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Improper Judicial Comment Leads to Reversal in Georgia Murder Case

October 13, 2014

In Freeman v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the defendant's conviction for murder holding that the trial judge improperly commented in the presence of the jury that the defendant's statements to police were voluntarily given.

The defendant had given three statements to the police. He was only advised of his Miranda rights before giving the third statement so he argued to the trial court that the first two statements should be excluded. Prior to trial, the court held a Jackson v. Denno hearing and concluded that the statements would be admissible.

At trial, when the State sought to introduce the first statement into evidence, the defendant noted his objection and the prosecutor responded that the court “already found at the previous hearing that the statement was freely and voluntarily given and as well that no Miranda warnings were necessary as the defendant was not a suspect at that time.” The court overruled the objection. When the State introduced the second statement, the defense again noted its objection. The prosecutor again responded that “the issue of voluntariness has already been addressed and [the State] would request the court allow this into evidence.” This time, however, the trial court also responded and stated, “All right. I find that the statement was freely and voluntarily given as previously ruled. I’ll admit it over the objection of the defense.”

On appeal, the defense argued that the trial court’s remark in open court regarding the voluntariness of the defendant’s statement constituted an improper judicial comment under O.C.G.A. § 17-8-57. The statute provides that it is reversible error for any judge to express his opinion, in the presence of the jury, as to what has or has not been proven.

The issue of the admissibility of a defendant’s statement to the police is a two-step process. First, the trial court addresses the issue outside the presence of the jury and, if the court finds the statement to be admissible, it is admitted for the jury to make the ultimate determination as to whether the statement was voluntarily given. Once the trial court determines that the statement is admissible, it should simply admit it into evidence and not inform the jury of its ruling. As the Supreme Court previously held in Chumley v. State, a trial court’s ruling in the presence of the jury on the voluntariness of a defendant’s statement amounts to a violation of O.C.G.A. § 17-8-57.

As noted by the Court, violations of O.C.G.A. § 17-8-57 result in automatic reversal of the conviction without any inquiry as to whether or not the improper comment prejudiced the defendant. As a result, the Court reversed the defendant’s murder conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

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