Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Second Division
from the Circuit Court of Johnson County, Missouri The
Honorable John R. O'Malley, Judge
Before: Cynthia L. Martin, Presiding Judge, Alok Ahuja, Judge
and Gary D. Witt, Judge
D. WITT, JUDGE
Usnick ("Usnick") was convicted of first degree
involuntary manslaughter following a jury trial in the
Circuit Court of Johnson County. The jury found that Usnick
was responsible for the death of her newborn daughter
("Baby Usnick") during an at-home, medically
unattended birth. As charged, the State contended that Usnick
recklessly caused the death of Baby Usnick "by giving
birth to said child unattended and failing to secure
assistance and medical attention for said child following
birth and by enclosing said child in a plastic bag and
container." The court sentenced Usnick to five years in
the Department of Corrections. Usnick brings seven
allegations of error on appeal. Because the State's
evidence did not establish a corpus delicti as to
any of the bases on which Usnick was charged, we are required
to reverse her conviction of first degree involuntary
manslaughter as a matter of law.
was an unmarried mother of three when she became pregnant in
2008. Two months before Baby Usnick was born, Usnick and her
son moved into her uncle's home in the city of St.
Elizabeth in Miller County. Usnick's uncle shared the
home with five other people as well as others who stayed
temporarily. Usnick had little interaction with the other
occupants of the house; none knew that she was pregnant.
Usnick did not have a working car or a job.
testified that she planned to give birth in a hospital and
put the baby up for adoption through the hospital because she
knew she could not care for another child. On January 15,
2009, Usnick went into labor while home alone. In a July 6,
2009 written statement to detectives ("Statement"),
Usnick admitted smoking methamphetamine and marijuana the
night before the birth. In her Statement she described Baby
Usnick's birth as follows:
On the night of January 15, 2009, I gave birth to Hannah Eden
Usnick. The night prior to, I smoked meth and marijuana. That
evening, I wasn't feeling well. My stomach was cramping
really bad. I had started a load of laundry and when I came
out of the laundry room into the hallway, my water broke. The
house was back [sic] - the house was dark and silent. I went
a few steps into the bathroom and pulled off my pants and
underwear. I sat on the stool with one hand - right hand in
parenthesis - on the countertop and my left hand on the edge
of the bathtub.
My pain was getting greater and the contractions were coming
one right after another. I had an overwhelming urge to push,
so I did, hard. I felt the head start coming, so I pushed
again. The head was out. I continued pushing with the pains.
Her body came out and landed in the toilet. When I started to
turn and look at the baby, she was laying on her right side.
Her head was toward the back of the toilet and her feet were
at the front. I started feeling sick, my stomach was
tightening. I knew from prior births that the placenta was
going to be coming. I continued to straddle the toilet, right
hand on the counter and left hand on the side of the bathtub.
It was about three minutes maybe from the time Hannah came
out and the placenta was delivered.
After the placenta and everything else came out, my body was
in shock, I was tired and hurting. It must have been four or
five minutes before I brought myself to pull off of the
stool. By then, everything and Hannah in such a small area,
the liquid had - the liquid had rose in level. That is when I
pulled her out of the toilet. I held her to my chest only for
a minute. She wasn't moving, wasn't breathing. I was
so scared. I pulled the waste paper basket closer to me and
laid her in the top of it. She was - she was closer to me
then rather than on the floor.
I sat on the stool and just looked at her. She was so
beautiful. I really hate that things turned out this way. I
wanted her to have a life, a good life and that is why I had
the intention of putting her up for adoption. I will forever
regret the poor decisions I've made not only leading up
to that night, but especially that night. I have come to
believe that it is possible with the time frame that Hannah
may have drowned or suffocated while she was submerged in the
Statement was consistent with Usnick's trial testimony
except that at trial she testified that she removed the baby
from the toilet before she passed her placenta. At trial,
Usnick testified that, immediately following the delivery,
the baby was not moving, breathing, or crying, and she did
not feel or see any signs of life. Usnick described the baby
as "pink and a little blue . . . just silent and
still." She believed Baby Usnick was "gone."
Usnick placed the baby on a waste basket next to the toilet.
After delivering the placenta, Usnick testified that she was
unable to stand for several minutes. When she was able to
move, Usnick placed the placenta in the waste basket with
Baby Usnick and went to her room to get dressed. She then
returned to the bathroom and placed the body in a plastic bag
and placed the bag inside a tote and placed the tote in the
trunk of her inoperable car. At that time she did not tell
anyone that she had given birth or that the baby was dead. At
the beginning of February, a former boyfriend, whom she had
previously told that she was pregnant and he was the father,
asked about the baby. She told him that she had given the
baby to a cousin in Mexico, Missouri to adopt. He pointed out
that he had not signed away his parental rights and wanted to
see his child.
February 3, 2009, while serving a search warrant in an
unrelated methamphetamine investigation, police discovered
the body of Baby Usnick in the trunk of the car. Usnick
initially denied having been pregnant or giving birth.
explaining why she did not seek medical attention, Usnick
testified that her car was broken down, that she did not have
minutes on her cell phone to call for help and, even if her
cell phone had been available, there was inconsistent cell
service at that house. She also testified that she was shaky
from the delivery and it would have taken her between three
to five minutes to reach a neighbor's house. The State
was able to show that she sent several text messages using
her cell phone until 7:57 p.m. on January 15, 2009, the day
of the birth. Usnick also testified that the nearest
emergency services were approximately 20 minutes from her
location. There was, however, an ambulance substation located
approximately 3/4 a mile away.
was charged by Information with second degree
murder. The State contended in the Information
that Usnick recklessly caused the death of Baby Usnick
"by giving birth to said child unattended and failing to
secure assistance and medical attention for said child
following birth and by enclosing said child in a plastic bag
and container." The Information did not charge Usnick
with drowning Baby Usnick.
trial, the State presented the testimony of three physicians
regarding Baby Usnick's death. Dr. Carl Stacy ("Dr.
Stacy") performed the autopsy on Baby Usnick. Dr.
Douglas Miller ("Dr. Miller") performed an analysis
of Baby Usnick's brain as part of the autopsy. Dr.
Christopher Long ("Dr. Long") ...