Georgia Supreme Court Blog

March 9, 2010

Court Reverses Dekalb Murder Convictions Due to Trial Court Evidence Errors

Filed under: Carol Hunstein, criminal law, evidence, Harold Melton, murder — bce30064 @ 8:48 pm

Steven Manley (Source: GA DOC)

The Georgia Supreme Court has reversed the murder convictions and life prison sentences given to Steven Manley and Robert Allen for the 2007 shooting death of Emmett Whatley in DeKalb County.

According to the evidence and briefs filed in the case, Whatley, known as “Black,” lived in a house on Chapman Circle with his 12-year-old son. He had a recording studio in the basement, and frequently had friends over to play music. Alexandria “Alex” Phillips was one of them. According to prosecutors, in January 2007, Phillips told her neighbors, Steven Manley and Cody Allen-Brown, about Whatley’s studio, and they asked if Whatley had any guns or money. She told them she knew he had money. Phillips testified that the two men then decided to “hit a lick,” or rob Whatley, and she helped them set it up. Her boyfriend, Robert Allen, was also involved. Around midnight on Feb. 8, 2007, the three men drove in Allen’s Lincoln Navigator SUV to Whatley’s house, calling Phillips from the car for directions. After watching Whatley leave with a woman, the men parked and waited until Whatley returned and got out of his car. When he tried to run, Allen-Brown shot him in the back. The men then left, and Whatley bled to death. The next morning, his son found him in the front yard with his keys and two cell phones. Phone records led police to Phillips, whose phone records and statements led them to the three men.

In October 2008, a jury convicted Manley and Allen of murder and they were sentenced to life in prison plus five years. (Allen-Brown was also convicted of Whatley’s murder.)

In a plea deal, Phillips pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and received a 6-year prison sentence in exchange for her testimony against the men. Phillips could have been convicted of Whatley’s murder along with the others and received a life sentence, which would require her to serve 30 years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole. Her 6-year sentence, on the other hand, did not require her to spend any particular amount of time in prison before she was eligible for parole.

Robert Allen (Source: GA DOC)

In an opinion written by Justice Harold Melton (data), the Supreme Court found that the “evidence was sufficient to enable the jury to find Manley and Allen guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.” But the trial court made several errors, and “we must reverse in both cases.”

In their appeal, attorneys for both Allen and Manley argued the trial court erred in not allowing them to fully cross examine Phillips about the deal she got in exchange for testifying against them. “Based on the facts of this case, we agree,” today’s opinion states. “Allen and Manley were prevented from fully exploring the possibility that Phillips was biased in favor of the State due to her parole disparity…,” the Court held. “This evidentiary whipsaw potentially misled the jurors, and, as a result, requires that both convictions be reversed.”

In the decision, the high court overruled its 2003 decision in Hewitt v. State, along with any other cases that relied on it, to the extent that they could be interpreted to mean “that a witness may never be cross-examined regarding eligibility for parole in order to show bias in favor of the State.”

The Supreme Court also found that the trial court erred in restricting the cross-examination of the informant who implicated Allen-Brown in the killing to determine whether he might be biased in favor of the State. “The co-defendants should have been allowed to question the informant about the basis of his first offender plea for these purposes,” the opinion states.

Finally, the trial court should have suppressed Manley’s statement to police that he was in Whatley’s subdivision the night of the murder to buy drugs. More than once, the record shows, Manley stated he wanted a lawyer present, yet detectives continued to interrogate him. “Under these facts, Manley unambiguously requested the presence of his lawyer, and any questioning should have stopped immediately,” the opinion stated.

In a special concurrence, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein (data) agreed with the final judgment but takes issue with the overruling of case law. “No reasonable person could possibly interpret Hewitt v. State…as the majority does, i.e., as supporting the proposition that a witness may … never” be cross-examined regarding eligibility for parole. Nor can it cite to any case in which Hewitt was so interpreted to support this proposition. Accordingly, there is no basis whatsoever for the majority’s insistence on overruling this case…” Justice P. Harris Hines joined in the special concurrence.

More Information:
Georgia Supreme Court Opinions Database: MANLEY V. THE STATE (S10A0136), ALLEN V. THE STATE (S10A0137)
Georgia Criminal Law Reference Page: From the Center for Legal Solutions

Summary by the Georgia Supreme Court Public Information Office
Attorney for Appellants (Manley and Allen): Gerard Kleinrock, DeKalb Public Defender
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, District Attorney, Lenora Grant, Dep. Chief Asst. D.A., Thurbert Baker, Attorney General, Mary Beth Westmoreland, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Chris Johnson, Asst. A.G


December 28, 2009

Convicted Murderer Gets New Trial Because of Withheld Impeachment Evidence

Filed under: criminal law, evidence, murder — bce30064 @ 3:59 pm

A man convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison will get a new trial as a result of a decision by the Georgia Supreme Court.

Richard Gonella

Richard Gonella

The high court has reversed the denial by a Richmond County court of Richard Anthony Gonnella’s motion for new trial on the ground that state prosecutors failed to reveal that the main witness against him had worked out a plea arrangement that could have gotten him a lighter sentence.

Gonella was convicted of felony murder for the 2002 shooting death of John Henry Williams. According to evidence at trial and briefs filed in the case, the night of Sept. 6, 2002, Christopher Evans drove Gonnella to Williams’ apartment, where the two hoped to buy some marijuana. After arriving at the Ramblewood Apartment Complex in Augusta, Gonnella waited in the car while Evans knocked on Williams’ door and asked if he could purchase marijuana. Williams, known as “Red,” said he had no pot, but he told Evans he did have $500 and asked Evans to bring him some marijuana if he found any. Evans and Gonnella resumed looking for drugs. But when Evans told Gonnella what Williams had said, Gonnella replied, “if he has $500, we’re going to go back over there.” So they returned, and this time Evans waited in the car while Gonnella went to Williams’ apartment. Soon after, Evans heard a gunshot, and Gonnella ran down the hill from the apartment and jumped into the car. When he asked Gonnella about the gunshot, Gonnella said, “yeah man, the dude reached for the gun and it went off.” They then went back to the apartment of Evans’ brother where Gonnella said that he’d “just killed someone.” Evans later dumped the gun into the woods.

Two days after the shooting, Evans turned himself into police. The next day, Gonnella also turned himself in. After Evans told police where to find the gun, tests revealed that the bullet that had killed Williams matched the recovered handgun. There was blood on Gonnella’s shirt from the night of the shooting, but not enough to obtain a DNA sample.

Christopher Evans

Christopher Evans

In 2005, Gonnella was convicted of felony murder and a firearm charge and sentenced to life plus five years. In exchange for pleading guilty to the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, Evans was sentenced to 15 years in prison plus five on probation.

In his appeal, Gonnella’s lawyer argued that the prosecution failed to reveal to the defense that Evans, who pleaded to a reduced charge and agreed to a specific sentence, was actually allowed to retain his right to later seek a lighter sentence after testifying against Gonnella. The State argued that the information was immaterial and would not have changed the outcome of the trial. “However, this ignores the importance of the ability to impeach the State’s primary witness,” says today’s unanimous opinion, written by Justice P. Harris Hines.

“By failing to provide Gonnella with a crucial detail regarding Evans’s plea agreement, the State deprived Gonnella of the ability to impeach Evans by demonstrating a motive for him to lie; i.e., that in testifying in such a way so as to secure Gonnella’s conviction, Evans would gain an avenue, provided by the State, by which he might possibly arrange for a lighter sentence for himself.” Although Evans ultimately failed to get his sentence reduced, “it is the deprivation of Gonnella’s ability to fully cross-examine Evans based upon the State’s agreement with him that constitutes the denial of due process,” the opinion states. Furthermore, it’s not necessarily so that Gonnella would have still been convicted had the information been known. “Accordingly, the denial of Gonnella’s motion for new trial must be reversed.”

Attorney for Appellant (Gonnella): Tanya Jeffords
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Ashley Wright, District Attorney, Charles Sheppard, Asst. D.A., Thurbert Baker, Attorney General, Mary Beth Westmoreland, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G. Sara Sahni, Asst. A.G.

Download Full Opinion: Gonnella v. The State (S09A0985)

Create a free website or blog at