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Johnson v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

May 18, 2017

JOHNSON
v.
THE STATE.

          DILLARD, P. J., RAY and SELF, JJ.

          Dillard, Presiding Judge.

         Following a trial by jury, Angel Johnson was convicted of two counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count of cruelty to children in the second degree, and one count of making a false statement to law enforcement. Johnson appeals from these convictions, arguing that (1) the evidence was insufficient to find that her actions were the proximate cause of the victims' deaths and injuries, and (2) even if the issue of causation was purely a question for the jury, the trial court erred in failing to give her requested instructions as to proximate cause. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [1] the record reflects that in December 2010, Johnson was living in a DeKalb County apartment with four of her children: four-year-old A. Q.; three-year-old D. Q.; two-year-old M. Q.; and approximately three-month-old K. P. Johnson's boyfriend and K. P.'s father, Keith Lee Pinkney, also lived in the apartment.[2] The couple was suffering from financial difficulties at the time, and their gas was disconnected. As a result, Johnson purchased a space heater to warm the apartment.

         On the day in question, December 10, 2010, at 3:35 p.m., Johnson and Pinkney left the three older children-who Johnson claimed were napping-alone in the apartment while they took K. P. to pick up and cash Johnson's paycheck. They returned to the apartment approximately 30 minutes later to find the children still sleeping. Then, later that afternoon, Johnson, Pinkney, and K. P. again left the sleeping older children alone while they picked up fast food. Johnson again reported that the children were still asleep when they returned.

         Later that evening, around 9:00 p.m., Johnson put the three oldest children to bed together in the same room with the space heater turned on. And once the children were asleep, Johnson, Pinkney, and K. P. again left the apartment. But before doing so, Johnson shut the bedroom door, blocked the apartment's hallway with a sofa, and blocked access to the kitchen using a table. Johnson later explained that she did these things because one of her children was capable of unlocking the front door, and another child had previously knocked over a lamp, which had burned the floor.

         After leaving the apartment this third time, Johnson and Pinkney first stopped by a friend's home and then went to purchase food at Burger King at 10:32 p.m., which was confirmed by the receipt's timestamp. Johnson and Pinkney then took food back to their friend before returning home to the apartment. According to a witness who was familiar with Pinkney's white Escalade, she did not see the vehicle when she arrived at the apartment complex at 10:45 p.m. This same witness indicated that she could smell something burning in the building at the time of her arrival. Johnson and Pinkney returned to the apartment complex shortly after this witness (between 10:45 p.m. and 10:50 p.m.), at which point they were observed exiting Pinkney's Escalade with K. P. still in his car seat.

         Once Johnson opened the door to the apartment, she could smell smoke emanating from within, and she jumped over the sofa to access the children's smoke-filled room, where she found them in their beds. Johnson grabbed A. Q. while Pinkney grabbed D. Q., and they attempted to resuscitate the children outside of the apartment. Neighbors heard Johnson scream at approximately 10:55 p.m., and one called 911 for assistance at 10:57 p.m. Another neighbor, after hearing that a third child remained inside the apartment, ran in to retrieve two-year-old M. Q., who he found on the sofa blocking the hallway. M. Q. was alive, but skin was peeling away from his body.

         At 11:07 p.m., first responders arrived and M. Q. was immediately transported to the hospital, where he was treated for second- and third-degree burns. M. Q. survived, but remained in the hospital for more than one month to be treated for smoke inhalation, carbon-monoxide poisoning, thermal burns, and corneal injuries. He was also placed on a ventilator and underwent five skin-graft operations to his hands, arms, and head. At trial, a doctor testified that even if M. Q. undergoes future surgeries, he will always sustain scarring from his injuries.

         Three-year-old D. Q. was also transported to the hospital and, although he lacked a pulse and was not breathing, paramedics attempted to resuscitate him. D. Q. was pronounced dead at the hospital. His body was burned and blistered, and black mucous and soot were found in his airway, with smoke inhalation the determined cause of death. Four-year-old A. Q. was pronounced dead at the scene. Like her brother, A. Q.'s body was burned and blistered, and smoke inhalation was the determined cause of death.

         In the children's bedroom, firefighters found the walls covered with smoke and soot stains, and the space heater was discovered lying face down on or near one of the children's mattresses. In addition to the mattresses, the room was also filled with other combustible materials, including blankets, toys, and bunk beds. And when firefighters entered the room, the space heater was still plugged in and running, the unit lacking an automatic cut-off switch that would have triggered when it tipped over. Finally, although the fire had smoldered out after approximately 45 minutes, most likely because the bedroom door was shut (which also prohibited the smoke detector from alerting), firefighters still extinguished "hot spots" upon arrival, including burning embers on the mattress.

         During an interview with law enforcement, Johnson told an investigator that she was outside smoking a cigarette before discovering the fire, and she denied having left the apartment complex. But she later admitted to law enforcement that she had in fact been away from the apartment when the fire started, and she testified to the same at trial and admitted that her original statement to law enforcement was false.

         Johnson was subsequently convicted of two counts of involuntary manslaughter as to A. Q. and D. Q., one count of cruelty to children in the second degree as to M. Q., and one count of making a false statement to law enforcement.[3]She appeals from the convictions for involuntary manslaughter and cruelty to children in the second degree, and the trial court's denial of her motion for new trial. We turn now to Johnson's specific claims of error.

         1. First, Johnson argues that no rational finder of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that her "act of leaving her children alone in her apartment was unlawful or that it was the proximate cause of their injuries." In other words, she challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support her convictions for involuntary manslaughter and cruelty to children in the second degree.

         At the outset, we note that when a criminal conviction is appealed, the appellant no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence.[4] The relevant question before us, then, is whether, "after reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."[5] We are not at liberty to weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility, and the jury's verdict will be upheld so long as there is some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State's case.[6]

         In this case, it is undisputed that Johnson left three of her children home alone the night of December 10, 2010, and that a toppled space heater ignited a fire in their bedroom, causing their injuries while she was absent. Nevertheless, she contends that (1) leaving the children home alone in a closed room with a space heater was not unlawful; (2) even if leaving her children alone were unlawful, this was not the "but for" cause of their injuries when those same injuries could have been sustained even ...


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