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Wyatt v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 6, 2017

WYATT
v.
THE STATE.

          HUNSTEIN, Justice.

         Appellant John Randall Wyatt was tried and convicted of murder in connection with the death of 2-year-old Andrea Marginean.[1] Wyatt appeals, claiming that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction and that the trial court erred by allowing the State's medical expert to offer opinion testimony concerning Shaken Baby Syndrome. Finding no error, we affirm.

         1. Wyatt first alleges that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support his conviction. Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence adduced at trial established as follows. In April 2009, Wyatt was in a relationship with Nicoleta Cosma, formerly Nicoleta Marginean. Nicoleta lived in Lawrenceville, Gwinnett County, Georgia with her three children: 7-year-old Anthony, 5-year-old Daniel, and 2-year-old Andrea. Periodically, Wyatt would stay at the house and watch the children while Nicoleta went to work.

         On April 11, 2009, Nicoleta left Wyatt at home with her children while she went to work. When she returned home, Nicoleta found 2-year-old Andrea lying on the corner of her mother's bed. When Nicoleta lifted Andrea from the bed, the child had no control of her head, her breathing sounding a little congested, and she was unresponsive to her mother's voice. Nicoleta noticed a new, circular bruise on the child's cheek, as well as bruising and a large red spot on the child's back. Wyatt made varying statements concerning how Andrea sustained her injuries, including that the child: was sick; had slipped in the bathroom and hit her nose, affecting her breathing; and, that while attempting to change the child's diaper in the bathroom, he turned to wash his hands at which time she "freaked out" because she does not like water or bathing and began banging her head on the toilet.

         Nicoleta took Andrea, who was stiffening and unresponsive, to Gwinnett Medical Center. Doctors found bruises on Andrea's face, chin, forehead, groin area, right arm, and multiple bruises on her lower extremities. After a CT scan revealed severe brain injuries, the child was taken to Scottish Rite Children's Hospital for immediate surgical intervention. Despite this, the child died of severe brain injuries on April 14, 2009.

         During their investigation into Andrea's death, law enforcement spoke with Nicoleta's sons Anthony and Daniel. The boys told law enforcement that, on the day of the incident, they both heard their sister in the bathroom crying and screaming for their mother. Anthony recalled hearing running water which sounded like water filling the bathtub. He told officers that Wyatt yelled at his sister, after which he heard a loud banging on the bathtub. Anthony later demonstrated this banging sound to another witness by pounding his hand on a nearby table. He also produced $20 to that same witness, explaining that he received the money from Wyatt.

         Wyatt also spoke to law enforcement and initially denied any responsibility for Andrea's injuries. He denied having any physical contact with the child, stating that she began banging her head against the toilet while having a tantrum on the bathroom floor. Eventually though, he admitted to striking Andrea on the head with an open hand, but indicated that he did not strike her hard enough to cause the severity of her head trauma.

         An autopsy revealed major swelling, two subarachnoid hemorrhages and bruising of the child's brain, as well as severe retinal hemorrhaging of the child's right eye. The medical examiner concluded that these injuries, in conjunction with the child's symptoms of lethargy, lack of responsiveness and abnormal breathing, indicated that some kind of rotational force consistent with a shaking component caused the child's injuries and subsequent death. The State presented additional medical experts who provided their opinions regarding the severity of the child's traumatic brain injuries and Shaken Baby Syndrome.

         Based on the foregoing, the record shows that there was sufficient evidence to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Wyatt was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. At trial, the State qualified Dr. Andrew Reisner, the neurosurgeon who operated on the victim, as an expert in the field of pediatric neurosurgery. During direct examination, the following transpired:

Dr. Reisner: It's significant trauma, and I can't define it but it's significant trauma. This is not just a slap on the backside or a trip on the floor or a fall on the playground, we see that thousands of times, this is significant.
The State: Okay. Traffic accidents, do you see them in that type of situation?
Dr. Reisner: Oh yes.
The State: Falls from high places, you said it's a ten-story ...

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