Georgia Supreme Court reinstates Hall murder conviction

From Staff Reports
The Supreme Court of Georgia has reversed a lower court’s ruling that threw out the convictions and life prison sentence given to a Coweta County woman for the murder of her husband, according to summaries of court opinions released Tuesday.
As a result of a unanimous ruling, written by Justice Harold Melton, the convictions and sentence will be reinstated. The case is listed as Seabolt, Warden V. Hall (S12A1632).
According to the evidence as presented in the summary, on July 30, 2008, Michelle Garner Hall called 911 and said her husband, John Britt Hall, had shot at her and then shot himself. The couple at the time was under major financial stress. At trial, experts testified that John had been shot in the chest from at least six to eight inches away. He also had been shot in his thigh and the back of his left arm, and had a bruise behind his right ear, according to testimony.
In September 2009, a jury convicted Michelle of malice murder, felony murder based on aggravated assault, and aggravated assault. She was sentenced to life in prison. A year later, the Supreme Court of Georgia upheld her convictions and sentence.
In September 2011, Michelle filed a “petition for habeas corpus,” a civil proceeding that allows already convicted prisoners to challenge their conviction on constitutional grounds in the county where they’re incarcerated. The proceeding is brought against the warden of the prison, who in Michelle’s case was Kathy Seabolt.

Michelle’s sole contention before the habeas court was that she had received “ineffective assistance of counsel” during her trial because her attorney had failed to object to the procedure used in taking her daughter’s testimony and failed to raise the same issue when the case came up for appeal.

In March 2002, the habeas court granted her relief, setting aside her convictions and sentence. Specifically, the habeas judge ruled that Michelle was denied her constitutional right to effective counsel when her daughter testified in another room via closed circuit TV, rendering Michelle absent from the proceeding and unable to confer with her attorney during the child’s testimony. The judge found that her attorney, who was the same for both her trial and appeal, erred in failing to raise the issue on appeal because had he done so, she would have been granted a new trial.

The habeas judge also found she was denied her constitutional right to confront the witnesses against her because of the method of her daughter’s testimony.

The state attorney general’s office, representing the prison warden, appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing the habeas court erred in presuming that Michelle’s case was “prejudiced” — or damaged by the alleged violation in her right to confront witnesses that occurred as a result of her daughter’s closed circuit testimony.

In its opinion, the high court concludes the habeas court conducted the wrong legal analysis in determining that the ineffectiveness of the woman’s trial attorney so damaged her case, she was entitled to a new trial.

According to the court summary, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Strickland v. Washington, a defendant must show that his trial attorney provided deficient performance and that, except for that unprofessional performance, there is a reasonable probability the outcome of the trial would have been more favorable to the defendant.

“Hall has failed to make this showing,” the court says in the opinion. “Her argument is that, had she been in the same room for her daughter’s questioning, she could have assisted her attorney by prompting him with specific information.” During the habeas hearing, Hall was asked to specify what she could have relayed to her attorney. But according to the transcript of the hearing, Hall’s attorney was already aware of the information she would have conveyed to him during the questioning of the daughter. “As such, Hall has failed to show actual prejudice, and her claim of ineffective assistance of counsel should have been rejected,” according to the high court's opinion.
ORIGINAL STORY (Appeared in The Newnan Times-Herald on July 31, 2008)
Sharpsburg woman charged in husband's shooting death

By Elizabeth Melville
The Newnan Times-Herald
A Sharpsburg woman remains in the Coweta County Jail today charged in Wednesday’s shooting death of her husband — 37-year-old John Britt Hall.
Michelle Garner Hall, 38, is charged with malice murder and aggravated assault, according to Capt. Tony Grant of the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office. She was denied bond Thursday afternoon at her first appearance hearing at the jail, and her case was bound over to Superior Court, according to Capt. Lenn Wood. Her next bond/probable cause hearing is scheduled for Aug. 7 at 2 p.m.
The fatal shooting took place at the Halls’ Sharpsburg home, at 143 Joe Cox Road off Highway 16 East outside Raymond. Coweta County emergency dispatchers received a 911 call Wednesday at 8:02 p.m. and informed responding deputies that a male subject was allegedly shooting at a female and was possibly turning the gun on himself, according to Grant.
Deputies arrived on the scene to find John Hall already deceased inside the residence. He had been shot once in the chest and possibly up to two other times — once in the arm and once in the leg, according to the captain.
Michelle Hall’s initial account to investigators of what had happened was that her husband shot himself. However, evidence found at the scene during the investigation contradicted her statements and led Grant to believe her rendition was “obviously untrue.”
During her interview with investigators at the sheriff’s office, Michelle Hall changed her story to say that she was holding the .38 caliber revolver in her hand when it accidentally discharged, according to Grant.
John Hall’s body has been transported to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab in Atlanta for autopsy. The gun is also in Atlanta for ballistics testing. Grant suspects that enough rounds were fired during the altercation that the gun may have been reloaded at some point.
If the gun was indeed reloaded and John Hall was shot a total of three times, Grant said he’d be hard-pressed to believe Michelle Hall’s explanation that her husband’s death resulted from an accident.
According to Michelle Hall’s statements to law enforcement, domestic altercations had become typical recently — beginning around the time her husband was laid off by Delta Airlines as the company was down-sizing, according to Grant. Hall told police that she and her husband had been arguing all afternoon Wednesday leading up to the shooting.
According to Grant, there have been no police calls relating to domestic disputes between the couple in the past.
There was an 8-year-old child at home upstairs when the fatal exchange took place downstairs in the residence.
This incident marks the fourth suspected homicide that has happened in Coweta in the last two months.
Sheriff Mike Yeager believes the increase in violent crimes may be due in part to the struggling economy and the overall increase in stress put on people in the community.
“Across the state, the economy has really got law enforcement working right now,” said Yeager Thursday afternoon. Just last week, the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice reported an increase in violent crimes among juveniles in the state, but a surprising decrease in crime overall.
“We’ve seen an increase in violent crime — especially the homicides we’ve experienced,” Yeager continued. “The same seems to be holding true for juveniles and adults.
“This is just another tragic story, and unfortunately we can’t predict human behavior.”
The investigation is ongoing. If anyone has information, they are urged to call the sheriff’s office at 770-253-1502.

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