Georgia's Supreme Court on Monday upheld the conviction and life prison sentence for a Macon man found guilty of murder and sexual assault.
Robert Lee Reeves Jr. was convicted of killing Crystal Morgan in 2009.
In his appeal, his lawyers argued that prosecutors should not have been allowed to tell the jury that he was convicted of rape 11 years before.
They told the state Supreme Court that the two cases were not similar and the 11-year-old conviction was irrelevant to Morgan's murder.
But the state's high court today disagreed, saying there were many similarities:
According to their decision, "Both victims were close in age; both were African-American; both were choked or strangled; both had their clothing torn and their pants or underpants pulled down; both were pushed to the ground and sexually assaulted; and both were attacked on a summer night while walking alone in a wooded area within blocks of each other."
The court decision was unanimous.
Reeves is serving a life sentence in Valdosta State Prison.
The Georgia Supreme Court's summary of the case:
REEVES V. THE STATE (S13A1524)
The Supreme Court of Georgia has unanimously upheld the conviction and life prison sentence given to a man for the 2009 murder and sexual assault of 23-year-old Crystal Morgan in Bibb County. Robert Lee Reeves, Jr. argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict him and that his conviction for attempted rape in 1998 should not have been allowed in as evidence at his murder trial.
However, in today's opinion, Justice Robert Benham writes for the Court that "we find the evidence is sufficient to have authorized the jury to find that the State excluded all reasonable hypotheses except that of the defendant's guilt, and to have authorized any rational trier of fact to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
According to the evidence, Crystal Morgan's body was found the morning of July 29, 2009 along a wooded path in Unionville in Bibb County by a man who went back into the woods to urinate. Morgan's father had last seen her the day before when she had left his home on foot. When her body was found, she was wearing the same dress and shoes, but her underpants were down to her knees, and dirt was discovered on her hands, face and sandals. The investigating officer testified that evidence at the crime scene showed there had been a struggle and it appeared the victim's body had been set in a particular way. According to the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, Morgan had injuries around her neck and petechial pinpoint hemorrhages in the eyes consistent with having been strangled to death. The medical examiner also found superficial lacerations around the young woman's anus and vagina which had been inflicted around the time of death, and she had a small amount of blood seeping from her vagina.
Male DNA taken from Morgan's body was placed in a sexual assault kit and was later matched through a statewide database search to Reeves' DNA. It also matched DNA from a buccal swab taken from Reeves by Macon police investigators. No other male DNA was found in the vaginal, cervical and rectal swabs taken from the victim's body. After learning that on Oct. 28, 1998, Reeves had pleaded guilty to Criminal Attempt to Commit Rape, the State filed a "Notice of Intent to Introduce Evidence of a Similar Transaction" at Reeves' trial for Morgan's murder. The trial court subsequently allowed the State to introduce the evidence to show Reeves' "course of conduct and bent of mind." At trial, the victim from the 1998 incident testified that when she was about 20 years old, Reeves had followed her one night as she walked toward a store in the Unionville area near where Morgan's body was found more than a decade later. When he got close enough, he grabbed her around the neck, pulled her down and pushed her face into the grass. He tried to pull her shorts down and after choking her, penetrated her with his fingers. But she escaped. The judge instructed jurors in how they must limit the use of the similar transaction evidence. Following the trial, the jury found Reeves guilty of Morgan's murder. Reeves then appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing the evidence of the attempted rape in 1998 was improperly admitted because the two incidents were not sufficiently similar.
In today's opinion, the high court disagrees. Both victims were close in age; both were African-American; both were choked or strangled; both had their clothing torn and their pants or underpants pulled down; both were pushed to the ground and sexually assaulted; and both were attacked on a summer night while walking alone in a wooded area within blocks of each other. Reeves "relies upon certain differences in the evidence between the two crimes, but the proper focus in a similar transaction case is on the similarities between the two transactions and not the differences," today's opinion says, concluding that "we find the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the challenged evidence."
Attorney for Appellant (Reeves): David Walker
Attorneys for Appellee (State): K. David Cooke, Jr., District Attorney, Dorothy Hull, Asst. D.A., Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Rochelle Gordon, Asst. A.G.