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GA Court of Appeals Reverses Assault Conviction Due to Judge’s Remark

September 16, 2013

In Haymer v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the defendant’s convictions for voluntary manslaughter and aggravated assault due to an improper comment made by the trial judge during the defense attorney’s cross examination of the lead detective.

The Court held that the judge’s statement could have been construed by the jury as a comment on the evidence or the detective’s credibility.

During the cross examination of the lead detective, the defense attorney brought up the fact that the detectives interrogating the defendant told him that his fingerprints were on a cell phone found in the victim’s apartment. This was not true as there were actually no fingerprints found on the phone. The detective testified that this was just “a tactic to see if he would be honest with us.” Defense counsel questioned this by replying, “a dishonest tactic for honesty?” The trial judge then said “It’s quite all right for the police officers to do that in order to test a person. So move on.”

On appeal, Haymer argued that the trial judge’s comment constituted an impermissible opinion on the evidence. Under Georgia law, it is improper for a judge in a criminal case to express or intimate his opinion as to what has or has not been proven at trial. The Georgia Court of Appeals cited previous cases from the Georgia Supreme Court which held that a new trial is warranted when the judge’s comments “could have been construed by the jury as expressing a favorable opinion” on the credibility of a witness. According to the Court of Appeals, the trial judge’s comment in Haymer’s case could have been so construed. Additionally, the Court cited a prior decision in which it had held that a trial judge’s statement that a police interrogation complied with statutory requirements was an impermissible comment on the evidence. The Court saw no meaningful distinction between that prior holding and the instant case. As a result, the Court of Appeals reversed Haymer’s convictions for voluntary manslaughter and aggravated assault and remanded the case for a new trial.

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