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State v. Sprano

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, First Division

November 18, 2019


          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF CHRISTIAN COUNTY Honorable Jennifer R. Growcock, Circuit Judge.

          WILLIAM W. FRANCIS, JR., J.

         Christia Leigh Bellis Sprano ("Sprano") was convicted, after a bench trial, of the class C felony of tampering with a victim or attempt to tamper with a victim in a felony prosecution, pursuant to section 575.270.[1] The trial court sentenced Sprano to seven years in prison, but suspended execution of that sentence and placed Sprano on five years of supervised probation. In two points, Sprano asserts the trial court erred in overruling her motions for judgment of acquittal as there was no evidence to support the charge of tampering with a victim, and that the State's use of a verdict director provided to the trial court did not contain proper evidentiary requirements, pursuant to MAI-CR 3d 329.87.[2] Finding no merit to Sprano's points, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         Facts and Procedural History

         Because Sprano challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support her conviction, we recite the evidence and procedural history relevant to the instant appeal in light of the principle that all factual determinations are deemed to have been resolved in accord with the outcome, and that the trier of facts may credit some, all, or none of the evidence before it. State v. Morton, 574 S.W.3d 788, 791 (Mo.App. S.D. 2019). We recite such other information as is necessary for context.

         In the summer of 2013, Sprano's boyfriend transported Victim (a familial relation of Sprano) and her two young sons ("the Children") from Montana to a small farmhouse in Missouri where Sprano and her boyfriend lived. There was an explicit understanding that Victim and her children were to stay for the summer, and then Sprano and her boyfriend were to transport them to New Hampshire. They did not.

         Instead, between 2013 and 2016, boyfriend subjected Victim and her two children to violent acts of sexual and physical abuse.

         Boyfriend also took Victim's food stamp card and her child support payments, controlling all the money in the household. He forced Victim to sign over temporary guardianship of the Children to him and Sprano using a form he obtained from the internet. Boyfriend threatened to kill Victim, the Children, and anyone who might try and help them escape. Boyfriend sometimes forced Victim to beat her children. Sprano witnessed some of the physical abuse her boyfriend inflicted on Victim, and would sometimes participate.

         On March 3, 2016, authorities visited Sprano's home in response to a report that the Children were being abused, at which time boyfriend was arrested as a felon in possession of a firearm.[3] That same evening, the Children were removed from the home and interviewed at the Child Advocacy Center. Victim was also interviewed, but did not disclose boyfriend's abuse as she feared she would get in trouble for the things boyfriend forced her do to the Children.

         While the Children were being interviewed, a sheriff's department investigator tried to speak to Victim, but Sprano would interject and speak for Victim.

         On Wednesday, April 13, 2015, a hearing was held in family court regarding the Children. Sprano accompanied Victim. A guardian ad litem was appointed for Victim.[4] After the hearing, Victim told Sprano and her mother about the physical and sexual abuse she and the Children had suffered at the hands of boyfriend. Sprano told Victim she did not believe her. Victim's mother called law enforcement.

         On April 15, 2016, Victim met with the prosecutor and a trauma counselor to disclose details of the physical and sexual abuse both she and the Children had endured at the hands of boyfriend. An immunity agreement was reached between the Victim and the State, whereby the State would not charge Victim with any abuse to the Children that boyfriend forced Victim to commit.

         On April 16, 2016, Sprano told Victim that she was afraid she too would be arrested, so she had written Victim a letter and put it in a locked filing cabinet in Sprano's room. Sprano told Victim that if anything happened to her, Victim would have the letter "to go by." The letter instructed Victim to flee and "never look back," "claim the 5th" and "keep your mouth shut," to hand over all of her "documents" to "Dennis" so they could be destroyed, and to take certain items of property with her when Victim left (many of which were evidence in crimes committed against Victim and the Children).

         The following day, Sprano was arrested for child endangerment, neglect, and abuse. In a subsequent search of the residence, police found numerous items Victim described as having been utilized in her abuse, and a video of boyfriend sexually assaulting Victim.

         On July 15, 2016, Sprano was charged by information with the class C Felony of attempted victim tampering, pursuant to section 575.270, in that on or between April 14, 2016 and April 16, 2016, Sprano "gave a letter to [Victim] telling her to withhold information from authorities and such conduct was a substantial step toward the commission of the crime of victim tampering involving the felony crime of sodomy first degree, and was done for the purpose of committing such victim tampering."

         A bench trial commenced on September 24, 2017. Victim testified, along with her counselor, and Lieutenant Shane Duryea, a law enforcement officer with the Greene County Sheriff's Department. Sprano did not testify.

         The trial court was furnished a verdict directing instruction[5] by the State that was patterned after MAI-CR 3d 329.87. Defense counsel did not object.

         The trial court found Sprano guilty as charged, and imposed a seven-year sentence, but suspended the execution of that sentence and placed Sprano on supervised probation for five years with specific conditions. This appeal followed.

         In two points on appeal, Sprano asserts the trial court: (1) erred in denying Sprano's motions for judgment of acquittal, [6] and (2) plainly erred in finding Sprano guilty by relying upon the verdict director provided by the State.

         Point I: Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Sprano's first point challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support her conviction.

In a court-tried criminal case, the court's findings have the force and effect of a jury verdict. Accordingly, the standard used to review the sufficiency of the evidence in a court-tried and a jury-tried criminal case is the same. Our 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. 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. We do not weigh the evidence. 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. Collins, 570 S.W.3d 625, 626 (Mo.App. S.D. 2019) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         As an initial matter, Sprano's argument extends beyond the scope of her point relied on, in violation of Rule 84.04(e).[7] The argument attendant to her point (as best as we can discern) is comprised of the following strands:

1. the only inference warranted by the letter is that Sprano's motive was to tell Victim to "claim the 5th";
2. impliedly arguing that the trial court erred because in finding Sprano guilty, the trial court "[]parrot[ed] the statute[]" rather than MAI-CR 3d 329.87;
3. the "criteria used by the court in reaching its verdict failed to include a finding of the victim's name, the crime that made her a victim and the date of the crime[]";
4. there "was simply no evidence that [Victim] was a victim of a charged crime in ...

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