Tuesday, May 11, 2010
S.C. Reinstates Man’s Conviction for Death of Infant Son
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The state high court yesterday reinstated an Oakland man’s assault conviction for causing the death of his 14-month old son during a bout of play-wrestling.
In his decision for the court, Justice Marvin R. Baxter explained that the First District Court of Appeal misapplied the mens rea standard for assault when it reversed Reginald Wyatt’s conviction for child abuse homicide.
Wyatt’s son was rushed to the hospital in May 2003 after he stopped breathing, but could not be revived. A subsequent autopsy indicated that the baby died of shock and hemorrhage due to blunt force trauma to the chest and abdomen.
Wyatt told police that he had been rough-housing with the boy because he wanted his son to be more “active” and was trying to “toughen him up.” He admitted performing a “body-slam,” “atomic elbow,” and a “knee drop” on the baby, as well as repeatedly performing a “suplex,” which involved grabbing the child and flipping him onto the bed.
Throughout this time, Wyatt insisted, the baby was smiling and laughing, but expert witnesses for the prosecution opined at trial that a child would be expected to react to the types of injuries sustained by Wyatt’s son by crying and clearly demonstrating distress.
A jury found Wyatt guilty of involuntary manslaughter and assault of a child causing death. Alameda Superior Court Judge Jon R. Rolefson sentenced Wyatt to 25 years to life for the child abuse homicide count and stayed Wyatt’s sentence for involuntary manslaughter.
The First District’s Div. Two later reversed Wyatt’s conviction for violating Penal Code Sec. 273ab, ruling that the evidence was insufficient to show Wyatt had “actual knowledge” that he was “wrestling far too hard with his young son.”
Sec. 273ab defines the offense of child abuse homicide as the assault of a child by a person having care or custody of the child by means of force that a reasonable person would know was likely to inflict great bodily injury and that results in the death of the child.
Baxter reasoned that the requisite mens rea for a Sec. 273ab offense was established in People v. Williams (2001) 26 Cal.4th 779, which held that a defendant may commit an assault without realizing he was harming the victim, but that the prosecution must prove the defendant was aware of facts that would lead a reasonable person to realize that a battery would directly, naturally, and probably result from the defendant‘s conduct.
The justice emphasized that a defendant “need not know or be subjectively aware that his act is capable of causing great bodily injury,” adding that “the requisite mens rea may be found even when the defendant honestly believes his act is not likely to result in such injury.”
Baxter posited that the nature and extensiveness of the child’s internal injuries provided sufficient evidence that Wyatt used an amount of force a reasonable person would believe was likely to result in great bodily injury on a young child. He noted that Wyatt, by his own account, was fully aware that he was striking his son a number of times with his fist, forearm, knee and elbow, and that physical evidence demonstrated that the infant suffered extensive injuries that were likely caused by multiple impacts or instances of blunt force trauma.
Any failure by Wyatt to realize that he was hurting and fatally injuring his son was “of no consequence,” the justice added.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, who dissented in part to the Williams decision, wrote separately agreeing that the outcome was compelled by the holding of Williams.
The case is People v. Wyatt, 10 S.O.S. 2457.
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