May 21, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Constructive Amendment to Charges Does Not Require Reversal Where No Plain Error

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Weeks on Thursday, June 18, 2015.

Death of a Child—Other Acts Evidence—Jury Instruction—Indictment—Pattern of Conduct—Expert Medical Testimony—Substitution of Counsel.

Defendant appealed the judgment of conviction entered on jury verdicts finding him guilty of first-degree murder and child abuse. Defendant’s convictions arose out the death of his 3-year-old daughter, A.M., who was declared brain dead after she was physically abused after urinating in her bed.

On appeal, defendant contended that reversal was required because the trial court erroneously admitted evidence of other acts showing that defendant had physically punished his other daughters and family pets for urinating and/or vomiting in the house. This other-acts evidence was properly admitted to show intent, knowledge, and absence of mistake or accident pursuant to CRE 404(b), and the incidents were sufficiently similar and numerous to be probative of an issue that was in dispute. Further, the evidence was logically relevant to disprove defendant’s claim that A.M.’s death was accidental.

Defendant also contended that his conviction and sentence for child abuse must be reversed or vacated because the court’s elemental jury instruction on child abuse effected a constructive amendment of the charge contained in the indictment. Defendant was charged in the indictment with all three categories of abuse. Varying slightly from the text of CRS § 18-6-401(1)(a), however, the indictment did not listmalnourishment and lack of proper medical care as the effects of defendant’s continued pattern of conduct against A.M. Moreover, the instruction included the two statutory effects that had been omitted from the indictment. Therefore, the instruction constructively amended the indictment. However, because defendant did not object to the instructions in the trial court, reversal was not warranted.

Defendant contended there was insufficient evidence of a causal connection between defendant’s pattern of conduct and A.M.’s death to support his conviction. The last phrase of CRS § 18-6-401(1)(a) (“ultimately results in the death of a child or serious bodily injury to a child”) applies only to the last enumerated pattern of abuse (“an accumulation of injuries”). The other enumerated patterns of abuse do not require a showing that they resulted in death or serious bodily injury. Therefore, it was sufficient for the prosecution to show that defendant engaged in a pattern of conduct that resulted in mistreatment and cruel punishment of A.M., which ultimately resulted in A.M.’s death.

Defendant also argued that the trial court erred in permitting expert medical testimony on an ultimate issue to be determined by the jury. It was not an abuse of discretion to allow four medical experts to testify that A.M.’s injuries were not accidental. These experts did not give an opinion regarding whether defendant inflicted A.M.’s injuries or whether those injuries fit the legal definition of child abuse.

Defendant argued that the court deprived him of his right to conflict-free counsel, to present a defense, and to testify when it denied his midtrial request for a substitution of counsel. An actual conflict does not arise when trial counsel pursues a strategy that would impede a defendant’s right to testify, even over the defendant’s protest. Any alleged conflict did not deprive defendant of the right to testify and call witnesses. Consequently, the trial court did not error in denying defendant’s request for new counsel. The judgment of conviction was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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