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Norwood v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 19, 2018



         Appellant Cassandra Norwood appeals her convictions for crimes related to the death of her newborn child, Josiah Lucas Norwood.[1] In her sole enumeration, Appellant alleges that the trial court erred by admitting her two statements made to law enforcement officers. Finding no error, we affirm.

         Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the jury's verdicts, the record shows that, at the time of the incident, unbeknownst to her family and the father of the child, Appellant was 40 weeks pregnant (full term). She was also unemployed and living at her parents' house along with her two sisters, Ginger and Bethany Norwood, and Ginger's two young daughters.

         On the night of October 31, 2012, Appellant went trick-or-treating with her sisters and nieces, went out to dinner, and then went to bed upon returning home. The next morning, when Ginger went into the bathroom she shared with her sisters, she noticed small amounts of blood on the toilet and near the drain in the bathtub. Ginger did not think anything of the blood and continued to get ready for work. When Ginger asked Appellant the location of her work shoes, she recalled that Appellant was acting strange, and "just seemed kind of spacey." Upon entering Appellant's room to look for her shoes, Ginger noticed a strong smell of body spray and saw more blood stains on the floor.

         Ginger mentioned Appellant's strange behavior and the blood to their sister Bethany, a trained nurse. When Bethany entered Appellant's room, she also noticed blood on the floor and dried blood on Appellant's feet. A plastic garbage bag filled with bedding was situated in the corner; a comforter with spots of clotted blood was visible from the top of the bag. When Bethany tried to examine the contents of the garbage bag, Appellant would not let her, explaining that the presence of the blood was due to an accident associated with her heavy menstrual cycle. But Bethany believed the amount of blood to be abnormal. Eventually Appellant agreed to go to the hospital and, as Appellant left the house with her parents, Bethany found the newborn baby, along with the placenta and the umbilical cord, inside the garbage bag. Bethany administered CPR to the child while Ginger called 911.

         When police and paramedics arrived, they confirmed that the child was deceased. Two bloodied knives were found in the room - one was behind the child's leg and the other was located underneath a pile of sheets on the bed in Appellant's room. DNA samples taken by officers during their investigation confirmed that the Appellant was the child's biological mother. Appellant's gynecological records indicated that she had visited a doctor on August 22, 2012, believing, at that time, that she was 10 weeks pregnant. After some tests and a sonogram, Appellant learned that she was 30 weeks pregnant. Prior to leaving the doctor's office, Appellant changed her HIPAA form, removing her parents' names so they would not be privy to the results of her medical exam. Appellant failed to return to the doctor for her scheduled follow up appointment.

         The autopsy report showed that the infant was born alive and then suffered dozens of stab wounds to the neck, torso, and back. The medical examiner testified that the cause of death was sharp force wounds to the neck and abdomen, and that the manner of death was homicide.

         While in recovery at the hospital, Appellant spoke with law enforcement on two separate occasions. During these interviews, Appellant told officers that she had previously visited the doctor and discovered she was pregnant; however, Appellant hid this information from her family and the father of her child. Regarding the incident, Appellant stated that, sometime after she fell asleep the night of October 31, she began experiencing contractions. Eventually, because of the pains, Appellant got out of bed and took a bath. Upon returning to her room, Appellant went into labor and, sometime before 10 a.m. on November 1, 2012, she gave birth to her son. Appellant told officers that during the delivery, she obtained a kitchen knife in order to cut the umbilical cord. According to Appellant, she accidentally cut the infant's neck while cutting the cord and, once she noticed the cut, she wrapped the baby in some bedding and placed a compress on the child's neck in an attempt to stop any potential bleeding. Appellant also acknowledged that she hid the pregnancy from her family and the father of her child, and that she did not take any actions in preparation for the birth of the child, such as obtaining prenatal care or buying items for the newborn.

         1. Though not enumerated by Appellant, we find that the evidence as summarized above was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Appellant was guilty of the crimes for which she was convicted. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. Appellant's sole enumeration of error concerns the admission into evidence of the two audio-recorded statements she made to police while at the hospital.[2] "The trial court determines the admissibility of a defendant's statement under the preponderance of the evidence standard considering the totality of the circumstances." (Citation omitted.) Vergara v. State, 283 Ga. 175, 176 (657 S.E.2d 863) (2008). "Although we defer to the trial court's findings of disputed facts, we review de novo the trial court's application of the law to the facts." Clay v. State, 290 Ga. 822, 822-823 (725 S.E.2d 260) (2012). We "will not disturb the trial court's factual and credibility determinations unless they are clearly erroneous, " Wright v. State, 285 Ga. 428, 432 (677 S.E.2d 82) (2009), however, "'[w]here controlling facts are not in dispute, . . . such as those facts discernible from a videotape, our review is de novo, '" Vergara, 283 Ga. at 178 (citation omitted).

         Prior to trial, Appellant filed a motion to suppress her two statements, claiming that they were not freely and voluntarily given. The evidence adduced at the pre-trial Jackson v. Denno[3] hearing on Appellant's motion shows that, on November 1, 2012, officers spoke with Appellant in her hospital room on two separate occasions. The first recorded interview was conducted by Sergeant Jonathan Patterson just after 4:00 p.m. During this conversation, which lasted 17 minutes, Appellant provided a general overview of the incident. Namely, Appellant stated that she was awakened the prior evening when she started to feel contractions; she relayed that she took a bath and, when she returned to her room, she went into labor. Thereafter Appellant went to the kitchen to retrieve a knife, went back to her room, delivered the baby, and then accidentally cut the infant's neck while attempting to sever the umbilical cord. She explained that she placed a compress on the child's neck and began to clean up. She also told Sergeant Patterson that her family took the baby to the hospital before she had a chance to tell them what had occurred. Appellant was not advised of her rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694) (1966) prior to this interview.

         Almost 4 hours later, at 8:00 p.m., a different set of officers (Detective Richard Boyle and Detective Kim Johnson) went to Appellant's hospital room with a warrant for her arrest. The audio recording reveals that, upon entering the room, Detective Boyle informed Appellant she was under arrest and then immediately read her the Miranda rights. Appellant said she understood her rights and agreed to speak to the detectives without having an attorney present. The recording indicates that Appellant responded to the detectives' questions for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes. Though Appellant repeated the general story that she had initially told Sergeant Patterson, the detectives asked more probing and detailed questions during this subsequent interview, and Appellant provided more information in response to these questions. Specifically, Appellant discussed: the identity of the child's father and his lack of knowledge regarding her pregnancy; her lack of prenatal care and treatment during her pregnancy; hiding her pregnancy from her family; the events that had occurred earlier in the day, including that she had experienced contractions "off-and-on" throughout the entire day; interactions she had with her family after the baby was born; her alleged lack of a motive to injure or kill her child; and a description as to how she held and swung the knife as she, allegedly, cut the umbilical cord. The detectives also confronted Appellant with the physical evidence, including the number and location of the stab wounds, the presence of two bloody knives in her bedroom, and the disposal of the body in a trash bag with bloody bedding. In response, Appellant denied cutting the child more than once, denied intentionally placing the infant in a trash bag, and denied any knowledge of a second knife. She remained adamant that the one injury she caused was purely accidental.

         After the hearing, the trial court issued an order admitting both statements at trial, finding the first statement to be non-custodial, and further concluding that both statements were made freely and voluntarily. The State played both audio-recorded interviews for the jury at trial over Appellant's continued objection. This, Appellant claims, was error. Pretermitting whether the trial court erred in finding the first statement to be non-custodial in nature, we conclude that, because both statements were voluntary, and because the police did not engage in an improper "two-step" interrogation, the second statement was properly admitted at trial. Thus, even if the first statement was erroneously admitted in the State's case-in-chief, the second statement was properly admitted and rendered harmless any error related to the admission of the first statement.

         A. V ...

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