Georgia criminal defense attorney wins reversal of murder conviction based on state’s failure to disclose co-defendant’s altered plea agreement

Georgia criminal defense attorney wins reversal of murder conviction based on state’s failure to disclose co-defendant’s altered plea agreement

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently held that the state’s failure to disclose a co-defendant’s changed sentence from the plea agreement, which allowed the co-defendant to potentially reduce his sentence after testifying against the defendant, robbed the defendant of his right to impeach the co-defendant by showing a motivation to lie.

In State v. Gonnella, the defendant, Gonnella, was convicted of felony murder but acquitted of malice murder. On the night in question, Gonnella and his friend Evans drove to an apartment to buy marijuana from Williams. Williams stated that he had no marijuana, but that he had $500 to buy marijuana if Evans found a seller. Gonnella and Evans left, but then drove back at Gonnella’s request. While Evans waited in the car, Gonnella went into the apartment at which time Evans heard a gunshot. Gonnella later told Evans that Williams went for his gun and that a struggle ensued during which time the weapon was discharged. The two men then drove to Evans’ brother’s home where Gonnella stated that he had killed someone. Gonnella gave the brother his bloody shirt, and Evans later disposed of the gun in a wooded area. Evans eventually told police the location of the gun, and police were able to match the gun to the bullet pulled from Williams. Police also learned that the bullet was fired close to the skin and that it traveled downward into Williams’ head.

Evans and Gonnella were then indicted on three counts with Count One being malice murder. Before trial, Gonnella asked the court for an order forcing the state to reveal all agreements between the state and any of its witnesses. At the hearing, the state disclosed a plea agreement with Evans. Gonnella then simply asked the state to disclose any future plea agreements. When Evans took the stand, the state gave Gonnella a document entitled “Plea Agreement.” According to the agreement, Evans would plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter as to Count One and receive 20 years with 15 in prison. In exchange, Evans would testify against Gonnella at trial.

However, the state failed to provide a document entitled “Defendant’s Change of Plea.” In that document, Evans altered his plea from “not guilty” to “guilty” to voluntary manslaughter. On these forms, there is a sentence which reads: “In addition, the defendant waives any right to modification of the sentence to be imposed pursuant to this agreement, and agrees that he shall not seek modification of said sentence in the future.” However, this text was crossed out on Evan’s change of plea form. The lack of this text meant that Evans could ask for a better sentence for himself after testifying against Gonnella.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, the state has a duty to reveal any agreement with a witness which concerns criminal charges against the witness. Failure to comply with Brady constitutes a due process violation. For a defendant to succeed on a Brady claim, he must show that the state possessed evidence helpful to the defendant, that the state suppressed the evidence, that the defendant did not have the evidence nor could he through reasonable diligence, and that a reasonable probability exists that the outcome would have been different had the state disclosed the evidence.

The Supreme Court of Georgia reasoned that being able to impeach the state’s primary witness is of great importance. In this case, the state denied Gonnella the ability to impeach Evans by demonstrating a motive to lie. The Court explained that if the state had disclosed the change, Gonnella would have had the opportunity to show that the state left open the possibility that Evans could receive a lighter sentence. Gonnella would have been able to argue that the state did this so that Evans would be motivated to testify in such a way as to ensure Gonnella’s conviction. Thus, the state denied favorable evidence that Gonnella could not have found by reasonable diligence. The Court also found that there is a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different, since the jury acquitted Gonnella of malice murder and the other witness, Evans’ brother, also had a motive to lie which was to protect his brother.

Our criminal defense attorneys have defended numerous clients who have had co-defendants testify against them at trial. In our experience, it is not uncommon for a defendant to be denied full knowledge of deals or agreements that are made between the government and witnesses. It is also not uncommon for a witness or a co-defendant to lie in hopes of getting a better deal. A good criminal defense attorney will pressure the state by filing disclosure motions and conducting independent investigations to ensure that a jury knows of any deals that a witness has accepted and whether the witness is telling the truth about what happened. An independent investigation often consists of running background checks, interviewing other witnesses and persons who know the witness as well as reviewing police and court transcripts for inconsistent statements.