By Joe Johnson
The Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously upheld the conviction of a Florida man who is serving a life prison sentence for murdering his wife in Athens four years ago.
Alexander Thomas Devanna, now 31, was convicted by a Clarke County Superior Court jury in June 2019 of fatally shooting 32-year-old Casey Devanna at the Best Western motel on North Milledge Avenue in August 2017. The Florida couple, who had been married for about a month, reportedly had been planning to travel to Colorado when they stopped at the motel.
Athens attorney Brian Patterson, who at the time was chief assistant district attorney and lead prosecutor during Devanna’s weeklong trial, said at the time that Devanna, “who was drinking heavily and using heroin, premeditated his wife’s murder at least one week prior to shooting and killing her with a 9mm handgun.”
He said that Devanna “then left her to die and returned to Florida,” and “had absolutely no care or concern for her and showed no remorse for her death and his actions. He thought he could lie and manipulate his way out of it, and he falsely claimed to the police and at trial that her death was an accident" that occurred when Casey pointed a gun at him and it discharged during his struggle to disarm her.
Text messages proved otherwise.
According to the Supreme Court’s ruling, evidence was presented at trial that Athens-Clarke County detectives went to Florida to conduct a video-recorded interview, in which Devanna claimed that Casey became enraged upon finding text messages on his phone between him and a former lover and he later awoke to see Casey racking a round into the chamber of a gun which she the pointed at his head resulting in a struggle over the firearm in which “his pinky might have fired the weapon.”
Jurors also heard evidence of text messages on his phone between him and a close friend saying, “Going to shoot my wife and myself prob [sic] today,” and “going to shoot dope today.” Devanna sent (the friend) a photo of himself holding a gun to his head and of a self-inflicted cut from Devanna's wrist up to his elbow. In response, the friend asked Devanna, “Where’s yer [sic] wife?!” Devanna responded “I’m about to shoot her in the head and go get f***ed up one last time.”
The prosecution also entered into evidence Facebook Messenger conversations Devanna had with various other friends who did not testify at trial. "Those records, "the Supreme Court ruling stated, "showed Devanna making the following statements on August 19, 2017, a week before the shooting: “I’m going to shoot her then myself”; “I’m going to shoot my wife and myself”; and “I’m going to do it today.” On August 27, in response to a friend’s question about whether Devanna had “kill[ed] someone,” Devanna responded with a frown symbol and “yes.” Devanna does not challenge on appeal the admission of these messages at trial."
After the jury returned its guilty verdict, Western Judicial Circuit Judge H. Patrick Haggard sentenced Devanna to life without the possibility of parole plus 10 years in prison.
Devanna first requested a new trial in June 2019 and filed an amended motion in July 2020.
The motion cited several grounds for a new trial, including that the jury’s verdict was contrary to the evidence that was presented, he received ineffective assistance from his defense attorney, and that Haggard gave the jury “confusing and erroneous” instructions concerning his self-defense claim
Haggard on Dec. 21, 2020 denied the motion on all grounds except for one, that Devanna had wrongly been sentenced as a recidivist.
Devanna had several felony convictions in Florida that would be misdemeanor offenses in Georgia, such as possession of marijuana, receiving goods obtained by financial transaction fraud, and dealing in stolen property.
After a re-sentencing hearing, Haggard imposed the same sentence that he did in 2019.
Devanna appealed further, to the Georgia Supreme Court, on the grounds his trial attorney provided ineffective assistance under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because he failed to request a proper jury instruction explaining that a convicted felon can possess a firearm when acting in self-defense.
“To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant generally must show that counsel’s performance was deficient and that the deficient performance resulted in prejudice to the defendant,” the Supreme Court stated in its ruling.
The ruling further noted, “Even assuming for the sake of argument that the justification instruction trial counsel requested was confusing, misleading, or even erroneous, Devanna has not shown a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different had trial counsel requested the instruction that Devanna now asserts was necessary to present his self-defense claim to the jury...That is because the State presented an overwhelming amount of evidence of Devanna's guilt, including messages Devanna sent to multiple people in the week leading up to Casey’s shooting saying that he wanted to kill Casey by shooting her in the head. That evidence also included the photo Devanna sent (to the former lover) of Devanna pointing a handgun at Casey’s head while she was sleeping on the night of her death and a message after the shooting telling her “I did it,” as well as Devanna's phone call to (his friens) the day after Casey’s shooting in which he stated that “he had lost his anger and he shot her in the f***ing head.
"Further, the State presented testimony that DeVanna and Casey’s hotel room showed no sign of a struggle. DeVanna’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel therefore fails."