was caused.
Nevertheless, he concurred with the result reached by the majority and, therefore, the Court affirmed the vacating of the defendant’s aggravated child molestation convictions and remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial.
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