In a recent Northeast Georgia case, something very unusual happened. A former magistrate in Barrow County was charged with murder. The linked article describes the general circumstances. After deliberation, the jury convicted the man of murder. The judge sentenced the man to serve a term of life imprisonment. But, the judge was not done. On his own motion, Superior Court Judge David Motes granted the man a new trial, setting aside the verdict and sentence, and granted him bond. It was a shocking twist in the case.
These types of endings to a trial do not happen very often, but they are very much contemplated by the law. A judge sits as a so-called "thirteenth juror" in the case. Although the trial jury is charged with determining a verdict, the trial judge is required to sit as the "thirteenth juror" to consider all of the evidence presented in the case, conflicts in the evidence, credibility of witnesses and the weight of the evidence.
The decision to grant a new trial, on its own or a party's motion, is within the discretion of the court. In general, the decision of a judge to grant a new trial will not be disturbed by an appellate court unless it finds that the court abused its discretion. Prior appellate decisions have found that there are limits on the discretion of the trial judge to grant a new trial. Trial judges are cautioned that such relief should be invoked only in exceptional cases in which the evidence preponderates heavily against the verdict. However, it is still a substantial discretion. It is a monumentally high standard to reverse such a decision.
The trial judge is in a tremendous position to assess the evidence in the case. He or she sits through the entire trial, knows the law, knows the trial procedure, and often has years of experience with those issues.
In granting a new trial, the trial judge can reference the general grounds or may cite specific decisions. If those specific decisions involve questions of law, then the appellate court can consider those questions of law anew and do not have to give deference to the decision of the trial judge. So, if the trial judge granted a new trial solely because of a single evidentiary decision and the appellate court finds that the judge's original decision on the evidentiary issue, it could reverse the new trial decision, reinstating the verdict and sentence.
In the Barrow County case, however, Judge Motes reportedly made the decision because he found that the evidence at trial did not support a conviction, in other words, the general ground that there was insufficient evidence. That does not mean that he found that there was no evidence, it means that the evidence was insufficient to establish the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard of proof in a criminal case. Judge Motes found that basically that he, as that juror, was required to find the defendant not guilty.
I did not sit through the trial, so I am not in a position to second-guess the decision made by Judge Motes. Many of those who may question his decision have no better standing that I do to assess the evidence in the case. Yet, I am sure that will not slow them down.
I have appeared before Judge Motes many times over the years. I have always found him to be professional and deliberate in his role as a trial judge. He was re-elected every four years since 1996 when he was appointed to the bench by then-Governor Zell Miller. In his early career, he served as an assistant district attorney for about eight years. I feel certain that he did not come to this decision rashly or without a great deal of consideration. I am sure that he came to the decision because he believed it to be the absolutely right thing to do.