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Legal Speak

The Technicality

Published March 20, 2008 1:17 PM by Tony DeWitt
"I just don't understand how someone can be a murderer, and a court can just let them out of jail on a technicality."

My friend who made that statement had seen media reports about a young woman whose murder conviction was overturned "on a technicality."

Like medical shows that demonstrate patients converting from asystole to sinus rhythm after defibrillation, the television media is often more interested in telling a story than understanding the legal basis for appellate action. Because it is important to understand the process, I thought I might devote this post to explaining "technicalities." Frequently when a state or federal appellate court overturns a conviction on appeal, the media says that the conviction was "overturned on a technicality." 

The inference is that some hyper-technical application of law resulted in an injustice and allowed a guilty person to walk free. In most cases, when an appellate court overturns a conviction, it normally means only that the government will have to try its case a second time. It usually does not result in the release from confinement of the person who appealed.  In many instances, in order to avoid the expense of a new trial, and in recognition of the exceptionally long times it takes to get an appellate opinion, state's attorneys will simply enter into an agreement with the offender to allow them to plead guilty to a lesser offense and get out of jail with "time served."  Often when the media report these events they characterize them as a miscarriage of justice. But a study of appellate opinions would suggest that in most cases they are anything but.

Take the case of Christy Weatherford Cole, a young woman from southern Missouri who was convicted of second degree murder under what lawyers call the "felony murder rule." Under the rule, a conviction for a felony that leads to the death of another is all it takes to lock the offender up for life, even if the offender had nothing to do with the death other than being involved with some other crime. The rule was meant to encompass the situation where two burglars enter a residence to steal, are surprised by the owner, and the owner is shot by one of the offenders.  The offender who shot the owner will face charges for murder in the first degree. The other offender is charged with the owner's murder (second degree) under the felony murder rule. In this situation but for the criminal act of the two conspirators, there would be no death. It seems fair to charge murder under these circumstances.

Unfortunately the application of the rule is often extended well beyond its original intent, and often with palpable injustice. Certainly this is the case in Ms. Cole's case where the felony was child endangerment, and the murder was committed by the woman's abusive boyfriend. The Court described the events on the day at issue as follows:

In March 2003, [boyfriend] was living with defendant and her three young sons. Defendant's three-year-old son, William, argued with his mother about having a drink of soda pop before eating his meal. Defendant did not want William to consume liquids before eating. She was concerned that he would not eat if he consumed liquid before his meal. [Boyfriend] was angry about William arguing with defendant. William was stomping his feet. This aggravated [Boyfriend] more. He told defendant to send William to him. [Boyfriend] undertook to discipline William by picking him up and laying him across his lap on his back. [Boyfriend] had his hands around William's neck. The back of William's head was pushed against a table next to the chair where [Boyfriend] was sitting. [Boyfriend] threw William across the room. William went limp. Defendant put clothes on William and she and [Boyfriend] took William to the ambulance shed in Gainesville, Missouri. William was then taken to the Gainesville Clinic where he was examined by medical personnel. Following examination, William was transported by helicopter to a Springfield, Missouri, hospital where he was diagnosed as severely neurologically depressed. A CT scan revealed retinal bleeding and subdural and subarachoid bleeding consistent with blunt force trauma. On April 1, 2003, William's injuries were determined to be irreparable. Care was terminated that day. William was pronounced dead late that afternoon.

State of Missouri v. Christy Weatherford Cole  (the boyfriends name has been redacted)

Ms. Cole was a single mother with a boyfriend. Like many such relationships in families with altered family dynamics, the boyfriend was easily irritated by children, and frequently violent in disciplining the children. Cole appears to have been easily manipulated by the boyfriend.  Although there was no evidence that the boyfriend ever previously caused serious injury to children, in this case he threw a small child across the room resulting in the child's death. He then prevailed on Cole to help him cover up his wrongful acts.

Cole was charged with the felony of endangering a child by placing him in contact with the boyfriend. The state charged a felony charge which required them to prove that Cole placed the child in danger "knowingly." The second count of the indictment charged felony murder based on the charge of child endangerment. In other words, by convicting the woman of child endangerment, the jury was also convicting her of murder.

The big issue at trial was whether Cole placed the child in danger knowingly, or whether she was merely criminally negligent. If she was acting with knowledge that exposing the child to the boyfriend would result in the child's injury or death, she could be convicted of the felony. If she was merely criminally negligent, she could only be convicted of a misdemeanor which would not invoke the felony murder rule. The evidence at trial was equivocal on a variety of issues, but certainly on the issue of whether the young woman acted with knowing intent reasonable jurors could have disagreed.

Cole asked for a "lesser included offense" instruction which would have let the jury consider the lesser misdemeanor charge rather than the felony charge. The trial judge refused to instruct, and the jury convicted the young woman.

This young woman was in an abusive relationship, and had been told by the boyfriend to lie to authorities when explaining what happened to the child. There was no prior evidence of abuse.  There was very little from which a jury could conclude that Cole acted with anything other than negligence. In reversing, the Missouri Court of Appeals said:

Although there was evidence that [boyfriend] had struck William on past occasions in an effort at discipline, there was other evidence that it was not defendant's practice to place William in direct contact with [boyfriend] for discipline. Whether defendant's act of placing William in a position to be in direct contact with [boyfriend] demonstrated an actual risk as opposed to a potential risk to the child is a fact question the jury should have been permitted to decide. Had the jury been instructed on endangering the welfare of a child in the second degree as a lesser included offense, it could have determined whether defendant's actions knowingly subjected William to an actual risk of serious harm or whether her actions were criminally negligent so as to present a potential risk to William. Manifest injustice or miscarriage of justice occurred by the jury not having the opportunity to analyze the evidence in that regard. Point III is granted. The conviction of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree is reversed. Because defendant's conviction of murder in the second degree pursuant to Section 565.021.1(1) is dependent on a supporting conviction of a felony, that conviction is reversed.

State of Missouri v. Christy Weatherford Cole

While it may sound somewhat technical to distinguish between an intent of "knowing" and an intent of criminal negligence, that is exactly the purpose of appellate courts, and the Court here reached the right result. The loss of a child is a tragedy that transcends mere bereavement.  This woman not only lost her child, she lost her freedom when the evidence established at most that she made a bad decision on a bad day.  She may have been guilty of bad taste in boyfriends, but she surely never meant for harm to come to her child.

Appellate courts are in place to prevent the justice system from acting out of emotion and a desire for retribution. When trial courts make mistakes, the appellate courts correct them, not by setting the offender free, but rather, by making the courts give the state another chance to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt under terms that are fair.  An appellate court requiring the state to prove its case under fair terms, and give the accused the benefit of the presumption of innocence is not a technicality. It is a safeguard built into the system to protect innocent persons.

That's one technicality we should all remember.

9 comments

I dont know the whole story I have been putting peices together, but I will tell you something no matter who you are with if you are in a bad situation you need to get out I got out of one because I had enough courage to say Im done and left town with my daughter for a while I let police know what was going on had orders and everything so thats a bunch of bs if you are gonna sit here and tell me theres nothing to do in a "bad" relationshipyou need to think of the kids before yourself and I dont think she(christy) should be allowed out shes in as much trouble as the boyfriend she should of disaplined her own child not the boyfriend sorry Im a step mom and I dont disipline other then go to your room because there parents are the one to disipline them not me and my kids are and always will be my problem not anyone else so shame on her for having a mean boyfriend boo hoo get over it theres other people in the world worse of then all of you. and as far as shes devoted to god are you sure because I think it maybe someone else do you really think god will forgive you for murder directly or indirectly oh dont worry he has a plan for all of us and soon he will pull her number and she will probably regret everything that has happened shell be living in her own hell. I think she should be in a 3 by 5 cell with the pictures of her kids to remind her of what shes done

Traci October 5, 2011 2:57 PM
somewhere ME

If Tim and I really had a problem with them visiting their mothers family, we never would have let Micah go see his Aunt April....so, yes, we do care about family relationships!  When she takes Joel, she can see micah again

michelle weatherford March 2, 2011 9:57 PM
skowhegan ME

Oh, Erin~ Christys parents DO have grandparents rights, but do not see the boys.  They are the ones who have decided that.  They have seen them once in 2005, and not since.  We do not keep them from their grandparents at all.  I think its a good thing if the boys got to see them.  But they also have other grandparents up here in maine who love them too, along with grandparents in california

michelle weatherford February 17, 2011 4:24 PM
Skowhegan ME

I am micah and joels step mom.  I do love those boys with all of my heart.  I'm not saying christy is a bad person, i dont know her.  I'm sure she does love her boys!  They sure are special! Just know that they are being well taken care of.  They are both honor roll students, have many friends and get along with everyone.  Im glad that Mike finaly got what he deserved, as for christy, unfortunately it is something that she will have to live with for the rest of her life.  I do feel bad about the situation that took place.  I couldnt imagine! :(

michelle weatherford February 17, 2011 4:20 PM
Skowhegan ME

On another note! You who say that christy should rot in hell? You may want to take a minute and ask God for forgiveness, because Christy has made her peace with God, and is devout to him and his teachings, therefore, I fear it will be you who will be rotting in Hell! Ill be Praying for you, your gonna need it! Oh yeah and to the friend of the wetherfords, Could you stop a man who had position in society and carried a gun? Try being a single mom in a bad situtation and lets see just how far you get! I cannot wait until those boys are old enough to know how horrible people are to their mother, I know for a fact that both of those boys love their mother and miss her very much and I know how much christy loves and misses them! All of you are wrong and should be ashamed for saying such horrible things about someone you really do not know! I have changed my mind, I will not waist any of my prayers on hopeless, ignerant, hatefull people, God will deal with you in his own way! My prayers will continue to be for God to guide those boys back into the loving arms of their loving mother, grandparents and family back here! It will happen, you cant stop God!!!!

Erin December 2, 2010 4:25 PM

Well said Ryan!!! It is pretty sad that only the people who do not truely know christy and the hell she went through when william was killed! To the person who says "they killed his son", Really?? Are you kidding me! Mike is the one who comitted the act, He is the one who did the killing! If any one of you has ever been stuck in an abusive relationship, and I highly doubt it, You might understand how hard it is too get out! Sure, she could have left, but he would have found her, and lets not forget he was a marshal, so I agreee, oh yea, deafinatly some sort of cover up! Christy is a loving person who loves all of her children! I have seen her with her children, in fact our children are the same age and they used to play together! She was a good mom in a bad situation! Unless you have been there, dont judge! I know from experience that when you try to stop the person doing the abusing, it only ends up a worse situation! I tried to protect my children and it only ended up in me almost losing my life infront of them! All of you should be ashamed for being so judgemental! Just because you know the father now, does not mean you know how he was then and anyone can claim to be a wonderful stepmom, My stepmom did and she wasnt by far! May God have mercy on those of you who had such horrible things to say, and How would you feel if those two boys new you have said such horrible things about there mother! No matter what has happened Christy is and will always be there real mother and that is a bond that noone can ever break, God wont allow it!

Erin December 2, 2010 4:13 PM
Gainesville MO

As for micheal griffing, he was sentenced on may 9th to 15 years in prison.  Obviously ryan you dont know a thing about christy...shes not innocent by far?  How do u thing the father of the boys feels, do u think hes happy that they " MURDERED" his son...no i really doubt it.   And christy being christian....hahahaha...yeah, christians dont murder their children so how can u say shes a devout christian?

mom May 12, 2008 1:37 PM
ME

Christy should be in jail for ever.  She should have stopped this from happening.  Im so glad that the father of the boys has custody of them.  He is a wonderful loving father and those surviving two boys are a blessing.   They have a wonderful step mother who cares deeply for them and will never let another human being hurt those precious children!!!!!May Christy ROT IN HELL

Justa Friend of the weatherfords April 28, 2008 1:24 PM
somewhere ME

Praise Jesus!!! Finally, I have prayed so long for someone to speak the truth!!! Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart! Where were you when the Salem Witch trials took place, they could have used you. Christy is NOT a murderer, in fact she is the most compassionate, loving, and devoted Christian I have ever met. Those of you who cast stones should be ashamed of yourselves. You are probably the same people who think the girl who was raped deserved it because of the way she dressed! And by the way, does anyone dare to speak of the fact that the the roommate who killed her son was a Theodosia Police officer? Hmm, probably not, no cover up there, or is that why he's gotten away with the incompetent to stand trial plea? All praise and Glory to Jesus Christ OUR LORD!!!!! FREE CHRISTY COLE! FREE RYAN FERGUSON! AND BRING ALEXANDRA DEVIVO HOME!!!!

Ryan, Automotive Safety Inspector April 8, 2008 8:45 PM
Reeds Spring MO

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About this Blog


    A.L. "Tony" DeWitt, RRT, CRT, JD, FAARC
    Occupation: Attorney
    Setting: Jefferson City, Mo.
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