"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.