VALDOSTA, Ga. (WTXL) — A Valdosta man serving a life-without-parole prison sentence had his convictions for malice murder and other crimes reversed under an opinion on Monday by the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Michael Pindling was convicted in Lowndes County for his role in the 2013 shooting death of Robert Pett.
After the trial court denied his motion for a new trial, Pindling appealed to Georgia's Supreme Court, arguing the trial judge "plainly erred when instructing the jury that a single witness’s testimony was sufficient to prove a fact without also instructing the jury that if the 2 single witness was an accomplice to the crime, that person’s testimony must be corroborated."
“We agree and reverse,” wrote Justice Nels S.D. Peterson for a unanimous court.
Reportedly, the evidence presented at trial showed that on July 13, 2013, a police officer found Pett’s body on the back porch of an abandoned house on Walnut Street in Valdosta, GA. He’d been shot in his shoulder and back.
On Pett’s cell phone, the officer found text messages directing Pett to the abandoned house from a phone belonging to Deron Wallace, according to the report.
At Pindling’s trial, Kathryn Cortez testified that she worked at the same restaurant as Pindling and Wallace.
After she began a relationship with Wallace, the three decided to travel to New York. Cortez said they devised a plan to rob Pett, who previously sold marijuana to Pindling and Wallace.
Cortez testified that Wallace called Pett under the guise of wanting to purchase marijuana and told him to meet him at the abandoned house on Walnut Street.
At Wallace’s direction, Cortez said she waited out front for Pett while Wallace waited on the back porch and Pindling waited inside the house.
When Pett arrived, Cortez directed him to the back porch. She said she soon heard gunshots and left the scene with Pindling and Wallace. Cortez said she did not see who shot Pett but assumed Pindling was the shooter because Wallace did not have a gun.
Cortez said when Pindling returned to the car, he said that he had “kicked [Pett’s] lights out because he was making noises.”
Initially, Cortez said that both Pindling and Wallace threatened to kill her if she told anyone what had happened, but she later testified that only Wallace had threatened to kill her.
Pindling testified in his own defense that he had not gone out with Wallace and Cortez the night of the shooting. According to the report, a gun found in Pindling’s bedroom was the same gun used to kill Pett.
Following a joint trial with Wallace, a jury found Pindling guilty on all counts, including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, and armed robbery.
Wallace served as the sole witness to the murder Wallace was found guilty on all counts except malice murder.
Monday's opinion states:
"Georgia Code § 24-14-8 states: 'The testimony of a single witness is generally sufficient to establish a fact. However, in…felony cases where the only witness is an accomplice, the testimony of a single witness shall not be sufficient' to establish a fact, but 'corroborating circumstances may dispense with the necessity for the testimony of a second witness.'
Under this statute, if there is evidence that could support a finding that a witness was an accomplice to the crime, and that witness provides testimony that directly links the defendant to the crime, it is a clear and obvious error for the trial court to instruct the jury that the testimony of a single witness is sufficient to establish a fact without also instructing the jury that an accomplice’s testimony must be corroborated.
Here, the prosecutor relied heavily on the testimony of Cortez, there was ample evidence from which the jury could have found her to be an accomplice, and her testimony directly linked Pindling to the crimes.
“Cortez was the only eyewitness who affirmatively linked him to the crimes and identified him 3 as the shooter.
Other than her testimony, 'there was no direct evidence – no cell phone records, forensic evidence, or eyewitness testimony placing Pindling at the scene of the murder.'
Because almost all of the evidence incriminating Pindling came from Cortez, and the jury was never told that her testimony may have required corroboration or instructed how to evaluate properly the other evidence in this context, the outcome of the proceedings was likely affected by the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on the accomplice-corroboration requirement."
Attorney Matthew Winchester represented Pindling. Attorneys Michelle Thomas Harrison, Asst. D.A., Christopher Carr, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Matthew Crowder, Asst. A.G. represented the state.