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Ga. Supreme Court overturns sex offender's conviction for failing to register

Prentiss Jackson (Georgia Dept. of Corrections)

The state supreme court overturned the conviction of a sex offender who failed to register his address when he moved from Houston to Bibb County.

The court ruled that the original indictment against Prentiss Jackson was faulty and incomplete.

According to a court summary of the case, Jackson pleaded guilty to statutory rape in 2004.

He registered his address in Houston County, as required by law, the court says.

Under the state's sex offender registry, if he moves to a new county he has to notify sheriff's in both counties of his new address.

In 2011, Houston County officers could not locate Jackson at his Warner Robins address and learned that he'd moved to Macon.

Jackson's lawyers argued, and the state court agreed, that the indictment stated only that he had failed to register. It didn't state that he failed to notify the Bibb and Houston sheriff's when he moved.

The indictment is void because it failed to describe the crime Jackson was actually accused of.

The state appeals court ruled against Jackson, but the Georgia Supreme Court says it ruled unanimously in his favor.

In 2012, Jackson received a 30-year sentence for failing to register, with six years to serve in prison. According to state Department of Corrections records, he's served four years of that term.

Here is the state Supreme Court summary of the case:


A man currently serving a 30-year sentence for failing to register as a sex offender – with the first six years of his sentence behind bars – has had his conviction and sentence reversed under a decision today by the Supreme Court of Georgia.

In a unanimous opinion, written by Justice Robert Benham, the high court finds that the indictment was insufficient and defective because it failed to inform him of the "essential elements" of the crime with which he was being charged.

To withstand a legal challenge, "an indictment must: (1) recite the language of the statute that sets out all the elements of the offense charged, or (2) allege the facts necessary to establish violation of a criminal statute," the opinion says. "In this case, however, neither of these methods for creating a legally sufficient indictment was followed."

According to the facts of the case, in June 2004, Prentiss Ashon Jackson pleaded guilty to one count of Statutory Rape. Under Georgia Code § 42-1-12, as a convicted sex offender, Jackson was required to register with the sexual offender registry, which he did, listing an address in Houston County where he lived in Warner Robins. Jackson knew that under state law, if he planned to move from that address, he had to register his new address within 72 hours prior to any change. Under subsection (f) (5) of § 42-1-12, if one moves to another county, the law requires him to register not only within the allotted time with the sheriff where he last registered but also with the sheriff in the county where he is moving.

In June 2011, Houston County officers were unable to contact Jackson at his Warner Robins address. They subsequently learned he had moved to Macon in Bibb County and was living with his girlfriend. Jackson had not registered the new address and was arrested in January 2012. At a preliminary hearing, he said he had moved to Macon because his home in Warner Robins had no electricity or water, according to briefs filed in the case.

In the indictment, a Houston County grand jury charged Jackson with "failure to register as a sex offender," stating in the indictment that Jackson "did fail to register his change of address with the Houston County Sheriff's Office within 72 hours of the change as required under Official Code of Georgia Annotated § 42-1-12." During trial, Jackson's defense attorney made an oral motion asking the court to direct a verdict in his favor, arguing the indictment was defective because it failed to allege that Jackson was a convicted sex offender and that he was required to register under the statute. The trial judge denied his motion. In June 2012, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of failing to register as a sex offender, and Jackson was sentenced to 30 years, to serve six in prison without the possibility of parole and the remaining 24 years on probation. Jackson appealed to the Court of Appeals, which concluded that the indictment was not "fatally defective" because it charged Jackson with violating a specific penal statute and incorporated the terms of the Code section "Because the evidence supported Jackson's conviction, the trial court properly denied his motion for a directed verdict," the appellate court ruled. Jackson then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred in finding that Jackson's indictment was not defective.

In today's opinion, the high court finds the Court of Appeals erred and has reversed its judgment.

The problem with the Court of Appeals' reasoning "is that the indictment referenced the entire multi-part, 14-page Code section, which includes numerous requirements with which a convicted sexual offender must comply," the opinion says. "The indictment merely asserted that appellant failed to register a change of address with the Houston County sheriff's office within 72 hours of that change of address as required by § 42-1-12. But even subsection (f) (5), which sets out the steps that must be followed to update a sexual offender's registration, contains multiple requirements."

In its 2010 opinion in Henderson v. Hames, the Georgia Supreme Court restated the longstanding principle that, "An indictment is void to the extent that it fails to allege all the essential elements of the crime or crimes charged." "That principle is founded upon the constitutional guaranty of due process."

As authority for its assertion that Jackson's indictment was not deficient, the State relied on the Court of Appeals' 2008 opinion in Shabazz v. State and its 1990 opinion in State v. Howell, which stated that as long as an indictment charges that the accused's acts violated a specific penal statute, it will withstand a challenge that it is defective "despite the omission of an essential element of the charged offense."

However, today's opinion says that withstanding such a challenge "requires more than simply alleging the accused violated a certain statute. Accordingly, Howell and Shabazz are overruled, along with later opinions relying on these two cases, to the extent they hold that an indictment alleging merely that the accused's acts were in violation of a specified criminal Code section is not defective."

"Further, such an indictment would not provide the accused with due process of law in that it would not notify the accused of what factual allegations he must defend in court," the opinion says. "Likewise, it would not allege sufficient facts from which a trial jury could determine guilt if those facts are shown at trial." Here, the indictment states that Jackson's offense was, "failure to register as a sex offender." But Jackson did not fail to register as required by § 42-1-12; he failed to update his registration with his change of address and follow the requirements to do so. "In other words, the indictment does not inform the accused of what alleged action or inaction would constitute a violation of even subsection (f) (5) of the Code section, which subsection was not even referenced in the indictment."

In conclusion, the indictment "did not recite a sufficient portion of the statute to set out all the elements of the offense for which he was tried and convicted," the opinion says. "Likewise, the indictment did not allege all the facts necessary to establish a violation of subsection (f) (5) of § 42-1-12."

"Only if additional factual allegations had been asserted in the indictment would it be clear what acts or omissions the grand jury had found probable cause to believe the appellant had committed, and what acts or omissions the trial jury would be required to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that appellant had committed in order to find him guilty as charged."

Attorney for Appellant (Jackson): Russell Walker

Attorneys for Appellee (State): George Hartwig, III, District Attorney, Marie Banks, Asst. D.A.