Summary of Opinions: Wilson vs. State

From the Supreme Court of Georgia:


The Supreme Court of Georgia has upheld the murder conviction and life prison sentence given to a man for his role in the high-profile murder of a young Savannah debutante.

In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve 2005, Jennifer Ross, a 19-year-old student at Mercer University, was gunned down during a robbery attempt as she and several friends walked through the city's historic district just hours after her debutante ball.

She died on New Year's Day a little more than a week later.

According to evidence at trial, Webster Wilson was riding around Savannah in a grey Ford Taurus with three others when they spotted Ross and her friends crossing Orleans Square. Earlier in the evening, Wilson's group had told friends that they needed to "get a lick," i.e. commit a robbery, to get Christmas money. Wilson and his co-defendant, Michael Thorpe, hid as Ross and her friends approached. After the victims walked by, Wilson came from behind a tree and hit one of the friends in the head with his gun, causing it to discharge. When Thorpe tried to steal Ross's purse, she attempted to flee, and Thorpe shot her in the back. Wilson and the others then fled the scene.

Tips eventually led police to the getaway car and ultimately to Sean Thorpe, Michael Thorpe's uncle, who later testified for the State that he was originally in on the plot to find someone to rob, but fled when the shooting started. His statements resulted in the arrest of Wilson, his nephew Michael Thorpe and Kevin Huckabee, who drove the getaway car.

The three were tried together in Chatham County. Wilson, the subject of this appeal, was convicted of felony murder, aggravated assault and gun charges and was sentenced to life plus 40 years in prison.

His motion for new trial was denied, and he has appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court erred on several fronts.

But in today's opinion, written by Presiding Justice George Carley, the high court upholds the conviction and rules that "[t]he evidence was sufficient for a rational trier of fact to find Wilson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which he was convicted."

One of Wilson's claims is that his first appeals attorney, who died two weeks after the trial court denied Wilson's request for a new trial, rendered "ineffective assistance of counsel." In the motion for new trial, the first appeals attorney claimed Wilson's trial attorney had been ineffective on four grounds. But that first appeals attorney should have asserted two additional claims of ineffective assistance, the second appeals attorney contends. As a result, the second appeals attorney wanted the state Supreme Court to send the case back to the trial court for a hearing on the claim that the appeals attorney was also ineffective. In other words, he is claiming the appellate counsel was ineffective based on his failure to assert a claim that the trial counsel was ineffective. Procedure dictates that ineffectiveness claims of trial counsel must be raised at the earliest possible moment, which in this case would have been the motion for new trial, or those claims are considered automatically waived. "In this case, Wilson cannot resuscitate the procedurally barred claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel by bootstrapping them to a claim of ineffectiveness of appellate counsel," the opinion says. Wilson still has the option of raising the claim in a habeas corpus proceeding – a civil proceeding that gives convicted prisoners another chance to challenge their incarceration in the county where they're in prison.

Chief Justice Carol Hunstein agrees with upholding Wilson's sentence and murder conviction but disagrees with the majority's decision about the ineffectiveness of counsel claim. "…I would disapprove the practice of deferring such ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims to habeas corpus proceedings and thus would remand Wilson's claims in this regard to the trial court," the Chief Justice writes, joined by Justice Robert Benham.

Attorneys for Appellant (Wilson): Ronald Boyter, Jr., Deborah Poole
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Spencer Lawton, Jr., District Attorney, Christine Barker, Asst. D.A., Thurbert Baker, Attorney General, David Zisook, Asst. A.G.