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GA Court of Appeals Sends Child Molestation Case Back to Trial Court

January 8, 2015

In Wiggins v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals vacated the denial of the defendant’s motion for new trial, holding that the trial court failed to exercise its discretion and determine whether the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence.

The record showed that police in Savannah responded to a domestic violence call to find three children in the home with their mother and the mother’s boyfriend Cesar Moran. The mother had a red mark across her face as if she had been hit, and the children reported that Moran had hit their mother. Moran was arrested. A Savannah detective assigned to the case interviewed the children two days later.

Eight year-old T.W. told the detective that she had been molested by her mother’s boyfriend Moran and also by David Ray, who she called her mother’s “sugar daddy.” T.W. said that Ray had bought her new clothes for school, and that this led to the fight between her mother and Moran to which the officers responded. T.W. also told the detective that she had spent the night with Ray at his house, and that Ray had taken pictures of her private area.

Later, eleven year-old N.G. told her therapist that the girls had lived with their Aunt Becka for about two years while their mother was incarcerated. N.G. stated that Ray used to give Aunt Becka money in exchange for the girls performing sexual acts with him. The therapist testified that N.G. told her about a weekend when Ray took N.G. and T.W. shopping for school clothes in exchange for the children staying overnight with Ray while the mother and Aunt Becka stayed in a hotel. According to N.G., Aunt Becka told the girls that the family would not be able to afford food and would lose their house if the girls did not perform sexual acts with Ray.

Aunt Becka was indicted for the offenses of sexual exploitation of a child, aggravated sodomy, child molestation, and cruelty to children in the first degree. She was convicted on all counts. Ray killed himself prior to ever being arrested on the charges. An arrest warrant for the girls’ mother was outstanding at the time of trial.

On appeal, Aunt Becka challenged the verdict based on the sufficiency of the evidence and the “general grounds.” The Georgia Supreme Court has held that, even when the evidence is sufficient to sustain a conviction, a trial judge may grant a new trial if the verdict of the jury is “contrary to the principles of justice and equity,” or if it is “decidedly and strongly against the weight of the evidence.” These general grounds give the trial judge the discretion to sit as the “thirteenth juror” and determine whether the verdict should be set aside after considering the weight of the evidence, any conflicting evidence, and the credibility of the witnesses.

The Court of Appeals held that while the evidence was legally sufficient to affirm the conviction, the order denying the motion for new trial did not contain any indication that the judge actually exercised discretion and weighed the evidence. Thus, the Court of Appeals vacated the order and remanded the case for the trial court to consider the motion for new trial “under the appropriate discretionary standard.”

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