Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Court: Mother Not Criminally Responsible for Drowning Death of Toddler
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
A three-year-old’s drowning death in a backyard swimming pool was not the result of criminal negligence by her mother, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held yesterday.
Ruling that the charge was not supported by probable cause, Div. Two in an unpublished opinion affirmed Riverside Superior Court Judge Elisabeth Sichel’s decision to grant Xianlian Huang’s motion to set aside the information charging Huang in her daughter’s death.
Huang and her daughter were at Tsai-Yen Chou’s house for a weekly Bible study along with 10 to 12 other children who were playing in Chou’s backyard.
The yard contained a swimming pool, encircled by a six-foot tall fence, and three gates with self-closing springs led into the pool area.
Some of the children entered the pool area, and Chou later told detectives that she saw the children there through the rear window of the house.
A detective testified that Chou said she ushered the children out of the area and closed the gate herself. Chou testified that she asked the children to secure the gate.
The children came into the house to eat, and at around 7:30 Huang’s daughter asked Huang for help putting on her jacket and shoes so that she could go outside to play again.
One detective testified that Chou said Huang gave her daughter permission to go into the backyard, and Chou testified to this as well. Another detective testified that Huang had initially said she did not give her daughter permission to go back outside, but later told the detective that she did.
No specific adult was responsible for watching over the children, but adults were constantly walking between the kitchen, dining room, and family room.
At some point between 8:30 and 8:45 p.m., someone in the backyard screamed and Chou ran into the backyard where she saw Huang’s daughter’s body floating in the pool. Subsequent investigation revealed that the springs on two of the gates leading to the pool area were malfunctioning.
A detective testified that Huang had said she knew the gates to the pool did not work the night of the drowning.
Chou testified that she had been unaware of the gates’ failure.
A magistrate held Huang to answer for one count of felony child abuse in violation of Penal Code Sec. 273(a). However, Sichel found no probable cause that Huang had acted with the requisite “culpable state of mind” and granted Huang’s Sec. 995 motion.
Writing for the majority on appeal, Justice Jeffrey King explained that the “fundamental requirement” to affix criminal responsibility is actual or imputed knowledge that defendant’s act “tended to endanger life.”
There was no evidence that Chou was aware that the gates were not functioning properly prior to the drowning, King wrote, and based upon the facts known to Huang at the time her daughter entered in the backyard alone, there was no way the three-year-old could get into the pool area.
“While defendant obviously could have exercised more caution in the supervision of her daughter, her behavior did not rise to the level of criminal negligence,” King reasoned, noting that under the circumstances presented, it was not unreasonable to permit the children to play unsupervised in the backyard.
Justice Douglas P. Miller joined King in his opinion, but Presiding Justice Manual A. Ramirez dissented.
Noting Chou’s inconsistent statements regarding who closed the gate and a detective’s affidavit stating that the gates were rusted, painted over, and had to be pushed in order to close, Ramirez said that “any reasonable inspection by the owner or anyone else (including the defendant) would have revealed the problem.”
He also emphasized Huang’s admission that she was aware of the defects in the gate.
“No one, including the majority, can make this admission by the defendant ‘go away,’” he wrote. “It is there, it is part of the record, and it supports the magistrate’s ruling.”
Further, Ramirez wrote, there was “not one iota of evidence” that even if Chou had secured the gates or had one of the children do so, she communicated this information to Huang.
Even if she had, Ramirez continued, one of the other children could have opened a functioning gate and allowed the victim to enter the pool area, and Ramirez reasoned that this was an “inherent danger” in permitting the toddler to play in the yard unsupervised, with the other children.
“The fact that the defendant allowed her three year old to wander the house and yards, after dark, unattended for over one hour, without once checking on her…demonstrates her criminal negligence,” Ramirez concluded.
The case is People v. Huang, E043040.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company