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Evans v. State

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, Second Division

May 24, 2019

RYAN N. EVANS, Movant-Appellant,
STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent-Respondent.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF PHELPS COUNTY Honorable John D. Beger, Circuit Judge

          JEFFREY W. BATES, J.

         Ryan Evans (Evans) appeals from an order denying his amended Rule 29.15 motion to set aside his convictions for abuse of a child and second-degree felony murder. See §§ 568.060, 565.021.1(2).[1] Because the motion court's decision to deny relief after an evidentiary hearing was not clearly erroneous, we affirm.

         Evans bore the burden of proving the grounds asserted in his post-conviction motion by a preponderance of the evidence. See Rule 29.15(i); McLaughlin v. State, 378 S.W.3d 328, 337 (Mo. banc 2012). Our review of the denial of a Rule 29.15 motion is limited to determining whether the motion court's findings of fact and conclusions of law are clearly erroneous. Rule 29.15(k); Williams v. State, 168 S.W.3d 433, 439 (Mo. banc 2005). We will find clear error only if a full review of the record leaves us with a definite and firm impression that a mistake has been made. Zink v. State, 278 S.W.3d 170, 175 (Mo. banc 2009). We presume the motion court's findings and conclusions are correct. McLaughlin, 378 S.W.3d at 336-37. Further, "this Court defers to the motion court's determination of credibility." Smith v. State, 413 S.W.3d 709, 715 (Mo. App. 2013). The following summary of facts has been prepared in accordance with these principles.

         Evans was charged with second-degree felony murder for allegedly committing the class A felony of abuse of a child, resulting in death. See §§ 565.021.1(2), 568.060.3(2). These charges stemmed from events that occurred in October 2006 against an 18-month-old child (Victim). Insofar as relevant here, an autopsy was performed soon after Victim's death. Prior to Evans' jury trial, his defense counsel, Mark Prugh (Prugh), filed a motion in limine to exclude the autopsy results. Prugh argued that the results were inadmissible because the doctor who performed the autopsy, Dr. Joshua Lanter, was not a "certified child death pathologist" as required by § 58.722. In response, the State argued that the cited statute only applied if there is a disagreement about whether an autopsy should be performed. Because there was no disagreement in this case, the prosecutor argued that the statute did not require that the autopsy be performed by a certified child death pathologist. The trial court agreed and denied the motion.

         At trial, Prugh did not object to Dr. Lanter's testimony concerning the autopsy. The doctor testified to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the cause of Victim's death was a closed head injury inflicted by blunt trauma and that the manner of death was homicide. This opinion was confirmed by his supervisor, Dr. Phillip Burch. Dr. Burch was a deputy chief medical examiner for the City of St. Louis, Missouri, and a certified forensic pathologist, who observed Victim's autopsy and independently reviewed Dr. Lanter's results. Other medical professionals treating Victim before he died similarly testified that Victim suffered traumatic brain injury consistent with child abuse that caused his death.

         The jury found Evans guilty as charged. He was sentenced to concurrent terms of life imprisonment for abuse of a child and 30 years for second-degree murder. This Court affirmed his convictions and sentences on direct appeal. State v. Evans, 517 S.W.3d 528 (Mo. App. 2015).

         Evans filed a pro se motion seeking relief pursuant to Rule 29.15. Thereafter, appointed counsel filed an amended motion.[2] In the amended motion, Evans claimed, inter alia, that Prugh was ineffective for failing to object to the trial testimony of Dr. Lanter "on the basis that he was the physician that conducted the autopsy … and he was statutorily unqualified to do so" pursuant to § 58.722.

         The motion court conducted an evidentiary hearing, at which Prugh was the only witness. Prugh did not object to Dr. Lanter's testimony because an objection would have likely been "shot down" and may have done more harm than good:

I think everybody who's done a trial who's trying to win a jury trial knows if you're trying to discredit an expert, if you object and you know your objection is gonna be shot down, you're just - you're enhancing the credibility of that expert and you're not doing your client any good.

         Thereafter, the motion court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law denying Evans' amended motion for post-conviction relief. In rejecting the aforementioned claim, the motion court concluded that trial counsel Prugh's decision not to object was reasonable trial strategy:

Trial counsel certainly was reasonable in concluding that an objection to [Dr. Lanter], based on § 58.722, would not be successful. As Mr. Prugh stated on several occasions, he did not think it sound strategy to object to the qualifications of an expert, only to have that objection overruled and, and as a result, the expert's qualifications be affirmed in the minds of the jurors by the trial judge's ruling.

         This appeal followed.

         In Evans' sole point on appeal, he argues that Prugh's failure to object to Dr. Lanter's testimony constituted ineffective assistance of trial counsel. To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, the movant must satisfy a two-prong test. Zink, 278 S.W.3d at 175. First, the movant must "show that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness." Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688 (1984). "A fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time." Id. at 689. Second, the movant must show that trial counsel's failure prejudiced him. Id. at 687; Anderson v. State, 196 S.W.3d 28, 33 (Mo. banc 2006) (to satisfy the prejudice prong under the Strickland test, movant is required to show there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the ...

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