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State v. Thompson

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

May 11, 2017

The State, Respondent,
v.
Courtney Shante Thompson, Appellant, and The State, Respondent,
v.
Robert Antonio Guinyard, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2014-001198

          Heard March 8, 2017

         Appeal from Richland County Robert E. Hood, Circuit Court Judge.

          Mitzi Campbell Williams, of Lexington; and Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek, of Columbia, for Appellant Courtney Shante Thompson.

          Matthew G. Gerrald, of Barnes, Alford, Stork & Johnson, LLP; and Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek, both of Columbia, for Appellant Robert Antonio Guinyard.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Special Assistant Attorney General Amie L. Clifford; and Solicitor Daniel E. Johnson, all of Columbia, for Respondent.

          GEATHERS, J.

         Appellants, Courtney Shante Thompson (Mother) and Robert Antonio Guinyard (Father), were tried jointly and convicted of homicide by child abuse (HCA) and unlawful conduct toward a child. They now seek review of their convictions, arguing the trial court erred in denying their respective motions for a directed verdict on each charge because the State failed to present substantial circumstantial evidence of guilt. Appellants also challenge the admission of photographs of their son (Victim) pursuant to Rule 403, SCRE, arguing any probative value the photographs may have had was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.[1] We affirm.

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         At approximately 6:15 p.m. on July 1, 2013, Richland County Emergency Medical Services received a call to respond to a cardiac arrest at Appellants' home. When first responders arrived at the home, they found Victim, a four-year-old boy, lying on the floor in the living room. He was wearing jeans, but no shirt. Victim was not moving or breathing, he had no pulse, and he was cold to the touch. A paramedic checked Victim's heart for electrical activity, but tragically, she found none. Subsequently, investigators from the Richland County Sheriff's Department found Victim's blood on the walls of the living room, hallway, and rear bedroom as well as on a white metal pipe that also had Father's blood on it.[2]

         Mother gave her first statement to police at 9:45 p.m. on July 1, 2013. In her statement, she indicated that she went to Richland Memorial Hospital on June 29, 2013 to give birth to another child and was discharged from the hospital on July 1, 2013 in the early afternoon. She further indicated that after she arrived home, she discovered Victim had wet the floor in the play room. She alleged Victim was autistic and would soil and wet his surroundings. She also alleged she got in the shower and started washing off when she "heard a loud noise like a tumbling fall." She stated she got out of the shower and found Victim on the floor in the play room with his feet toward the dresser. She further stated,

He was crunched up and his body was stiff. His butt was up in the air[, ] and he was [kind of] on his head. . . . He was biting his lip hard. . . . When I popped his lip out from his teeth to keep him from biting it off[, ] he went flat on me. He just dropped. . . . He was not responding. . . . I picked [Victim] up like he was a baby and took him to the front room (living room). Blood was coming from his lip. I had blood on my hand and went to my room to get my phone off the floor. I called 911. They told me how to do CPR. I did what he told me. . . . When [the ambulance] got there[, ] they put something on his chest[, ] and they did not do nothing. They just said that he was gone.

         Father also gave a statement to police on July 1, 2013. He alleged he was cooking dinner earlier that evening when he heard a "boom." Mother allegedly came down the hallway with Victim in her arms and Victim "was in and out." Father further alleged that after Mother called 911, he hid in a closet with the new baby because he was afraid the baby would be taken away.

         On July 2, 2013, Dr. Amy Durso, a forensic pathologist, performed Victim's autopsy and reported the cause of death as "[e]xtensive soft tissue hemorrhage and bleeding . . . due to multiple acute and healing blunt force injuries due to non-accidental trauma." Later that day, police investigators went over the autopsy results with Mother, who then gave a second statement, explaining to investigators that her first statement "was not the truth." Mother alleged that when she came home from the hospital, she found Victim naked, lying in a puddle of urine, and "very weak." Victim allegedly was drinking water "like he had not had water in days. . . . His feet, legs, knee, butt, and arms were swollen and kind of blue. [Victim] was just out of it." Mother further alleged that after she went to take a shower, she heard Victim

crying like he was in pain and getting hit. I jumped out of the shower. [Victim] was stretched out on the floor in my room. I stood [Victim] up and he dropped to his knees. [Victim] was breathing funny. [Victim] fell to the floor. . . . [Victim] was walking down the hall[, ] and he collapsed after taking about three steps. [Victim] balled up[, ] and it looked like he was having a seizure. . . . I talked [to Victim] that morning at around 11 [a.m.] and my son told me that he was beaten with a pole. . . . When I got home[, ] I saw blood flecks on the walls in the play room[, ] [o]n the walls in the [hallway, ] and on my room door. There was blood on the closet door in my room[, ] and the door had a hole in the middle. There was blood in the carpet.

         Later that evening, Appellants were arrested and charged with HCA and unlawful conduct toward a child.

         On July 5, 2013, Victim's paternal grandmother, Patricia Guinyard, asked police to accompany her to Appellants' home to collect some clothes for Father and Appellants' newborn child. According to the police investigators accompanying Mrs. Guinyard, she was going through a large pile of clothing in Appellants' master bedroom closet when she found a child's size 5 shirt, still wet with blood, buried in the pile. DNA testing indicated the blood on the child's shirt was Victim's blood.

         Appellants were tried together on May 19-28, 2014. At trial, the State presented the testimony of Dr. Olga Rosa, a forensic pediatrician who was qualified as an expert in child abuse pediatrics. Dr. Rosa reviewed Victim's medical records from his birth on April 18, 2009 through September 11, 2012, his last known doctor visit. Dr. Rosa also reviewed Victim's developmental records and genetic counseling records, photographs relating to Victim's death, and Dr. Durso's autopsy report. Dr. Rosa testified that the Department of Social Services (DSS) placed Victim in foster care on June 19, 2009, when he was only two months old, and DSS returned Victim to Appellants' care on April 6, 2012. According to Mother, DSS placed Victim in foster care because of an incident in which Victim almost fell out of the vehicle she was driving.

         With the exception of some initial instability, Victim thrived during his time in foster care. Dr. Rosa stated that Victim was not autistic. She explained that Victim failed an autism screening test at his eighteen-month well-child checkup merely because he was having speech difficulties at the time, which is common for children in foster care. Dr. Rosa also stated that by March 2012, Victim was "growing well." Dr. Rosa reported,

His growth parameters [were] great. . . . He [was] toilet trained, and he [was] speaking . . . in two to three word sentences, complete sentences. He [was] interacting. He [was] socialized . . . he [had] what we call social [adaptive] skills, so he [could] interact with same age peers, with adults, with his teachers at the level of almost a three-year-old.

         However, soon after DSS returned Victim to Appellants in April 2012, he began regressing. Denise Jones, Victim's last foster mother, testified she spoke to Mother over the telephone a couple of days after DSS returned Victim to Appellants. Mother told Jones that Victim would not use the bathroom. Jones told Mother that Victim was using the bathroom when he was living with her and asked Mother to let her know if she needed any help. However, Jones never heard from Mother again. Similarly, Dr. Monica McCutcheon, who saw Victim for his three-year-old well-child checkup in September 2012, testified Mother reported Victim "was having some issues with wetting and soiling himself" and complained that his speech "was not as good as his two-year-old sibling."

         Family members gave several eyewitness accounts of Appellants' abuse of Victim. Two of Mother's sisters, Natalie and Maria, testified and indicated that except for "a couple of weeks" when Victim lived with Natalie, [3] Victim lived with Appellants from April 2012 until his death. Natalie explained that she took Victim into her own home for a while because Mother was frustrated with Victim soiling and wetting the floors in the house. Natalie and Maria also witnessed Mother beating Victim. Natalie took photographs of the resulting bruises to show to DSS.

         Natalie also testified that Mother told her she wanted Victim "to go back to DSS so they could give him a beating and a killing and a raping." Natalie stated she had seen Father hit Victim, but "in the way [] a father should, he smacked him in the back of the head, but not to hurt him." However, she admitted she told police that Father "would beat [Victim]." Natalie also stated Appellants would hit Victim because he had problems with wetting and soiling himself and his surroundings. Additionally, Natalie recounted stories of Appellants depriving Victim of food and Victim having to be careful not to get caught eating anything.

         Angela Metze, the grandmother of Victim's half-sister, testified she observed Victim shortly after DSS returned him to Appellants in April 2012, and he appeared to be a happy, healthy, well-nourished child. However, she noticed that over the course of the following year, Victim lost a significant amount of weight and became withdrawn. In February 2013, Metze received photographs showing bruises and scars on Victim's back. She contacted DSS several times, and she shared the photographs with a pediatrician, who also contacted DSS.

         Mother's other sister, Crystal, lived with Appellants from April 2012 to October 2012. According to Crystal, during this period, Mother once asked her to hold Victim's legs so Mother could "whoop him" for soiling his surroundings and "playing in it." Crystal refused to do so and left. Additionally, Crystal witnessed Father punch Victim and make Victim sit on the toilet for three hours. Crystal also recounted an occasion when Mother stated that she did not care "if the retarded bastard died" and if DSS did not take Victim, "she was going to kill him and bury him so DSS would not take her other baby."

         Crystal spoke to Mother over the telephone on the afternoon of July 1, 2013 after Mother returned from the hospital with her newborn, and Mother told her she was going to take a shower. According to data retrieved from Mother's cell phone, this call occurred at 5:05 p.m., a little over an hour before Mother made the 911 call. After Mother and Crystal ended their call, Mother's cell phone inadvertently dialed Crystal's phone number, and Crystal overheard Victim "getting beat" and crying out "Lord, help me, " along with Mother telling Victim, "Hush." Crystal then heard Mother and Father talking to each other. Crystal subsequently ended the call.

         Dr. Durso testified that during Victim's autopsy, her external examination revealed several scars over Victim's head; orbital contusions (a/k/a black eyes); lacerations to his lips; deep injuries on the inside of his lower lip; several scars on his arms; several abrasions on his torso, buttocks, and lower legs; a healing bite mark on his back, which, based on the size of the mark, was inflicted by a teen or adult; and a swollen knee. Dr. Durso's internal examination revealed a pale thyroid gland, which indicated heavy blood loss; two rib fractures, one occurring between ten days and six weeks prior to Victim's death and the other occurring within twenty-four hours prior to death; and a healing fracture to his upper left arm, one to two weeks old, overladen with an acute hemorrhage, indicating a site of repeated injury.

         Additional injuries revealed in the internal examination were multiple bruises to Victim's head, an indicator of abuse;[4] a subdural hemorrhage, [5] indicating a significant blunt force impact and dating from five to seven days prior to death; and profuse "bleeding and hemorrhage" in the soft tissues of Victim's lower back, his buttocks, the backs of his legs, and the backs of his arms, which confirmed suspected multiple bruises Dr. Durso noticed in these areas during the external examination. The soft tissue injuries with bright red or dark red hemorrhaging were "probably less than eighteen to twenty-four hours old" and the injuries with yellow hemorrhaging were older and could not be dated. Dr. Durso explained that the combined new and old soft tissue hemorrhaging "contributed to the blood loss of [Victim] so . . . he [was] no longer able to circulate enough blood to give [whatever oxygen] he need[ed] to his brain to maintain his vital functions in his body."

         Dr. Durso stated that in the one to two weeks prior to his death, Victim would not have been able to use his left arm due to it being fractured and he would have been guarding that arm because it would have been extremely painful.[6] Dr. Durso also stated any caregiver would have noticed that (1) Victim was not using that arm, (2) he was in pain, and (3) he was not acting "like a normal four-year-old." Additionally, the subdural hemorrhage that occurred five to seven days before Victim's death would have placed enough pressure on Victim's brain to cause lethargy, possible vomiting, and possible temporary unconsciousness "after the blow." According to Dr. Durso, a parent would notice these symptoms and recognize that his or her child "was not acting right."

         Dr. Durso concluded that Victim's injuries had been intentionally inflicted; Victim had been chronically abused; anyone coming in contact with Victim would have noticed the excruciating pain Victim experienced as a result of the multiple soft tissue injuries; and if he had received medical attention before his final beating, his life could have been saved. She further explained, "You have a limit on how much blood you can lose. When you go over that limit and your brain is no longer getting that blood supply, that's when he would have died, that last bit of blood that came out into his soft tissues after that beating."

         Dr. Rosa largely corroborated Dr. Durso's findings. Dr. Rosa stated that from seventy-two hours to a week before Victim's death, he would have shown symptoms of the subdural hemorrhage and a subarachnoid hemorrhage, [7] including nausea, vomiting, lethargy, drowsiness, headaches, possible seizures, and abnormal limb movements. Dr. Rosa also stated Victim would have vocalized his pain from his two rib fractures, one of which was ten days to six weeks old and the other occurring within twenty-four hours before his death. Further, Victim's arm fracture would have prevented him from appropriately using his arm.

         Dr. Rosa opined that the physical abuse inflicted on Victim during the last two months of his life caused his death. She also explained that in the days leading up to his death, it would have been obvious to anyone that something was wrong with Victim and he needed medical treatment, even if his bruising and scars were not easily visible. If Victim had been taken to a doctor during the several days before his death, ultimately, Dr. Rosa would have been consulted and Victim could have been saved.

         At the conclusion of the State's case-in-chief, Appellants made their respective directed verdict motions, and they renewed these motions at the appropriate times. However, the trial court denied the motions, and the jury ultimately returned guilty verdicts against Appellants on the charged offenses. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for HCA and ten years for unlawful conduct toward a child. The trial court ordered Mother's ten-year sentence to run consecutively to her life sentence and Father's ten-year sentence to run concurrently to his life sentence. These appeals followed.

         ISSUES ON APPEAL

         1. Was there substantial circumstantial evidence of Mother's guilt to justify the trial court's denial of her directed verdict motion?

         2. Was there substantial circumstantial evidence of Father's guilt to justify the trial court's ...


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