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State v. Morris

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

May 18, 2018


          Session February 6, 2018

          Appeal from the Criminal Court for Shelby County No. 13-00001 Chris Craft, Judge

         A Shelby County jury convicted the defendant, Curtis Morris, of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, aggravated child neglect, and felony murder of his seventeen-month-old son. On appeal the defendant argues: the trial court erred when excluding a daycare record; the trial court erred when permitting the jury to view autopsy photos of the victim; the trial court erred when allowing certain expert testimony; the State failed to properly elect offenses; the trial court erred when failing to define "knowing" in its aggravated child abuse instructions; the State presented insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict; and the cumulative effect of these errors resulted in the denial of a fair trial. Based on our thorough review of the record, pertinent authorities, and arguments of the parties, we affirm the judgments of the trial court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgments of the Criminal Court Affirmed

          William D. Massey, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Curtis Morris.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Zachary T. Hinkle, Assistant Attorney General; Amy P. Weirich, District Attorney General; and Carrie Shelton, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          J. Ross Dyer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John Everett Williams and Camille R. McMullen, JJ., joined.


          J. ROSS DYER, JUDGE

         Facts and Procedural History

         On January 8, 2013, a Shelby County grand jury returned indictment No. 13-00001, charging the defendant with first-degree murder during the perpetration of aggravated child abuse, first-degree murder during the perpetration of aggravated child neglect, aggravated child abuse of a child eight years of age or less, and aggravated child neglect of a child eight years of age or less. The victim in the present case was the biological son of the defendant and seventeen months old at the time of his death on November 14, 2009. The jury heard proof from the State indicating the defendant knowingly inflicted severe injuries on the victim, resulting in substantial internal bleeding and, consequentially, death. The defendant argues he accidently landed on the victim when jumping over a baby gate and did not knowingly cause the victim's injuries.

         A. State's Evidence

         The State initially called Glenda Eddins, the owner of the Creative Christian Learning Center ("the day care"). The victim and his sister were enrolled at the day care at the time of the victim's death and had been for approximately four months. The day care enrollment form listed the defendant as the victim's father. Ms. Eddins testified that the victim had thrown tantrums and injured himself or other children during these incidents. Ms. Eddins noted there were no reported injuries to the victim on November 13, 2009, his last day at the day care prior to his death.

         During cross-examination, the defendant attempted to enter three accident reports from the day care detailing the victim's tantrums. The trial court permitted two of the records, finding it clear the persons who completed the forms saw the tantrums and contemporaneously reported them. The trial court, however, did not allow the third record. This record indicated that August 27, 2009, an employee of the day care, Samantha Yates, witnessed the victim throw a tantrum and hit his head on the concrete. During a jury-out hearing, the trial court determined after questioning Ms. Eddins that another employee, Adrian Fleming, actually witnessed the event. As Ms. Yates, not Ms. Fleming, prepared the report, the trial court found the record inadmissible.

         The jury then heard from Shirley Boyland, a 9-1-1 dispatcher with the Germantown Police Department. Ms. Boyland testified she handled the 9-1-1 call made by the defendant when he discovered the victim was not breathing. She dispatched paramedics to the residence. She confirmed the transcript of the 9-1-1 call was accurate and that another dispatcher, Chuck Douglas, instructed the defendant on the performance of CPR on the victim.

         The State's next witness, Chief William Beaman, with the Germantown Fire Department, entered the defendant's apartment first. After entering the apartment, Chief Beaman announced "fire department" twice, and the defendant called him upstairs. Once upstairs, Chief Beaman saw the defendant giving the victim CPR. The victim was not breathing and did not have a pulse. The victim's extremities were dark and cool to the touch indicating he had not been breathing for forty-five minutes to an hour. Chief Beaman expected to find the victim's airway blocked and was surprised to find the airway clear.

         The defendant told Chief Beaman the victim had been "fine about an hour ago." Chief Beaman began CPR on the victim as the remaining emergency crew came upstairs to assist. The defendant came into the room "a couple of times" and appeared concerned. The emergency personnel then transported the victim to the emergency room, and Lieutenant Mark Carter, another first responder, accompanied the defendant to the hospital.

         Then Lieutenant, now Captain, Mark Carter, an EMS coordinator with the Germantown Fire Department, arrived at the scene and went upstairs to join the other paramedics. He found the defendant in the room "standing over" everyone. Captain Carter took the defendant downstairs and interviewed him. The defendant told Captain Carter the victim did not have a medical history and did not take any medication except Tylenol, but had not taken any that evening

         Captain Carter asked the defendant to recount the day's events. The defendant told Captain Carter the victim played normally during the day but fell off a bike several times. Captain Carter saw the bike and opined it was large enough for a ten or twelve year-old. The defendant told Captain Carter that, after riding the bike, the victim ate a snack, watched a movie, and went to bed. Later, the defendant could not wake the victim.

         Captain Carter then gave the defendant a ride to the hospital. On the way, Captain Carter asked the defendant to go over the day's events again. This time, the defendant told Captain Carter the victim and his sister got off the bus, had a snack, and took a nap. After Captain Carter heard the defendant recount two different versions of the day's events, he informed a police officer at the hospital that detectives should interview the defendant.

         Prior to the State's next witness, the trial court conducted a jury-out hearing to determine the admissibility of photos taken during the victim's autopsy. The trial court redacted several photos by trimming those depicting the victim with his eyes open and by covering the victim's genitalia with exhibit stickers. The trial court additionally required the State to convert a photo of a subdural hemorrhage to black and white. Finally, the trial court excluded all photos in which the victim's internal injuries were visible, finding the medical examiner could instead rely on anatomical diagrams when explaining the victim's injuries to the jury.

         The State next called an expert witness, Dr. Karen Chancellor, Chief Medical Examiner for Shelby County. Dr. Chancellor performed the autopsy on the victim on November 15, 2009. Dr. Chancellor noted the victim had numerous injuries on his face, scalp, chest, and abdomen. The victim also had either one large bruise or a confluence of bruises on his abdomen. One of the injuries to the victim's head caused a hemorrhage in the deep scalp tissue, which could only occur through the application of severe force. The victim also had numerous abrasions on his body.

         Upon conducting the autopsy, Dr. Chancellor discovered the victim had about 150 to 200 cubic centimeters of blood inside his abdomen, which comprised about thirty to forty percent of the victim's total blood volume. Dr. Chancellor stated that level of blood loss would have sent the victim into shock, with death following shortly thereafter. She found fatty tissue from the mesentery floating in the blood removed from the victim's abdominal cavity. Dr. Chancellor noted this was very unusual. The mesentery, the membrane that keeps the bowels in place, was completely torn, resulting in severe internal bleeding. Dr. Chancellor noted the mesentery was a "very tough substance" and would require a severe injury to tear.

         In addition to the torn mesentery, Dr. Chancellor found bruised lung tissue; blood outside the esophagus; and hemorrhages on the large and small intestine, transverse colon, and subcutaneous and skeletal muscle tissue in the victim's abdomen. Of note, she also found the psoas muscle, a muscle running from the lower spine to the top of the leg, had been completely torn away from the spine. The psoas muscle was completely "pulpified" and the victim's spine was exposed internally. Dr. Chancellor noted she had never before seen such a severe injury to the psoas muscle. She further stated all the injuries occurred "close in time" to one another.

         Dr. Chancellor testified the cause of death was the injury to the abdomen which led to fatal internal bleeding. She did note, had the victim received immediate medical attention, there would have been a possibility of survival. When asked if the injuries could have come from falling off a bicycle, Dr. Chancellor opined such a fall could cause one, but not all, of the injuries. Over the defendant's objection, Dr. Chancellor further opined a seventeen-month-old child could not possess the developmental coordination to ride a bike. The trial court allowed this testimony after the State laid a foundation for Dr. Chancellor's expertise, which included medical training on child development. Dr. Chancellor concluded by stating the victim could not have received these injuries on his own, and the manner of death was homicide.

         The State concluded its case-in-chief with testimony from Detective Anthony Kemp, an investigator with the Germantown Police Department. Detective Kemp interviewed the defendant at the hospital shortly after the victim had been pronounced dead. Detective Kemp noted the defendant "rambled" a bit during the interview. During this interview, the defendant stated the victim fell while playing in leaves. It was not until two days later that the defendant admitted he stepped on the victim. Detective Kemp then went to the defendant's apartment where the defendant performed a reenactment of his version of events. Detective Kemp witnessed the defendant place a stuffed animal on the other side of a baby gate and jump over the gate, landing on the stuffed animal's stomach. The State played a video of this reenactment for the jury. Detective Kemp stated the defendant did not accept responsibility for the victim's death.

         B. Defendant's Evidence

         The defendant testified on his own behalf. He stated that the day the victim died, the victim and his sister were playing outside. He testified the victim fell off a bike and fell again while playing in a pile of leaves. After this, the defendant placed the victim in a room secured with a baby gate because he was worried the victim might fall down the stairs. According to the defendant, the victim often threw tantrums and hit his head. He testified that he heard a "thud" and thought the victim had climbed over the gate and fallen down the stairs. In his rush to determine what happened, the defendant jumped over the gate and landed on the victim, who was lying on the ground behind the gate. The defendant's leg buckled and his hand struck the victim's head. When the defendant landed, he heard the victim make a noise "like he had never heard before."

         The victim "looked stunned" but was breathing. The defendant tried to feed the victim who barely ate and then vomited. The defendant thought if the victim relaxed, he would be fine. He put the victim in his playpen and then went downstairs to watch a movie. When the defendant returned an hour later, he found the victim unresponsive. The defendant called the victim's grandmother, who told him to call 9-1-1. He called 9-1-1 and began performing CPR until the paramedics arrived.

         The defendant remembered being interviewed at the hospital but "everything was a blur at that point." After approximately two days of interviews, the defendant told investigators he stepped on the victim and explained he did not include this information in his initial accounts of the incident because he was ashamed. The defendant then performed the afore mentioned reenactment for police investigators. The defendant admitted he lied to law enforcement due to his embarrassment and maintained the entire incident was an accident.

         C. State's Rebuttal Evidence

         In rebuttal, the State first called Detective Ryan Carter of the Germantown Police Department. Detective Carter questioned the defendant at the hospital with Detective Kemp and then interviewed the defendant over the subsequent two days. After two days of questioning, the defendant admitted to stepping on the victim. Detectives Carter and Kemp then witnessed the defendant's reenactment of the jump. The defendant told Detective Carter that after stepping on the victim, he tried to get the victim to play outside and attempted to feed him. Noticing the victim was in distress, the defendant placed the victim in his playpen. When the defendant checked on the victim thirty minutes later, he found the victim unresponsive. According to Detective Carter, the defendant's story remained consistent after he offered this final version of events. The defendant was cooperative throughout the investigation.

         Finally the State called Dr. Karen Lakin, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Tennessee, medical director for the Le Bonheur Cares program, and a pediatrician with University Le Bonheur Pediatric Specialists. Dr. Lakin testified that the Pediatric Specialists program focused on traumatic injuries to children and worked with law enforcement and Child Protective Services when there were concerns of child abuse. Prior to Dr. Lakin's testimony, the defense objected because Dr. Lakin reviewed photographs of prior injuries the victim received before November 14 that were excluded before trial. The trial court overruled the objection and instructed Dr. Lakin to base her expert opinions on the evidence presented at trial.

         Dr. Lakin testified she was trained in differentiating a diffuse, accidental injury from a specific, direct-force injury. She opined the defendant's "accidental-stepping" account was inconsistent with the injuries listed in the autopsy report. When an "accidental-stepping" injury occurs, the child typically suffers rib fractures, radius fractures, or occasionally femur fractures. She concluded the lack of bone fractures suggested the victim's injuries were not caused by an "accidental stepping."

         Additionally, Dr. Lakin had never seen injuries to the intestines or pancreas in similar "accidental-stepping" cases. Severe and traumatic organ ruptures usually result from direct force to a specific area of contact, rather than dissipated force over a wide area. The complete rupture of the psoas muscle, the tearing of the mesentery, and the hemorrhages in multiple parts of the body were not typical "accidental-stepping" injuries. Dr. Lakin noted a rupture of the psoas muscle was highly unusual and the type of injury more often caused by a car accident.

         On cross-examination, Dr. Lakin stated a direct blow would likely cause more damage than a 250-pound man falling on an infant. However, Dr. Lakin conceded she did not have the biomechanical training necessary to determine the exact pounds of force required to cause the victim's injuries. According to Dr. Lakin, if the defendant did step on the victim, only an "extremely violent and severe" impact could have caused the injuries.

         D. Jury Instructions

         The trial court charged the jury with the four count indictment and instructed the jury on the necessary law. The trial court also instructed the jury on the lesser included offenses for each count, which on at least three occasions included the definition of "knowing." However, the trial court did not provide a definition for "knowing" under count three, aggravated child abuse.

         The jury found the defendant guilty as charged on all four counts and sentenced him to life imprisonment under count one. The trial court merged count two with count one and count four with count three and sentenced the defendant to twenty-two years at one-hundred percent. The defendant filed a motion for judgment of acquittal and a motion for new trial, the trial court overruled both. This timely appeal followed.


         On appeal, the defendant challenges his conviction on seven grounds. First, the trial court committed reversible error when excluding a day care accident report indicating the victim injured himself two months prior to his death. Second, the trial court erred when allowing the jury to view post-mortem photographs detailing the victim's injuries. Third, the trial court erred when allowing the medical examiner to testify regarding the victim's developmental capacity, and a pediatrician specializing in the treatment of child abuse injuries to testify regarding the biomechanics of the victim's injuries. Fourth, the State failed to properly elect the "substantial bodily injuries" inflicted to satisfy the elements of aggravated child abuse. Fifth, there was insufficient evidence the defendant knowingly inflicted all of the victim's injuries to support the jury's verdict. Sixth, the trial court erred when failing to define the mens rea required to prove aggravated child abuse. Finally, the cumulative effect of these errors denied the defendant a fair trial. We disagree and affirm the judgments of the trial court.

         A. Day Care Accident Report

         We first consider whether the trial court erred when excluding a day care accident report because the teacher who prepared the report was not the same teacher that witnessed the reported tantrum. The Tennessee Rules of Evidence define hearsay as "a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted." Tenn. R. Evid. 801(c). "Hearsay evidence is not admissible except as provided by [the Tennessee Rules of Evidence] or otherwise by law." Tenn. R. Evid. 802. The day care's accident report constituted hearsay evidence that was not admissible ...

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