The Georgia Supreme Court has unanimously upheld the murder conviction and life prison sentence a man received in Bartow County for the death of his 14-month-old baby girl who died after ingesting cocaine. In Monday’s opinion, Justice Robert Benham writes that “we find the evidence sufficient…to authorize the jury to find appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute on the evening in question as charged in the indictment.”
According to the facts, Anthony Tawon Williams and Stephanie Stephens lived in a rental home on Hattie Street in Cartersville with their toddler daughter, Jewell Williams, and four other children. According to witnesses, the couple sold crack-cocaine and “loose” cocaine from their home, typically keeping it under an arm of the living room couch or in Stephens’ purse. One witness testified that while Stephens sometimes ordered the children out of the room during a drug deal, Jewell, an inquisitive toddler, would typically come back into the room before the drug deal was done, according to briefs filed in the case.
According to state prosecutors, the night of June 15, 2007, Gwendolyn Wheeler came to the couple’s home to purchase crack cocaine, as she had done many times before. She and other witnesses said Williams often served as the “lookout man” while Stephens made the transaction. Later that night, Jewell apparently found the drug and ate it. Early the next morning, emergency personnel responded to a 911 call to the home where they found Jewell in severe distress. According to the medical personnel, the baby had a very weak pulse and an irregular, gasping breathing pattern that is often related to cardiac arrest and death. Jewell was transported to the local hospital where she was pronounced dead. An autopsy showed the toddler had died from acute cocaine toxicity. Back at the home, Williams showed an officer with the Cartersville-Bartow County Drug Task Force the exact spot where he said Jewell had ingested the drug. He claimed that earlier that day, a woman had brought the drug into their home and mistakenly left it behind. The officer noticed a crystal substance on the floor in front of the couch, and the contents of a vacuum cleaner plugged into the wall nearby later tested positive for cocaine.
In September 2008, a Bartow County grand jury indicted Williams and Stephens for felony murder, cruelty to children, contributing to the deprivation of a minor, possession of cocaine and possession with the intent to distribute cocaine. In October 2008, a fugitive task force arrested the couple in Atlanta. At a joint trial in 2009, Williams’ attorney argued there was no evidence Williams was inside the home or knew that cocaine was being sold inside the night Jewell ate the drug. Rather he said he was outside on the front porch visiting with a friend. Following a hearing, the trial court allowed four women to testify they had visited the home numerous times to buy cocaine, most often from Stephens but sometimes from Williams. After prosecutors presented their case, the defense made a motion for a directed verdict by the judge in Williams’ favor, arguing that the “similar transaction evidence” from the four witnesses was insufficient to make him a party to the crime. Following a four-day trial, the jury found both Williams and Stephens guilty of all charges. Williams, who was sentenced to life in prison, has appealed to the state Supreme Court.
In his appeal, Williams’ attorney argues the trial court made up to nine errors, including by admitting the testimony from the four witnesses who said they had purchased drugs at the couple’s home. The attorney argued this “similar transactions” evidence “impermissibly” placed Williams’ character at issue and ultimately “contributed to his convictions on insufficient evidence.”
But in today’s opinion, “We reject appellant’s assertion that the similar transactions evidence was improperly admitted into evidence because it was introduced solely for the improper purpose of placing his character at issue.” Rather the trial court held a hearing and found the testimony of each witness was admissible because “the prior transactions described by each witness were sufficiently similar to the crime charged so that proof of the former tended to prove the latter, and the trial court further found the relevance of the similar transactions evidence outweighed the inherent prejudice it creates,” the opinion says.
Williams also argued the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, which formed the basis of his felony murder charge and life prison sentence. He argued the only evidence presented to support the possession with intent to distribute charge was the similar transactions testimony of witnesses.
Again, the high court has rejected his arguments. With regard to possession, even if the evidence did not show that Williams himself possessed drugs the night his daughter ingested cocaine, the jury could have reasonably concluded that he jointly possessed the drugs with Stephens, with whom he lived. As to the intent to distribute, the testimony was sufficient for a jury to conclude that sometimes Williams sold cocaine directly and sometimes he served as the lookout. “From the testimony of witnesses about prior similar transactions, a jury could reasonably conclude appellant was a party, along with his co-defendant, to the ongoing enterprise of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and thus was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute on the night in question,” the opinion says. “In fact, the indictment charged appellant with the offense of felony murder as a party to the crime with his co-defendant.”
Williams’ attorney also argued the evidence was insufficient to permit a jury to find him guilty of felony murder based on the drug charge because possession with intent to distribute is not the type of felony which by its nature creates a foreseeable risk of death.
“We disagree,” today’s opinion says. “In this case, the evidence shows appellant possessed cocaine in his home where his five children lived, including the 1-year-old victim.”
“Under the circumstances present in this case, the evidence is sufficient to support appellant’s conviction for felony murder arising out of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute,” the high court concludes. It has rejected all his other arguments.
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Attorneys for Appellee (State): Rosemary Greene, District Attorney, Stewart Bratcher, Asst. D.A., Mickey Thacker, Asst. D.A., Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Clint Malcolm, Asst. A.G.