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Spence v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

December 23, 2019

SPENCE
v.
THE STATE.

          BOGGS, JUSTICE.

         Mary Ann Spence was convicted of malice murder in connection with the death of Samuel Miller ("Samuel"), a 16-month-old baby left in her care. She appeals, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support her murder conviction. She also argues that the trial court erred both in permitting the State to improperly bolster the testimony of an eyewitness and in not sua sponte charging the jury on the defense of accident. We affirm.[1]

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following: In April 2011, Spence was staying in an apartment in the Carver Homes community in Atlanta with her daughter, Classie Fields, and Fields' three children - her five-year-old son J.P., her one-year-old son, and her nine-year-old daughter. Jennifer Miller ("Miller") - Fields' best friend - was staying with Fields at the time, along with her two children - Samuel and his three year-old sister.

         At around 5:30 a.m. on April 3, 2011, Fields left her apartment and went to work. Hours later, while Miller prepared to go to church, Spence offered to stay at the apartment and watch all the boys, because she recognized that they would be difficult to handle at church. Miller accepted Spence's offer and went to church along with her daughter and Fields' daughter.

         Sometime between when Miller left for church and 12:45 p.m., J.P., who was in the apartment's living room with his brother, peered into one of the apartment's bedrooms and saw Spence - his grandmother - and a sobbing Samuel. According to J.P., Spence picked Samuel up, shook him several times, and threw him down onto a "hard" bed[2] where he hit his head, causing his eyes to go "to sleep." Spence was the only adult in the apartment at that time.

         At around 12:45 p.m., Spence abruptly entered the apartment of Sharon Blackwell - her across-the-hall neighbor - and stated that Samuel was unconscious. Spence stated that he had fallen and hit his head earlier that day, and that she had already called 911. Blackwell and Spence then returned to the apartment, where Samuel was lying motionless on a futon in the living room and was cold to the touch. Blackwell's friend then came into the apartment and attempted CPR, and after a while, another neighbor took over resuscitative care. Spence then called 911. Paramedics transported Samuel to an Atlanta children's hospital, but, despite the efforts of medical personnel, his heartbeat was never restored, and a doctor declared him dead shortly after he arrived.

         According to a responding police officer, upon her arrival, she encountered Spence outside of Fields' apartment. Spence then gave the officer the following account: She was in a room in the back of the apartment cleaning while Samuel, J.P., and J.P.'s little brother were playing in the living room in the front of the apartment; she heard Samuel crying, at which point she returned to the living room; she concluded that Samuel had fallen and bumped his head on a table; she picked him up, gave him a bottle of juice, and put him down in one of the bedrooms for a nap; when she came back about an hour later, she noticed that something was wrong with Samuel, as he was unresponsive and was foaming at the mouth; she then went next door to Blackwell's apartment to get help. The officer stated that she then asked J.P. - who was standing directly in front of Spence - what had happened, and he started to answer but then stopped mid-sentence and said "I don't know."

         Spence also agreed to accompany an Atlanta Police detective back to his office, where she gave a statement largely consistent with the account she gave to the responding police officer. However, this time, she added that when she came into the living room to see why Samuel was crying, he was holding his head, and J.P. stated that Samuel had fallen. Spence also stated that, when she picked Samuel up, gave him some juice, and put him down for a nap, his "breathing was excellent." Spence was not immediately arrested. In fact, the police did not consider her a suspect in Samuel's death until a medical examiner ("ME") performed an autopsy and ruled Samuel's death a homicide.

         The ME found multiple bruises on Samuel's chest, shoulder, and chin, and noted that his face and head were quite swollen. He determined that blunt force trauma to the head killed Samuel, and that the "tremendous" blows to his head punched a hole in his skull three-quarters-of-an-inch in diameter and caused complex fractures across the surface of his skull. The ME opined that a five-year-old could not have caused Samuel's injuries, the multiple areas of bruising and bleeding on his scalp indicated that his injuries were inflicted by more than one blow, and he could not have sustained his injuries in the course of normal play or roughhousing, unless he had fallen from the second story of a building or higher. He also opined that Samuel likely could not have functioned after sustaining the lethal blow. More specifically, he opined that Samuel could not have consumed any juice after experiencing such a devastating head injury.

         A physician testified that he was on duty in the emergency department of the children's hospital when Samuel arrived. He stated that Samuel was not breathing and his heart was not beating. He examined Samuel's head and noted that it was swollen, asymmetrical, and "squishy." He opined that based on the amount of swelling, Samuel had suffered multiple head injuries. And although he declined to say that, categorically speaking, no person could sustain the same injuries that Samuel did and thereafter still be conscious and have the capacity to function, he ultimately deferred to the ME's opinion on that issue. He also noted that medical records showed that, in March 2011, Samuel came to the clinic at the children's hospital and was treated for a cold and viral mouth blisters. But he testified that, other than that incident, the medical records did not indicate that Samuel had any irregular medical appointments prior to April 2011.

         A second physician testified that she provided care to Miller and Samuel shortly after Samuel's birth. She stated that Samuel's post-birth examinations were "completely normal." Although she did note that the medical records indicated that Miller may have smoked cigarettes and marijuana while pregnant with Samuel, and that Miller did not receive adequate prenatal care, she testified that there was no evidence that Miller's prenatal smoking negatively affected Samuel's skull.

         Fields, Miller, and Samuel's father all testified that Samuel was a healthy boy prior to his death. Fields and Miller both stated that, the night before his death, Samuel was behaving normally and did not have any bruises. Samuel's father testified that when he last saw Samuel on March 16, 2011, he did not have any bruises on his forehead or torso.

          1. Spence argues that the evidence presented at trial was not sufficient to support her murder conviction. She contends that the State's case, which was entirely dependent on circumstantial evidence, failed to exclude every reasonable hypothesis of her innocence, including the possibilities that Samuel's death was the result of a preexisting physical ailment, a hard fall, or a tumble which exacerbated a previously unknown physical condition. We disagree.

         When evaluating a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence as a matter of constitutional due process, this Court views all of the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to the verdicts and asks whether any rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). In ...


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