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State v. Blackwell

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

June 13, 2019


          Assigned on Briefs April 2, 2019

          Appeal from the Criminal Court for Shelby County No. 13-06191 W. Mark Ward, Judge

         The Defendant, Christian Blackwell, was convicted by a Shelby County Criminal Court jury of rape of a child, a Class A felony, and sentenced to twenty-five years in the Tennessee Department of Correction. On appeal, he argues the trial court erred in excluding unrelated allegations of sexual abuse made by the victim's sister, in admitting the victim's forensic interview into evidence, and that the evidence is insufficient to support his conviction. After review, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

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

          Jessica L. Gillentine, Bartlett, Tennessee, and Benjamin Israel, Memphis, Tennessee (on appeal), and Thomas E. Hansom, Memphis, Tennessee, (at trial), for the appellant, Christian Blackwell.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Caitlin Smith, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Amy P. Weirich, District Attorney General; and Lessie Rainey, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Alan E. Glenn, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John Everett Williams, P.J., and Timothy L. Easter, J., joined.


          ALAN E. GLENN, JUDGE


         The Defendant was indicted for rape of a child based on allegations that he put his penis in the victim, his sister's, mouth after blindfolding her.

         Hearing on Motion to Admit Forensic Interview

         Carla Coleman, an investigator with the Department of Children's Services ("DCS"), testified that she received a referral in January 2013 regarding allegations of sexual abuse of the victim by the Defendant and psychological harm to the victim by her grandmother. DCS later determined that the allegations of psychological harm to the victim by her grandmother were unsubstantiated.

         Ms. Coleman testified that she visited the victim's home and interviewed her. The victim's mother, the victim's mother's boyfriend, and three of the victim's siblings were present in the house that day. She spoke with the victim in private and asked her whether anyone had ever "done anything" to her. The victim disclosed that the Defendant, her brother, had sexually abused her. The victim provided Ms. Coleman with information that was consistent with the initial report of abuse. The interview lasted approximately ten minutes and was not recorded. After speaking with the victim, Ms. Coleman spoke with the victim's siblings, individually, as well as the victim's mother. She then scheduled a forensic interview for approximately two weeks later. Ms. Coleman conducted background checks on the victim's mother, grandmother and the Defendant, but not on the victim's mother's boyfriend.

         Ms. Coleman testified that the victim's mother brought the victim to the forensic interview, and the victim's mother's boyfriend and a sibling were present as well. Ms. Coleman explained the process to the victim and her family, but she did not ask the victim any questions about the abuse because she did not want her to reach the point of being unwilling to talk during the forensic interview. Ms. Coleman observed the interview, and the victim's account was consistent with what she had previously disclosed to Ms. Coleman. Ms. Coleman acknowledged that the victim's family had previous interactions with DCS, but she could not recall the details of those allegations.

         Letitia Cole, a forensic interviewer with the Memphis Child Advocacy Center, conducted the forensic interview of the victim, who was seven years old at the time. No one else was present during the interview, and it was recorded. She asked open-ended questions to avoid leading the victim, and the victim gave age-appropriate responses.

         Ms. Cole recalled that the victim told her that "her brother made her put her mouth on his penis." Before making this disclosure, Ms. Cole showed the victim anatomical diagrams of the human body, and at first the victim said that "no one ever touched her anywhere on her body." They discussed the male anatomical diagram, and the victim said that she had not "seen the penis or the behind[.]" Ms. Cole asked the victim who she could tell if someone did something to her that was not okay, and the victim answered that she could tell her mother and grandmother. Ms. Cole then asked the victim if she had ever told her mother and grandmother that someone had done something to her and that was when the victim disclosed what had happened with the Defendant.

         Ms. Cole testified that during the interview, the victim seemed well-oriented to time and place, although she was confused as to the year, thinking it was 2012 when it was 2013. The victim recalled that the incident happened when the Defendant was home visiting from college, but she did not know the name of the school he attended. The victim said, "He's not really 18. He's like an eight and a zero." Ms. Cole asked the victim how she knew that the Defendant had put his penis into her mouth if she was blindfolded. The victim responded that God had told her but also that she had looked down from under the tie and could see. Ms. Cole stated that she asked follow up questions to clarify some of the victim's responses.

         The victim was nine years old at the time of the hearing. She confirmed that she understood the difference between the truth and a lie. The victim recalled watching part of the video of the forensic interview at the prosecutor's office. She remembered that a woman named Lois was present while she watched the video, and a man was there for a portion of the video as well. She said that she was "[s]ort of" scared when she watched the video, and that one of the prosecutors got upset with her when she did not remember things and told her "[y]ou have got to remember that." She testified that she was telling the truth when she answered the questions in the video.

         The victim recalled watching part of the video again in defense counsel's office; it was muted so she could not hear the sound. The victim recognized herself in the video, but she did not recognize the interviewer or remember being with the interviewer. The victim said that she did not remember any questions that the interviewer asked or any of her answers. The victim confirmed that the interview took place two years prior, when she was seven years old. The victim remembered talking to defense counsel about her saying in the video that the Defendant would lock the bathroom door but that the door, in fact, will not lock. She said that she did not remember talking about the Defendant locking the bathroom door during the interview but that she did not try to lie about anything. The victim confirmed that it was her in the video and that she was telling the truth when she answered the questions in the video, although she could not remember the questions and answers at this point in time.


         Sergeant Katie McKinnie with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office Sex Crimes Division investigated the allegations of abuse of the victim in February 2013. The complaint came as a referral from DCS. The victim's mother was the one who made the original complaint, and it involved two of her children – the seven-year-old victim and eighteen-year-old Defendant. The victim's mother reported that the rape had occurred on January 9, 2013. The complaint was made outside of the 72-hour window to obtain a sexual assault examination. Sergeant McKinnie reached out to the victim's mother about scheduling a forensic interview with the victim, and she was "[v]ery cooperative." She attempted to speak with the Defendant but was unable to reach him. ...

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