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State v. Phillips

Supreme Court of South Carolina

February 17, 2016

The State, Respondent,
Donna Lynn Phillips, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2015-000351

Heard December 3, 2015


Appeal from Pickens County The Honorable D. Garrison Hill, Circuit Court Judge

E. Charles Grose, Jr., of The Grose Law Firm, of Greenwood, for Petitioner.

Attorney General Alan M. Wilson and Assistant Attorney General J. Benjamin Aplin, both of Columbia, for Respondent.


Donna Lynn Phillips was convicted of homicide by child abuse and sentenced to twenty-five years' imprisonment in the death of her grandson (Child). The court of appeals affirmed her conviction. State v. Phillips, 411 S.C. 124, 767 S.E.2d 444 (Ct. App. 2014). Phillips now argues the court of appeals erred in affirming the denial of her motion for directed verdict because it considered the testimony offered by a co-defendant as well as Phillips' own testimony in its analysis. Although we agree the court of appeals erred in disregarding State v. Hepburn, 406 S.C. 416, 753 S.E.2d 402 (2013), we ultimately find the denial of Phillips' directed verdict motion was proper and we affirm as modified.


On Monday, March 17, 2008, paramedics responded to a 911 call reporting a child not breathing. Upon arriving at the house, paramedics encountered Latasha Honeycutt, Child's mother, outside on the porch. After entering the home they discovered twenty-one-month-old Child lying on the floor of his bedroom "all alone, cold, not breathing, no pulse, just laying [sic] there." Child was transported to Baptist Easley Hospital and was determined to be in an opiate-induced cardiac arrest. After resuscitation, Child was taken by helicopter to Greenville Memorial Hospital. Ultimately Child was pronounced brain dead and removed from life support; the cause of his death was documented as a hydrocodone[1] overdose.

During the course of the police investigation, it was discovered that Child had been in the care of his father, Jamie Morris, and his paternal grandmother, Phillips, the weekend preceding his death. At that time, Phillips had a prescription for Tussionex[2], which contains hydrocodone and she was eventually arrested and charged with homicide by child abuse. The State proceeded to trial against Phillips, who was tried jointly with Morris, who was charged with aiding and abetting homicide by child abuse, and Honeycutt, who was likewise charged with homicide by child abuse.

At trial, the State presented the testimony of Detective Rita Burgess of the Pickens County Sheriff's Office, who interviewed and took statements from the three defendants. Honeycutt told her Child was with Morris and Phillips from the afternoon of Friday, March 14, 2008, until the evening of Sunday, March 16, 2008. She stated that when Child arrived home around 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m., he was fussy and extremely sleepy; therefore, Honeycutt immediately put him to bed. She checked on him when she woke up around 8:30 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. the following morning, but he was still sleeping. She returned at 11:00 a.m., found Child unresponsive, and awoke Brandon Roper, her boyfriend who lived with her; at that point she called 911.

Phillips spoke with Detective Burgess at Greenville Memorial Hospital and told her Child had trouble sleeping and experienced "frightmares" where he would wake up fighting and crying. Phillips further stated Child had a cough and seemed congested, so Morris gave him generic Tylenol[3] on Sunday. Detective Burgess also noted that during their conversation, Phillips made "random statements" about Lortab, and that she hoped "[Child] didn't get any of her Lortab" or "she hoped [Child] did not get her sister's Lortab.[4]"

Charlie Lark, an investigative consultant in Pickens County, also testified about his interviews with Phillips and Morris. He noted that Morris informed him Phillips had a prescription for cough medication, but Morris stated he never saw Phillips medicate Child over the course of the weekend. Morris further explained Phillips kept her Tussionex in a wire-mesh pumpkin at the top of her closet. Although Phillips retrieved the medication on two occasions in Child's presence, Morris did not see Child ingest any of Phillips' medication; however, he did note that Child played with the Tussionex bottle while Phillips had it out of the pumpkin. Additionally, Lark stated Phillips informed him Child played with her "medicine bottles, " but the tops were on them so she did not believe he could have ingested anything. She further stated although she was concerned she may have dropped a bottle on the floor and Child picked it up, she never witnessed him consume any medication.

Two witnesses testified as to the results from the tests performed on Child's blood and urine samples. The supervisor of the chemistry department at Baptist Easley Hospital testified about the drug screen performed on Child's urine and noted the results indicated the presence of hydromorphone, which is a metabolite of the opiate hydrocodone. Robert Foery, a forensic toxicologist, testified as to tests performed on the urine and blood taken from Child. Foery stated the tests revealed chlorpheniramine[5] and hydrocodone in the blood, as well as hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and chlorpheniramine in the urine. Foery stated hydrocodone and chlorphenaramine are both found in Tussionex. He further testified that the concentration of hydrocodone in Child's blood was 102 nanograms per milliliter and that the therapeutic range for an adult is 10 to 40 nanograms per milliliter. Foery could not opine on the dosage that was likely administered to Child, but stated he believed this could have been a repetitive dosing. Additionally, he testified the first dose would have been given some twenty-four to thirty-six ...

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