Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, Second Division
FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF PHELPS COUNTY Honorable William E.
Hickle, Circuit Judge
JEFFREY W. BATES, J.
found Christa Mueller (Defendant) guilty of assault in the
first degree. See § 565.050. She presents two
points for decision. In Point 1, she challenges the
sufficiency of the evidence to support her conviction. In
Point 2, she contends the trial court plainly erred by
failing to sua sponte declare a mistrial or issue a
curative instruction when the prosecutor allegedly misstated
the law regarding accomplice liability during the rebuttal
portion of closing argument. Finding no merit to either
point, we affirm the trial court's judgment.
and Calvin Alford (Alford) were charged by indictment with
committing the class A felony of assault in the first degree
by injuring L.H. (Victim). See § 565.050. The
indictment charged that "the defendants, each of them
acting in concert, knowingly caused serious physical injury
to a seventeen month old child, [Victim], by striking and
shaking [Victim] and in the course thereof inflicted serious
physical injury to [Victim] which includes a traumatic brain
injury, skull fracture, broken shoulder, and a fractured
arm." The case against Defendant was brought to trial in
September 2017. The assault charge against Defendant was
submitted to the jury on an accomplice liability theory.
See § 562.041.1. The jury found Defendant
guilty as charged. The trial court imposed a 20-year
sentence, and this appeal followed.
first point on appeal challenges the sufficiency of the
evidence to support her conviction. "Appellate review of
sufficiency of the evidence is limited to whether the State
has introduced adequate evidence from which a reasonable
finder of fact could have found each element of the crime
beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Lammers,
479 S.W.3d 624, 632 (Mo. banc 2016). An appellate court
"considers all evidence in the light most favorable to
the verdict and grants the State all reasonable inferences.
Contrary evidence and inferences are disregarded."
Id. (citation omitted). We do not weigh the
evidence. State v. Claycomb, 470 S.W.3d 358, 362
(Mo. banc 2015). Instead, we defer to the fact-finder's
"superior position to weigh and value the evidence,
determine the witnesses' credibility and resolve any
inconsistencies in their testimony." State v.
Lopez-McCurdy, 266 S.W.3d 874, 876 (Mo. App. 2008). The
State may prove its case by presenting either direct or
circumstantial evidence connecting the defendant to each
element of the crime. State v. Hoosier, 267 S.W.3d
767, 770 (Mo. App. 2008). Circumstantial evidence is given
the same weight as direct evidence and the jury is free to
draw reasonable inferences from the evidence presented.
Id. Viewed from that perspective, the following
evidence was adduced at trial.
April 2006, Defendant lived in an apartment with Victim.
Defendant had been in a relationship with Alford for
approximately four months. Alford occasionally stayed at the
apartment with Defendant and Victim. The environment in the
residence was "chaotic" due to frequent yelling,
screaming and fighting involving Defendant and Alford.
charge against Defendant stemmed from conduct occurring in
the early morning hours of April 6, 2006. On April 5,
Defendant's neighbor, Stephanie Bundy (Bundy), saw
Defendant and Victim at the apartment complex. Victim
appeared to be okay. At approximately 6 a.m. on April 6,
Bundy was awakened by the sound of Alford screaming at
Defendant. When Bundy went downstairs to ask that Alford and
Defendant quiet down, Defendant cracked open the door and was
"standoffish." While Bundy was at the door, Alford
called Defendant a "bitch," told her to "knock
her shit off" and "shut the fucking door."
Alford also told Defendant to "get in there and fix her
that afternoon, Defendant phoned another of her neighbors,
Jackie Mullins (Mullins). During that conversation, Defendant
said she was concerned because Victim wasn't responding
to her. Mullins told Defendant to call an ambulance. Mullins
also called Bundy and asked her to check on Defendant and
Victim. When Defendant answered the door, she was "very
frantic and upset." Alford was pacing and mumbling.
Victim was lying on the couch in the living room, unmoving.
Victim's "pupils were completely fixed and
dilated." Defendant said that she had given Victim some
Benadryl. Bundy told Defendant to call 9-1-1, but Defendant
was "hesitant." Defendant refused to call 9-1-1
until Bundy swore at her to do so, and told Defendant that it
"would be better for you … if you did."
responded to the call from Defendant's apartment at
approximately 6 p.m. When the paramedics arrived, Victim was
still lying on the couch, unresponsive. Defendant told
paramedic Lisa Steelman (Steelman) that Victim fell from her
crib two hours prior. Steelman was "furious" that
Victim had been left in her condition for two hours.
Following Steelman's reaction to Defendant's
statement, Defendant and Alford began changing their stories
back and forth to alter their account of when and how
Victim's injuries had occurred. Steelman
"couldn't get a straight answer after that."
Steelman testified that Defendant did not ask any questions
about Victim and was "not crying and not acting as I
would feel that a mother in that situation would react."
Steelman did not offer Defendant the opportunity to ride in
the ambulance because she "felt that this baby had been
intentionally harmed." Steelman noticed marks and a
bruise on Victim's face. She also noticed finger-shaped
bruises on Victim's right upper arm. Victim was
transported to Phelps County Regional Medical via ambulance
and was subsequently life-flighted to Children's Hospital
in St. Louis.
child-abuse pediatrician, Dr. Marcella Donaruma (Dr.
Donaruma), examined Victim and testified extensively about
her condition and injuries. When Victim arrived at the
hospital, she was "near death[, ]" had
"impending breathing failure[, ]" and exhibited
injuries so severe that her survival was not certain. Dr.
Donaruma described Victim as "altered." She had
bruises on the front, the back, and protected areas.
Specifically, Victim had bruises near her eyebrow, on her
left jaw, right arm, shin, ankle, back of her leg, and back.
Victim's right arm was fractured in three separate
places. In Victim's chest, she had developed
"pneumothoraces" that disrupted her breathing.
Both of Victim's eyes displayed hemorrhaging in multiple
layers of the retina. Victim also had a skull fracture and
extensive internal bleeding in her head. By the time Victim
arrived at the hospital, all of her brain was injured. Victim
had numerous contusions, areas of subdural bleeding, and
subdural hemorrhages on both sides of her head.
Donaruma also testified about her conclusions regarding the
cause of Victim's injuries. Dr. Donaruma opined that a
single fall most likely did not cause Victim's injuries.
According to Dr. Donaruma, a fall would be a highly
implausible explanation for Defendant's injuries because
it would not "adequately describe how a child could get
both left and right, front and back, multi-system injury in
the course of a single event." Dr. Donaruma further
opined that it was unlikely that Victim's injuries
happened at the same time or resulted from a single strike or
blow. The external bruises on Victim's body were
"not consistent with the activities of daily
living" because they were "located in areas that
are typically protected and are not common injuries in the
course of a child's activity and playing." For
example, Dr. Donaruma was concerned about the distribution
and shape of the bruising on Victim's leg because it
looked like "she was gripped by the back of her
leg." Victim's bruising and abrasions on her back
were inconsistent with a fall and were "completely
atypical for accidental injury in the course of daily
Donaruma concluded that most of Victim's bruising was
consistent with inflicted trauma. Some of Victim's
injuries, such as the bruise on her forehead in the shape of
a right angle, were pattern injuries caused by Victim having
been struck with a specific object. Dr. Donaruma concluded
that such an injury would be inconsistent with Victim hitting
her head on a plastic tote. Victim's jaw bruises were
inconsistent with a fall; "[t]hat's something where
a child gets held forcefully by the face." Dr. Donaruma
noted that the severe "spiral" fractures in
Victim's arm were inconsistent with a single fall or
impact, including a fall from a crib. Rather, the fractures
in Victim's arm were most likely caused by inflicted
injury. The doctor concluded that Victim's pneumothoraces
to the chest were caused by blunt force trauma. Victim's
retinal hemorrhage, skull fracture, subdural bleeding and
contusions were consistent with abusive head trauma and were
not likely to have been caused by a fall.
Donaruma testified that Victim would have become "limp
and minimally responsive" immediately after suffering
the first significant brain injury. Additionally, the results
of Victim's lab reports, measuring her blood sugar and
coagulation levels, were not consistent with an injury
occurring within two hours of the test. Finally, Dr. Donaruma
opined that, if Victim had received medical treatment
earlier, she could have had a better outcome. To a reasonable
degree of medical certainty, Victim "would have done
better than she did" if she had received earlier medical
the severity and suspicious nature of Victim's injuries,
a public safety officer was summoned to document Victim's
condition upon her arrival at Phelps County Regional Medical.
This was not the first occasion of suspected abuse or neglect
involving Defendant and Victim. Bundy, who lived in the unit
directly above, testified that from February through April
2006, she regularly heard concerning sounds coming from
within Defendant's residence. Victim cried loudly and for
long periods of time, "more often than she should
have[.]" Through the apartment walls, Bundy heard Victim
emit "high-pitched" and "bloodcurdling"
screams. Victim's crying indicated to Bundy that, on more
than one occasion, Victim was hurt, in pain, and being
who also resided near Defendant in the apartment complex,
testified that Defendant didn't have much patience with
kids and "would yell a lot" because her
"nerves would be frayed[.]" Mullins recounted that,
on one occasion, she inquired about large, noticeable marks
on Victim's face. During a separate incident, Mullins
observed Defendant pick Victim up by the shoulder, shake her,
and yell at Victim to "shut up and get the fuck off of
Children's Division caseworker, Christine Abmeyer
(Abmeyer), was assigned to assist and monitor Defendant and
Victim following a hotline call in January 2006. Victim had
sustained grease burns to her hands, face and throat when
Defendant was cooking with hot oil. Although the extensive
burns made Victim "unrecognizable," Defendant did
not take her to the hospital until the day after the
incident. When Victim was admitted to the hospital's burn
unit, it was discovered that she had additional existing
injuries including abrasions and bruising to her sternum.
Upon Victim's release from the hospital, Defendant
repeatedly failed to bring Victim to scheduled follow-up
appointments and was "apathetic" in cooperating
with the Children's Division. Because of Defendant's
history of failing to take Victim to the doctor in a timely
manner, Abmeyer formulated a safety plan. The safety plan
dictated that, if any health concerns presented with Victim,
Defendant would take Victim to the doctor immediately.
Defendant agreed to the safety plan, but she did not utilize
the resources provided by the Children's Division and
"seemed to be not caring." On March 30, 2006,
Abmeyer closed the case as a result of Defendant's
trial testimony included a review of the multiple interviews
that Defendant gave to authorities. In Dr. Donaruma's
interview with Defendant, she gave a history that was
"unusual … not typical for a mom with a child in
the intensive care unit [and] disturbing." When asked to
generally describe Victim, Defendant responded that Victim
was ornery and mischevious, and "didn't like
[Defendant] anymore because she was pregnant." Defendant
referred to Victim as her "little butt plug"
because she often followed Defendant closely. Dr. Donaruma
found Defendant's comments to be "really
disrespectful of the child in general." Moreover, Dr.
Donaruma testified that Defendant did not seem upset about
what was wrong with Victim, was "[n]ot very focused on
the child," and instead tried to be engaging and
distract them from the type of questions they were asking
about the injury.
told Dr. Donaruma that on April 5, Victim had "a great
day" with a typical schedule. The following day,
Defendant claimed that Victim was comfortable in her crib at
6 a.m., and when Defendant checked on Victim at 10 a.m., she
was awake and quietly playing in her crib. According to
Defendant, Victim ate throughout the day and took a nap at
3:30 p.m. Defendant said that around 5 p.m., she found Victim
out of the crib, on the floor, draped over her toy box.
Defendant said she thought Victim's crib broke.
Defendant's explanation did not make sense to Dr.
Donaruma because "this one little sort of possible
tumble from a broken crib wasn't enough to explain just
the distribution and number and type of injury we were
seeing." Throughout the interview with Dr. Donaruma,
Defendant did not ask any questions about Victim or her
also was interviewed by Detective Richard Hanrahan
(Hanrahan), a police officer who specialized in forensic
child-abuse investigations. Defendant was initially hesitant
to talk with Hanrahan because Defendant's parents had
advised her not to speak with anyone about the incident.
made the following statements to Hanrahan. On the night of
April 5, Alford and Defendant stayed at her apartment with
Victim. On the morning of April 6, Victim woke up around 10
a.m. and was a little congested, so Defendant gave Victim
some allergy medicine. Defendant and Victim lay down for a
nap between 11 a.m. and noon. Victim woke up around 1 p.m.,
but was still a little sleepy, so Defendant moved Victim to
her crib and put her down for another nap. Defendant and
Alford stayed at the apartment throughout the day on April 6.
Around 5 p.m., Defendant found Victim "on the floor next
to the crib and the toy box." Victim's "head
was to the side and on the floor and she was basically upside
down with her lower legs over the toy box and somehow dropped
there next to the crib and the toy box." Defendant and
Alford then took Victim to the living room and tried to
search for home remedies "for things like concussion
because they feared she may have suffered a concussion
falling from the crib." Defendant had a hard time
recounting the time frame because "she knew there was a
pause between the time the baby was found and the time the
ambulance was called."
Hanrahan asked Defendant how she believed Victim had been
injured, Defendant said she believed Victim had climbed onto
the railing of her crib, and the railing had given way.
Hanrahan was concerned "that the story of falling from a
crib didn't match the gravity of the injuries that the
child had suffered." Hanrahan and other officers
investigated Defendant's apartment and examined
Victim's crib. The railing was hanging loose from the
headboard and footboard. The top railing was "obviously
removed from the frame." There was no cracking or damage
to the rail. While disassembling the crib, the investigators
discovered that one of the bottom slats in the crib was
partially broken. Hanrahan testified that he "was
concerned that if a child were thrown into that bed hard
enough to break a slat underneath the baby bed mattress, that
that could be our mechanism of injury."
investigators were at the apartment complex, Defendant was
searching the internet on a computer. She told Hanrahan about
a crib recall, and printed it at his request. Hanrahan
testified that the recall was directed at risks involving