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State v. Matthews

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

April 17, 2018


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

          Before Lisa White Hardwick, P.J., and Alok Ahuja and Anthony Rex Gabbert, JJ.

          Alok Ahuja, Judge

         Following a jury trial in the Circuit Court of Clay County, Dennis Matthews was convicted of one count of abuse of a child resulting in death; two counts of abuse of a child; and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child. Matthews was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment plus 42 years, and a $5, 000 fine. He appeals.

         Matthews' wife Rebecca Matthews was convicted of similar offenses, arising out of the same underlying events which formed the basis for Matthews' prosecution. We reversed Rebecca Matthews' convictions in State of Missouri v. Rebecca Matthews, No. WD79757, 2018 WL 1472766 (Mo. App. W.D. March 27, 2018), and remanded her case for a new trial. We reversed in Rebecca Matthews' case based on our conclusion that, during her trial, the circuit court erroneously admitted a large amount of irrelevant and highly prejudicial evidence concerning the exotic and dangerous reptiles kept in the Matthews home. Although Matthews and his wife were tried separately, much of the same irrelevant and inflammatory reptile evidence was admitted in his trial. Thus, we reverse Matthews' convictions and remand the case for a new trial, for the same reasons which justified our reversal in Rebecca Matthews' direct appeal.

         Factual Background

         At the time of the underlying conduct, Matthews and Rebecca Matthews[1]lived in Richmond with their four children. Their oldest daughter, Karen, [2] was four years old at the time; daughter Sara was two years old; and their son Leon was one year old. In addition to their three infants, Matthews and Rebecca had a three-week-old newborn, daughter Alice.

         On the morning of August 18, 2012, Matthews was helping family friend April Mohn prepare for an event at an outdoor park. Matthews received a phone call from Rebecca, telling him that Alice had died. Matthews told Mohn that "we have to go back to my house now." On the way, Mohn called 9-1-1.

         When Mohn and Matthews arrived at the home, Matthews jumped out of Mohn's car and ran inside. When Mohn walked in, she found baby Alice in Rebecca's arms, wrapped in a blanket. Mohn took the baby, who was cold to the touch. Moments later, paramedics arrived and found Mohn on the porch holding Alice. Paramedic Gary Hall took the baby and opened the blanket that she was wrapped in. Hall reported that he checked Alice for a pulse and respiration, but detected neither. A cardiac monitor confirmed that Alice had no heart rhythms. Hall testified at trial that he did not perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation ("CPR") on the baby, nor did anyone perform CPR in his presence.

          Detective Matt Peterson arrived at the scene while Hall was holding Alice on the porch. Peterson testified that he did not see anyone perform CPR on the infant. Peterson saw the Matthews' three other children running around the house. He described the children as "a little unkempt, dirty." When Peterson picked up Leon, feces spilled out of the child's diaper. Peterson conducted interviews of medical personnel while he was on the scene. He determined that CPR had not been performed.

         Following the medical examination, an ambulance transported Alice to a funeral home, where a forensic pathologist performed an autopsy. During his external examination, the pathologist found a small bruise and small scrape near the baby's right ear. He also found a bruise on the lower part of the baby's breast bone. The pathologist's internal examination revealed bruising under the scalp; he "didn't expect to see any bruising because normally babies are carefully handled." The internal investigation also revealed that Alice had suffered serious organ damage: a tear in the left atrium of her heart; a tear in her liver; and bruising of the lungs. Alice's heart had leaked a small amount of blood into her chest cavity. The pathologist also found healing rib fractures that were at least a week old.

         The forensic pathologist initially concluded that Alice's death was accidental, with her injuries caused by poorly performed CPR. After he was informed that CPR had not been performed on the child, the pathologist characterized Alice's death as a homicide, with the cause of death being blunt force trauma to the chest causing heart failure.

         Alice's death was not the first occasion on which authorities had suspected abuse and neglect in the Matthews home. In fact, the Children's Division of the Department of Family Services had received eleven "Hot Line"[3] calls reporting Rebecca and Dennis Matthews for suspected child abuse and neglect between March 2010 and August 2012. Most of the calls claimed that the Matthews home was unsuitable for children, due to lack of running water and adequate food, and the presence of dangerous animals in the home. The Matthews were also reported due to alleged sexual abuse and neglect.

         On September 22, 2011, the State implemented a safety plan after an investigator determined that the Matthews home had inadequate food, no diapers for their baby, no running water, and dangerous reptiles present in the home (large snakes, lizards, and alligators). At least one of the reptiles had escaped its cage. The safety plan called for the children to stay with a family member or friend until the investigator could ensure that the house was safe for their return. But the investigator returned 24 hours later to find the family still in the home even though the dangerous conditions had not been remedied, in direct violation of the safety plan. Two weeks later, the investigator returned and found that the home had been brought into compliance. Food and diapers were present, the home had running water, and the reptiles had been removed. None of the other "Hot Line" reports were substantiated after investigation.

         Testimony during trial provided additional examples of possible abuse and neglect. For instance, the Matthews children were consistently described as being significantly underweight. A nurse practitioner testified that she monitored the children's weight. Leon's weight decreased dramatically over time. Although his weight was at one point above the 50th percentile on a growth chart, he later fell below the 1st percentile. Sara's weight exhibited a similar trajectory: she only gained 8 ounces in the 11 months after her first birthday, putting her at the 1stpercentile at the age of 23 months in August 2012. The nurse testified that, whenever the Matthews children would visit her office, they would arrive hungry. The nurse regularly fed the children, and she reported that they ate well. Although the nurse referred Leon and Sara to a clinic for children experiencing failure to thrive, their parents never took them there.

         In addition to malnourishment, Leon went to the hospital in May 2012 for a broken arm. April Mohn testified during trial that Leon purportedly fell off the bed while being watched by a family member. A nurse practitioner testified that Leon suffered a transverse fracture across both bones in the forearm. She testified that it was not the type of injury she would expect to see from a non-mobile infant falling out of a bed. The nurse also testified that Leon's lower extremities exhibited low muscle tone. She testified that, when she held Leon up, he would not put any weight on his legs, which she considered to be unusual behavior for an eight-month-old child. The nurse diagnosed Leon with failure to thrive based on his weight, and testified that she also "had concerns for physical abuse and neglect."

         After receiving the results of Alice's autopsy, police officers picked up Matthews on August 28, 2012, and transported him to the Richmond Police Department. Matthews waived his Miranda[4] rights and agreed to speak with the police. Detective Matt Peterson testified that Matthews was "very relaxed, " which the detective viewed as unusual given that the interview took place only 10 days after Alice's death. Detective Peterson testified that Matthews' behavior exhibited signs of possible deceitfulness.

         Matthews told the police that the family had attended church the evening before Alice was found dead. That evening he stayed outside the house until one-thirty or two o'clock in the morning, chatting with a new male friend whom he had met at church. Matthews said that Rebecca had come out several times, urging him to come in and give the kids "lovins" and tuck them into bed. He declined, and instead stayed outside. When Matthews finally came inside, he said that he went straight to bed. Matthews said that both he and his wife slept in the living room, because they did not have baby monitors, and they otherwise could not hear Alice crying. Matthews stated that, after he went to sleep, he did not wake up at all during the night, and that Rebecca did not wake up either. Matthews said that when he woke up, he left the home immediately with Mohn to help her prepare for an event called "Praise in the Park." He estimated that he woke up around 8:15 a.m., although the police's investigation determined that he probably woke up closer to 9:15.

         Matthews gave several possible explanations for Alice's injuries. He told the police about an incident when he found Sara pounding on Alice's back on the floor outside of the baby's bassinet. He reported that, afterwards, Alice had a "clicking going on when she would breathe, " although he claimed that the noise stopped after Mohn massaged Alice's rib back into place. (At trial, Mohn denied ever treating a rib injury on Alice.) Another incident occurred only 3 days before the baby died. Matthews said Alice would not wake up in the morning, and slept the entire day. Like before, neither Matthews nor his wife took the baby to a hospital or called 9-1-1. Matthews said that he and Rebecca consulted with friends, who told them that Alice's extra-long sleeping was normal for a baby of her age. Matthews also suggested that his oldest child, Karen, might have caused Alice's death. During a call with a state investigator, Matthews said that Karen might have fallen on Alice because she has a "bad habit of climbing things." Matthews hypothesized that Karen might have climbed on top of Alice's crib, then fallen on top of Alice, causing her death. A doctor testified at trial that this scenario was unlikely. Karen only weighed 33 pounds at the time. The doctor testified that blunt force trauma typically requires more weight and a more forceful impact than Karen could have delivered. In addition, Alice had injuries in multiple areas, rather than concentrated in a single area, as would be the case if the injuries had resulted from a single blow.

         Matthews was charged by information with 11 counts. He was charged with: the class A felony of abuse of a child resulting in death, for causing Alice's death "by means of blunt force trauma to the chest and abdomen, " in violation of § 568.060[5](Count 1); the class C felony abuse of a child in violation of § 568.060, for causing Alice's earlier rib fractures (Count 2); the class C felony of endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree in violation of § 568.045, for failing to seek medical treatment for Alice's rib fractures (Count 3); the class C felony of abuse of a child for hitting Karen on the back multiple times (Count 4); and class C felony abuse of a child for breaking Leon's arm (Count 7). Counts 5, 6 and 8 charged Matthews with endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree, for exposing Karen, Sara, and Leon to dangerous reptiles in the home. Finally, Counts 9, 10 and 11 charges Matthews with first-degree child endangerment for failing to provide Alice, Leon and Sara with adequate formula, milk, or food.

         Matthews filed a motion contending that Counts 5, 6 and 8 (which alleged that he had endangered his children by exposing them to dangerous reptiles) had been improperly joined, and requesting that the court sever those counts for separate trial. Matthews requested severance under Supreme Court Rule 24.07, which states:

When a defendant is charged with more than one offense in the same indictment or information, the offenses shall be tried jointly unless the court orders an offense to be tried separately. An offense shall be ordered to be tried separately only if:
(a) A party files a written motion requesting a separate trial of the offense;
(b) A party makes a particularized showing of substantial prejudice if the offense is not tried separately; and
(c) The court finds the existence of a bias or discrimination against the party that requires a separate trial of the offense.

         On September 22, 2015, the court ordered Counts 5, 6, and 8 to be severed and tried separately.

         Matthews and his wife were held awaiting trial at the Ray County Jail, where they exchanged letters. Two of Matthews' letters were introduced during trial by the State. In one letter, Matthews wrote:

oh, BTW - our lawyers are going to try to turn us against each other. So if you want to show me how much you love me, then that would be the best way - never roll on me. If you do . . . then I will know you really don't love me. So decide now what you're going to do and let me know so I'm not surprised . . . . I hope you make the right choice. . . . I would never in a million years roll on you. They would have to kill me first.

         Matthews' tone shifted in the second letter. He wrote:

Babe, what the hell was the big secret of taking you in and out about? What the hell is going on? You've got me wiggin' out. All of a sudden they're doing everything to stop me from seeing you. Who are you talking to out there? What are you saying to them? I've got a bad feeling in my gut, and it feels like you might go against me. WHAT IS GOING ON? I mean . . . if you're going to go against me, then I will just take the charges so you don't have to do this shit.

         The State argued that the letters showed a consciousness of guilt.

         Although the circuit court had severed the counts alleging child endangerment due to the presence of dangerous reptiles in the home, the State presented extensive evidence concerning the reptiles during Matthews' trial, over his repeated objections. We discuss that evidence in detail in § I of the Discussion which follows.

         The jury found Matthews guilty of abuse of a child resulting in death; abuse of a child for breaking Alice's ribs and Leon's arm; endangering the welfare of a child for failing to obtain medical care for Alice; and endangering the welfare of a child for failing to provide adequate food for Alice, Leon, and Sara. The jury acquitted Matthews on the charge of abuse of a child for causing bruising to Karen's back by striking her. The jury recommended sentences of life imprisonment on Count I and seven years' imprisonment on each of the remaining counts. The court imposed the sentences recommended by the jury, and ordered that the sentences be served consecutively; it also imposed a $5, 000 fine for the count of abuse of a child resulting in the fracture of Leon's arm.

         Matthews appeals.


         In his first three Points, Matthews challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support his conviction of the three counts of abuse of a child. In his next three Points, he challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support his convictions for endangering the welfare of a child by failing to supply adequate nutrition. In his seventh and final Point, Matthews argues that the trial court erred in overruling his objections to the evidence concerning the reptiles that were present in his home. Although we conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support Matthews' convictions, we hold that the bulk of the reptile evidence was erroneously admitted, and that the erroneous admission of this highly prejudicial evidence justifies a new trial.

         We begin by addressing Matthews' seventh point, which challenges the admission of the reptile evidence.[6]


         In his final Point, Matthews argues that that trial court erred in overruling his objections to evidence of dangerous reptiles that were kept in the Matthews home because it was improper evidence of uncharged misconduct, and any probative value the ...

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