ATLANTA MURPHY V. THE STATE (S11A1358)
A man convicted in Muscogee County of beating to death a 15-month-old baby girl will get a new trial under a ruling today by the Georgia Supreme Court.
In today’s unanimous decision, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein writes that “[b]ecause the trial court’s favorable comments regarding one of the State’s witnesses could have been construed by the jury as bolstering that witness’s testimony, we must reverse and remand for a new trial.”
The jury found that on Sept. 19, 1998, emergency medical personnel arrived at the home of Carmen Jackson, where they found Jackson’s 15-month-old daughter, Tytanna, not breathing and without a pulse. She was later pronounced dead at the hospital. At the time, Timothy Murphy lived with Jackson and her two children, and the couple later testified that Murphy had been babysitting that day while Jackson was at work. When she arrived home, the baby seemed to be fine. Around midnight, however, Murphy heard the child whining and found her struggling to breathe. The pair testified she called 911 while he administered CPR.
According to medical experts’ testimony at trial, the baby had been beaten so severely her pancreas and duodenum were ruptured and the contents of her intestines had leaked into her abdomen. She had penetration wounds to her vagina and anus, two broken ribs and multiple contusions on her face, scalp, back, abdomen and leg. Tytanna died of toxic shock two to four hours after she was injured. The couple testified no one else had been alone with the baby that week.
Murphy and Jackson were both charged with murder, aggravated sexual battery and cruelty to children. The sex charges were dead docketed, and the two were tried jointly. Both were found guilty of the other charges and sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison. In 2007, this court upheld her convictions and sentence. Murphy now appeals to the state Supreme Court.
“We find this evidence sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to find Murphy guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the charged crimes,” today’s opinion says.
At issue in this case, however, are the remarks of the trial judge during the testimony of a police officer. In response to an objection, Judge Douglas Pullen said, “You’re asking this detective, who is a good detective, what is in someone, somebody else’s head.” The judge also said the detective “has worked a lot of cases and he’s got a recollection and he’s got a written memorandum and hopefully between the two of those and his good efforts we’re going to find the truth of the matter.”
Official Code of Georgia § 17-8-57 states: “It is error for any judge in any criminal case…to express or intimate his opinion as to what has or has not been proved or as to the guilt of the accused. Should any judge violate this Code section, the violation shall be held by the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals to be error and the decision in the case reversed, and a new trial granted….”
The purpose of that law, today’s opinion says, “is to prevent the jury from being influenced by any disclosure of the trial court’s opinion regarding the credibility of a witness.”
Here, “[t]he jury could have interpreted the trial court’s calling Tyner a ‘good detective’ as expressing a favorable opinion on his abilities and thus bolstering that witness’s credibility,” the opinion says. The jury also could have construed the judge’s comments “as an expression of the court’s opinion that Tyner’s recollection of the defendant’s statement was reliable or credible.”
“Therefore, the trial court erred in making statements that could have been interpreted as offering an opinion on Tyner’s credibility.”
Attorney for Appellant (Murphy): William Mason
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Benjamin Pierman, Asst. A.G., Julia Slater, District Attorney, David Helmick, Asst. D.A.