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State v. Mueller

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, Second Division

February 14, 2019

STATE OF MISSOURI, Plaintiff-Respondent,
CHRISTA ELAINE MUELLER, Defendant-Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF PHELPS COUNTY Honorable William E. Hickle, Circuit Judge

          JEFFREY W. BATES, J.

         A jury found Christa Mueller (Defendant) guilty of assault in the first degree. See § 565.050.[1] 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.

         Procedural Background

         Defendant 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.[2] 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.

         Discussion and Decision

         Point 1

         Defendant's 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.

         In 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.

         The 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 shit."

         Later 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."

         Paramedics 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.

         A child-abuse pediatrician, Dr. Marcella Donaruma (Dr. Donaruma), examined Victim and testified extensively about her condition and injuries.[3] 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. [4] 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.

         Dr. 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 living."

         Dr. 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.

         Dr. 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 attention.

         Due to 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 ignored.

         Mullins, 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 her[.]"

         A 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 noncompliance.

         The 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.

         Defendant 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 prognosis.

         Defendant 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.

         Defendant 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."

         When 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."

         While 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 crib ...

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