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State v. Matthews

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Second Division

March 27, 2018

STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent,
v.
REBECCA MATTHEWS, Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Clay County, Missouri The Honorable Larry D. Harman, Judge.

          Before: Anthony Rex Gabbert, Presiding Judge, Thomas H. Newton, Judge, and Gary D. Witt, Judge.

          ANTHONY REX GABBERT, JUDGE.

         Introduction

         Rebecca Matthews appeals from a judgment entered upon a jury verdict convicting her of one count of first degree abuse of a child resulting in death pursuant to Section 568.060, [1] three counts of abuse of a child pursuant to Section 568.060, and seven counts of endangering the welfare of a child pursuant to Section 568.045. Matthews raises two points on appeal. First, she contends that the circuit court erred in overruling her objections to and admitting prejudicial evidence regarding reptiles kept in her home, because the court erroneously determined that defense counsel opened the door to that evidence. Matthews contends that the evidence was irrelevant and suggested a propensity to commit the charged crimes. Second, Matthews contends that the circuit court erred in accepting guilty verdicts on counts VI, VII, and X for first degree endangering the welfare of a child. She argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the convictions because the State failed to prove a substantial risk of harm to the children by having them seated in a vehicle while it was over 100 degrees outside. She contends that the children had water, were being supervised by two adults, and the windows and back hatch of the vehicle were open. We reverse.

         Procedural Background

         On June 2, 2015, the State charged Matthews with the following fourteen counts: 1) one count of the class A felony of abuse of a child by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly inflicting cruel and inhuman punishment upon A.D.B.M. by means of blunt force trauma to the chest and abdomen of A.D.B.M. resulting in death; 2) one count of the class C felony of abuse of a child by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly inflicting cruel and inhuman punishment upon A.D.B.M. by hitting and or squeezing A.D.B.M. in the ribs and breaking A.D.B.M.'s ribs; 3) one count of the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly acting in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life and body and health of A.D.B.M. by failing to obtain medical care after A.D.B.M. suffered broken ribs and stopped breathing; 4) one count of the class C felony of abuse of a child by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly inflicting cruel and inhuman punishment upon K.P. by hitting K.P. on the back multiple times causing bruising; 5) one count of the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly acting in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life and body and health of K.P. by exposing K.P. to large snakes, large lizards, and alligators that were not safely caged; 6) one count of the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly acting in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life and body and health of K.P. by leaving K.P. in a vehicle when the temperature was over 100 degrees; 7) one count of the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly acting in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life and body and health of S.M. by leaving S.M. in a vehicle when the temperature was over 100 degrees; 8) one count of the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly acting in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life and body and health of S.M. by exposing S.M. to large snakes, large lizards, and alligators that were not safely caged; 9) one count of the class C felony of abuse of a child by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly inflicting cruel and inhuman punishment upon L.M. by breaking L.M.'s arm;10) one count of the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly acting in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life and body and health of L.M. by leaving L.M. in a vehicle when the temperature was over 100 degrees; 11) one count of the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly acting in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life and body and health of L.M. by exposing L.M. to large snakes, large lizards, and alligators that were not safely caged; 12) one count of the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly acting in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life and body and health of A.D.B.M. by failing to provide A.D.B.M. adequate formula or milk; 13) one count of the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly acting in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life and body and health of L.M. by failing to provide L.M. with adequate formula, milk, or food; 14) one count of the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree by, alone or in concert with another, knowingly acting in a manner that created a substantial risk to the life and body and health of S.M. by failing to provide S.M. adequate formula, milk, or food.

         Matthews filed a motion to sever various counts within the Information which would have led to six separate trials if the motion had been fully granted. The court granted only Matthews's request to sever Counts 5, 8, and 11 which alleged child endangerment for unsafe exposure to reptiles; the remaining eleven counts were tried together and are the subject of this appeal.

         Prior to trial on the eleven remaining counts, Matthews filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude, among other things, evidence regarding the presence of animals in the household. The following discussion occurred between counsel and the court regarding this motion:

DEFENSE COUNSEL: [D]id you make a final determination on the issue of whether or not contacts with the Children's Division could be admitted and whether or not there could be evidence regarding reptiles?
THE COURT: It's part of the counts, isn't it? I mean part of the evidence is when people arrived at the scene, and so forth?
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Yes, in that, to that extent it will be necessary. But one of the witnesses on the list is the expert on the reptiles, and I think it would go far beyond -
THE COURT: Well, my sense of that is that probably will not come in, in the State's case-in-chief. It may be permissible rebuttal evidence if necessary. But these are motions in limine. They are interlocutory rulings. If the State feels compelled to call that person, then they should approach the bench. And I would avoid reference in the opening statement or during voir dire.

         Trial Evidence

         The evidence at trial was as follows: The first witness called by the State was an ambulance paramedic who responded to the family home on August 18, 2012, in response to a call that three-week-old A.D.B.M. was not breathing. He testified that, when he arrived at the scene, A.D.B.M. was deceased and rigor mortis had set in. He testified that it would have been futile to attempt to resuscitate the child and, consequently, he contacted the county coroner.

         The second witness called by the State was Ray County Coroner, James Garrison. He pronounced A.D.B.M. dead at the scene. Garrison testified that, after an autopsy was performed on A.D.B.M. revealing her cause of death to be blunt-force trauma to the chest and abdomen, he concluded that her death was a homicide.

         The third witness called by the State was April Mohn who identified herself as the "godmother" of A.D.B.M., K.P., L.M. and S.M. She first met the family in 2010. Mohn described the children as "happy." She testified to being aware that S.M. had been labeled "failure to thrive" by medical personnel and had been prescribed protein milk. She testified that the Matthews children sometimes ate at Mohn's home and "were always hungry." She testified that, in May of 2012, Matthews asked Mohn to take Matthews and ten-month-old L.M. to the emergency room, reporting that L.M. had fallen off of a bed while Matthews's sister was watching him. L.M. was found to have a broken arm.

         Mohn testified that A.D.B.M. was born on July 29, 2012. Immediately after A.D.B.M. left the hospital, Matthews, Matthews's husband (Dennis), and the couple's four children went to stay with Mohn. Mohn testified that, as a mother of four young children, Matthews needed help and Mohn wanted to help her. The Matthews family also had no water in their home at that time. Mohn set up a baby monitor in her home so that she could hear A.D.B.M. if she woke up in the middle of the night. Although the record is not clear as to when the Matthews family moved back to their own residence, they were in their own home the day of A.D.B.M.'s death.

         On August 7, 2012, Mohn had a conversation with Matthews wherein Matthews told Mohn that S.M. had pulled one-week-old A.D.B.M. out of the bassinet and dropped her on the floor. Mohn held A.D.B.M. that day and observed her to be "uncomfortable" but did not notice any injuries. Mohn stated that she did notice "something that almost felt like a click or something on her back" but did not know what it was. Mohn advised Matthews to take A.D.B.M. to the hospital - that it was "better to be safe than sorry." Matthews did not.

         On August 17, 2012, the day before A.D.B.M. was pronounced dead by the coroner, Mohn attended a church fellowship in Odessa with Matthews, Dennis, and the couple's four children. Mohn testified that A.D.B.M. seemed perfectly fine during the church service. After the service, Mohn dropped the Matthews family off at their own home at approximately 10:45 p.m. The following morning, Dennis was scheduled to go with Mohn to "Praise in the Park" to set up a booth for Mohn's business. Mohn arrived at the Matthews' home at approximately 9:00 a.m. to pick Dennis up. Shortly after leaving the home with Dennis, Dennis received a telephone call from Matthews. Dennis informed Mohn that they needed to return to the home because A.D.B.M. was dead. After arriving at the home, Mohn called 911. Mohn testified that, when she walked inside the home, Matthews was sitting on the couch and had A.D.B.M. in a blanket. The police dispatcher began asking Mohn questions about the baby, so Mohn took A.D.B.M. from Matthews. She gave A.D.B.M. to the paramedic when he arrived. Mohn testified that she knew the other children were in the home at that time, but did not know what they were doing as she was focused on A.D.B.M.

         The defense began its cross-examination in the following manner:

DEFENSE COUNSEL: You were very close to these children, weren't you?
MOHN: Yes, ma'am.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: They were good kids?
MOHN: Yes.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Happy?
MOHN: Yes.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: All taken care of?
MOHN: Yeah.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: And you kind of liked, despite the inconvenience, liked having them stay at your house there for a while?
MOHN: I did.

         Mohn went on to testify that Matthews did not appear to understand A.D.B.M.'s death; Matthews kept telling Mohn that A.D.B.M. died because she was cold, seemingly not understanding that A.D.B.M. was cold because she had died. After A.D.B.M.'s death, the Matthews family went back to live at Mohn's home. They were living at Mohn's home when the police and the Department of Social Services, Children's Division, removed K.P., L.M., and S.M. from the Matthews' care and custody.

         After the defense finished its cross-examination, the State asked to approach the bench. This discussion followed:

STATE: Judge, I think it's relevant to get into the evidence regarding the reptiles at this point. Ms. Mohn has testified that she was in the home -
DEFENSE COUNSEL: I'm going to object [to] any inquiry of the reptiles or condition of the home. They're not charged with having a dirty house or bad conditions. The jury isn't hearing anything about the charge of the reptiles. Those counts have been severed, and the State is now trying to get the counts before the jury. It's prejudicial.
STATE: The Defense elicited testimony that the children lived in a good home. We can describe in detail what the conditions of the home were, Judge.
THE COURT: The objection is overruled.

         The State then asked Mohn if she regularly went into the Matthews home. She responded, "Some, most of the time they were at my house." The State asked Mohn if there was a reason she did not like going into the Matthews' home. Mohn stated that it was because of pets that they kept in their home. She testified that, "When I first met them, they had very large snakes …." The State elicited from Mohn that the Matthews had also kept large lizards, large birds, and alligators. Immediately after eliciting this testimony, the State questioned Mohn:

STATE: Now you indicated, Ms. Mohn, that baby [A.D.B.M.] seemed to be fine after the Defendant mentioned the story about [S.M.] possibly hurting baby [A.D.B.M.'s] ribs. Do you remember testifying about that, that baby [A.D.B.M.] seemed to be fine?
MOHN: Yes, she seemed to be fine, yes. But I obviously didn't know that -
STATE: Of course.
MOHN: I mean I didn't know that any - I didn't know, I ...

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