Georgia Supreme Court Reverses Sherman Allen’s 2019 Murder Conviction: Here’s Why

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The Supreme Court of Georgia has reversed the 2019 murder conviction of Sherman Allen, who was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the death of his cousin, Treston Smith, in Elbert County. In a closely split 5-4 decision, the court determined that the trial court erred in not instructing the jury on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Majority Opinion Emphasizes Jury’s Role

Presiding Justice Nels S.D. Peterson authored the majority opinion, underscoring the essential role of the jury in the judicial process. “The right to trial by jury is the cornerstone of our justice system,” Peterson wrote, citing the 2004 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Blakely v. Washington. “A critical element of that right is that certain questions are to be decided not by judges, but by jurors – ordinary members of a defendant’s local community, informed by local mores and values.”

Peterson emphasized that the General Assembly has determined that whether a killing following a serious provocation should be punished as voluntary manslaughter instead of murder is a question for the jury. Voluntary manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, while a murder conviction typically results in a life sentence.

Case Background and Key Arguments

Allen was convicted of beating Smith to death outside a gas station after discovering Smith with his fiancée in a car late at night. Allen had been informed of a possible affair between his fiancée and Smith, and despite his fiancée’s denial, he found them together. Smith confirmed that “something was going on,” leading to a fatal altercation between the cousins.

On appeal, Allen argued that the trial court should have instructed the jury on voluntary manslaughter. The Supreme Court agreed, stating that there was sufficient evidence to support this instruction, particularly given that discovering a partner’s infidelity has long been recognized as sufficient provocation to warrant a charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Dissenting Opinion and Broader Implications

Chief Justice Michael P. Boggs, joined by Justices John J. Ellington, Shawn Ellen LaGrua, and Verda M. Colvin, dissented, arguing that the majority’s decision weakened longstanding legal standards. Boggs referenced the 1891 case Mays v. State, asserting that for provocation to warrant a voluntary manslaughter charge, a defendant must catch their partner in the act of sexual relations or in circumstances indicating such an act had just occurred.

“That standard is eviscerated under the standard the majority applies today,” Boggs wrote, suggesting that nearly any defendant who kills a partner and their lover could have their charges reduced to voluntary manslaughter under the new interpretation.

Concurrence and Future Implications

Justice Charlie Bethel concurred with the majority but wrote separately to provide context on the application of the voluntary manslaughter statute. Bethel emphasized that slight evidence showing a defendant was provoked by shocking conduct, such as infidelity, could warrant a jury instruction on voluntary manslaughter.

“In determining whether to instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter, a trial court would be wise to focus its analysis on the quality of the evidence,” Bethel wrote, advocating for caution in assessing the sufficiency of provocation and the reasonableness of the defendant’s response.

Next Steps

With Allen’s murder conviction overturned, the case will return to the trial court, where the State may retry him on the reversed counts. The remaining guilty verdicts are unaffected but may be reconsidered depending on the outcomes of the retrial.

Legal Representation

Allen was represented by attorney Charles E. Barrow. The State’s legal team included Georgia Attorney General Christopher M. Carr, Deputy Attorney General Beth A. Burton, Senior Assistant Attorneys General Meghan H. Hill and Michael A. Oldham, Northern Judicial Circuit District Attorney D. Parks White, and Chief Assistant District Attorney Jeff C. Lee.


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