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State v. Prince

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, First Division

April 25, 2017

STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent,
v.
JACOLE N. PRINCE, Appellant.

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF JACKSON COUNTY, MISSOURI THE HONORABLE J. DALE YOUNGS, JUDGE

          Before: Gary D. Witt, Presiding Judge, Alok Ahuja, Judge and Edward R. Ardini, Jr., Judge

          EDWARD R. ARDINI, JR., JUDGE

         Jacole N. Prince ("Prince") appeals her convictions for first-degree assault, felony abuse of a child, and first-degree endangering the welfare of a child. She was found guilty following a jury trial and sentenced to twenty years on the assault count, seven years on the child abuse count, and seven years on the endangering the welfare of a child count, with the sentences to run consecutively for a total of thirty-four years. Finding no error, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In October 2005, Prince's then four-year-old daughter L.P. ("Victim") was admitted to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. She was unresponsive from an unknown cause and was unable to breath effectively on her own. Victim was placed in the intensive care unit and underwent surgery, after which she was temporarily placed on a respirator. Measurements of her weight and length found her to be below the standard for her age. When she was first admitted, she weighed only 11.9 kilograms (26.2 pounds); when she was discharged, her weight had increased, despite being on a respirator and thus unable to eat for part of her stay.

         Victim was readmitted to the hospital on January 31, 2006. She had lost significant weight since her previous discharge. Despite being four years old, Victim's weight was found to be that of a two-year-old. She also showed signs of developmental delays, which included regressing from being properly toilet trained. While in the hospital for only two days, Victim nonetheless managed to gain an additional kilogram of body weight, which was unusual given that average weight gain for a child of her age was only six to seven grams per day. Healthcare providers determined that she was suffering from acute and chronic malnutrition, and they believed that this was the result of neglect including the intentional withholding of food. They also noted that Prince had failed to follow the medical plan outlined for Victim upon her previous discharge, including missing two scheduled clinic appointments.

         During Victim's second hospital admission, Prince confessed to medical staff that she had been intentionally withholding food from Victim as a form of punishment. Prince stated that she believed that Victim would purposefully urinate or defecate on herself because Prince had stopped giving her candy as a reward when she properly used the toilet. In response to Prince's admissions and their own observations, healthcare providers made a hotline call to report the suspected abuse and neglect of Victim. The State, acting through its Children's Division, removed Victim and her sister from Prince's custody and placed them in the care of Prince's boyfriend, who was the biological father of one of Prince's other children.

         Victim showed significant signs of improvement after being removed from Prince's custody. She made a follow-up visit to the clinic on February 9, 2006, where it was noted that she had continued to gain weight since her discharge. They also noted that her toilet training behaviors had stabilized and that she no longer urinated or defecated in her underwear. Victim also began attending kindergarten classes in the Kansas City Public School District at this time. Victim's condition continued to improve through May of the same year, at which point she was released from treatment for growth problems related to malnourishment. At the time, Victim weighed 14.9 kilograms (32.8 pounds).

         Victim was returned to the custody of Prince in April of 2007. Shortly after being returned to Prince, Victim stopped attending school and was instead forced to spend most of each day locked in an upstairs bedroom closet in Prince's apartment. She regularly went to the bathroom in the closet and slept in the closet at night. She would sometimes be fed in the closet and was at other times allowed to join the family for meals, though in such instances she ate her meal behind the couch while the rest of the family sat on the couch and watched television. Victim was usually allowed to eat once per day, but some days she went without any food. On some occasions, Prince would take Victim's food away as a form of punishment. When family members who knew of Victim's existence visited Prince's apartment, Prince would clean Victim and allow her out of the closet to play. If Prince entertained visitors who did not know about Victim, however, she would lock Victim in the closet and tell her to be quiet. Victim testified that being kept in the closet was used as punishment for urinating or defecating on herself. While in the closet, Victim was supposed to indicate when she needed to use the restroom by banging on the door. When she needed to relieve herself but no one opened the closet door, because either no one was able to hear her or Prince chose to ignore her, Victim would be forced to urinate or defecate on herself.

         On June 22, 2012, the Children's Division received a hotline call reporting that Victim was being kept in a locked closet in Prince's apartment and was not being properly fed. The Children's Division designated the call as an emergency and assigned an investigator to examine its authenticity. The investigator reviewed the Children's Division's records regarding Prince and Victim and attempted, but failed, to make contact with the hotline caller. The investigator then contacted law enforcement and arranged to have them meet her at Prince's apartment. Once the investigator arrived at Prince's apartment, she informed the police of the information in the Children's Division's records and then knocked on the door but did not get a response. The police and the investigator prepared to leave, with the intention of returning later, but were stopped by Prince's neighbors. The neighbors informed the police that Prince had left a short time earlier with her "two children, " by which the police understood the neighbors to mean Prince's other two daughters. When questioned regarding Prince's eldest daughter, Victim, the neighbors denied knowledge of a third child but speculated that, if there was a third child, she resided with a family member or friend. This corroborated information from the hotline call that Prince regularly told other family members or friends that Victim lived with an aunt. The police contacted the head of the Housing Authority's Public Safety Department who confirmed that three children were supposed to be residing in the apartment according to their records. Based on the foregoing information, the police made the decision to enter the apartment.

         Once inside the apartment, officers found their way to a bedroom on the second floor, which was described as emanating a strong odor of urine. The officers observed that the closet door had been tied shut and a large playpen had been pushed in front of it. One of the officers knocked on the closet door and asked if anyone was inside, to which Victim responded "I am." The officers acted quickly to open the closet and remove Victim, who was transported to Children's Mercy Hospital. Victim weighed approximately 32 pounds, nearly the same weight as six years earlier. She was suffering from bradycardia (low heart rate), lacked subcutaneous fat, had very poor muscle tone, and showed signs of bruising or swelling on her lower back, among other medical issues.

         Meanwhile, Prince, having been informed by a neighbor that the police were interested in speaking with her, fled to the residence of her boyfriend's sister. Police eventually tracked her down, and she was taken into custody. When interviewed by police, Prince initially denied keeping Victim in the closet before admitting that she would occasionally lock Victim in the closet when she left the apartment. Prince told police that she did not want others realizing how poorly Victim was being cared for and feared that her other daughters would be taken away. Several times during the interview, Prince admitted that she had treated Victim "terribly wrong."

         Prince was charged with one count of assault in the first degree (Count I), one count of abuse of a child (Count II), and one count of endangering the welfare of a child (Count III). On January 7, 2014, Prince appeared before the plea court to enter Alford pleas[1] to counts I and II and a conventional guilty plea as to count III. In exchange for these pleas, the State agreed to cap Prince's sentence at twenty years. When the plea court asked Prince if she wished to plead guilty, she initially responded "no." After a fifteen-minute recess, during which she met with her counsel, Prince changed her position and agreed to plead guilty in accordance with the agreement. After conducting a plea hearing and making the necessary findings, the plea court accepted Prince's pleas to all three counts and scheduled sentencing for April 25, 2014. Ten days after entering her pleas, Prince sent a postcard to the plea court claiming her pleas had been the product of coercion by her counsel. In addition, Prince sent a forty-two page letter to the Kansas City Star in which she repeated the claims made in the postcard sent the plea court. On February 10, 2014, the plea court entered an order setting aside the pleas, placed the case back on the trial docket, and transferred the case to a different division.

         With the pleas set aside, the case went forward on the original charges before a new trial judge. Prior to trial, Prince filed a motion to suppress all evidence related to the discovery of Victim, all medical evidence that followed the discovery of Victim, and all other evidence seized from her apartment, arguing the evidence was the product of an unlawful entry into her apartment. The trial court denied Prince's motion. The matter proceeded to trial before a jury beginning on November 20, 2015. During the trial, Prince called two witnesses, one to challenge certain aspects of Victim's injuries and one to support a diminished capacity defense. Prince did not object to the introduction of the evidence seized from her apartment. Prince was found guilty of all three counts, and the jury recommended sentences of twenty years as to count I, and seven years as to both counts II and III. The trial court sentenced Prince consistent with the jury's recommendations, running the sentences consecutively for a total of thirty-four years. This appeal follows.

         Points ...


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