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State v. Stanfield

Supreme Court of Idaho

April 1, 2015

STATE OF IDAHO, Plaintiff-Respondent,

Page 176

2015 Opinion No. 36

Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Ada County. Hon. Ronald J. Wilper, District Judge.

Sara B. Thomas, State Appellate Public Defender, Boise, for appellant. Brian R. Dickson argued.

Hon. Lawrence G. Wasden, Attorney General, Boise, for respondent. Russell J. Spencer argued.


Page 177

HORTON, Justice.

Katherine Lea Stanfield appeals from her judgment of conviction, entered following a jury trial, for the first-degree murder of two year-old W.F. bye aggravated battery on a child under twelve years. Stanfield raises two primary challenges on appeal. First, she alleges that the district court erred in admitting certain expert testimony, claiming that its admission violated her Sixth Amendment right to confrontation and that the evidence was inadmissible hearsay. Second, she contends that the district court deprived her of her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and right to a jury trial by failing to properly instruct the jury. We affirm.


On December 11, 2009, at 3:35 p.m., Ada County Sheriff's dispatch received an emergency call from Stanfield requesting medical

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assistance for W.F., the son of her daughter's boyfriend. At the time, Stanfield operated a daycare primarily for her two grandsons and W.F., and she had been watching W.F. most weekdays during the previous four months. Stanfield told dispatchers that W.F. was unresponsive after falling and hitting his head. A medical unit arrived at the scene at 3:40 p.m. and transported W.F. to St. Luke's Regional Medical Center.

W.F. was treated by several doctors and underwent a number of tests, including two CT scans, which indicated severe head trauma. W.F. did not regain consciousness and died on December 13, 2009. An autopsy was performed on W.F. which revealed axonal injury to his brain. According to Dr. Charles Garrison, the pathologist who performed W.F.'s autopsy, this injury could have been caused by either hypoxia or trauma. Dr. Garrison requested that a neuropathologist become involved in order to ascertain the cause of the axonal injury. Dr. Garrison preserved W.F.'s brain for this examination. Based on Dr. Garrison's evaluation of all of the other evidence, but prior to receiving the neuropathologist's report, he concluded that W.F.'s death was caused by non-accidental trauma.

Police questioned Stanfield and her two grandsons, C.D. (age 8) and J.D. (age 5), about the incident immediately after W.F. was transported to the hospital and several times in the months following W.F.'s death. On September 21, 2010, Stanfield was charged with first-degree murder by aggravated battery on a child under twelve. Stanfield maintained that W.F. was not pushed or shaken, but had fallen down while she was in the kitchen and he was alone in the living room. The interviews of C.D. and J.D. corroborated Stanfield's version of events, but multiple medical experts concluded that W.F.'s injuries were inconsistent with this scenario. After charging Stanfield, in order to help resolve the conflicting theories, the State hired Dr. Lucy Rorke-Adams, a neuropathologist, to examine W.F.'s brain tissue to determine the cause of his death.

The trial began on May 2, 2012, with the jury returning its verdict on June 4, 2012. The primary issue at trial was what--or who--caused the injuries that resulted in W.F.'s death. The State contended that W.F. died from non-accidental head trauma resulting from Stanfield abusing him. Stanfield denied that W.F. was abused and asserted that he hit his head after falling and his injuries were caused by a combination of the fall and other medical conditions, including hypoxia caused by the emergency responders.

At trial, seven medical experts testified for the prosecution and three testified for the defense. In addition to these experts, Dr. Rorke-Adams testified for the State regarding her examination of W.F.'s brain tissue and the conclusions she drew from that examination. Dr. Rorke-Adams testified that, while she personally conducted the examination and wrote the report, she did not participate in preparing the slides that she examined; rather, her technician prepared the slides.[1] After verifying the technician's work by reference to a control slide, Dr. Rorke-Adams evaluated the slides and wrote a report detailing her findings and conclusions.

Stanfield objected, arguing that because Dr. Rorke-Adams lacked personal knowledge of the technician's actions, Dr. Rorke-Adams' testimony violated her right to confrontation and was impermissible hearsay. The district court overruled Stanfield's objections and permitted Dr. Rorke-Adams to testify that the slides she examined contained W.F.'s brain tissue and that, based on her examination of the slides, she believed that W.F. died from non-accidental head trauma resulting from abuse.

Without objection, the district court instructed the jurors that to find Stanfield guilty of first-degree murder, they must find that she committed aggravated battery on W.F., which resulted in his death, but that they were not required to find that she intended to kill. After deliberating for thirteen

Page 179

hours, the jury found Stanfield guilty of first-degree murder. The district court sentenced Stanfield to life in prison, with ten years fixed.

Stanfield appeals the district court's decision to permit Dr. Rorke-Adams to testify as to the results of her examination and the cause of W.F.'s axonal injuries. Stanfield also challenges the district court's jury instruction, alleging that it constitutes fundamental error in violation of her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and her right to a jury trial.


When a violation of a constitutional right is asserted, we will defer to the trial court's factual findings unless those findings are clearly erroneous. State v. Hooper, 145 Idaho 139, 142, 176 P.3d 911, 914 (2007). This Court exercises " free review over the trial court's determination as to whether constitutional requirements have been satisfied in light of the facts found." Id. Whether admission of evidence violates a defendant's right to confront adverse witnesses under the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause is a question of law over which this Court exercises free review. Id. Likewise, " [t]he issue of whether a particular jury instruction is necessary and whether the jury has been properly instructed is a matter of law over which this Court exercises free review." State v. Adamcik, 152 Idaho 445, 472, 272 P.3d 417, 444 (2012).

The trial court has broad discretion in deciding whether to admit hearsay evidence under one of the exceptions, and this Court will not overturn an exercise of that discretion absent a clear showing of abuse. State Dep't of Health & Welfare, ex rel. Osborn v. Altman, 122 Idaho 1004, 1007, 842 P.2d 683, 686 (1992). Whether the district court has abused its discretion is determined by examining: " (1) whether the court correctly perceived the issue as one of discretion; (2) whether the court acted within the outer boundaries of its discretion and consistently within the applicable legal standards; and (3) whether the court reached its decision by an exercise of reason." State v. Shackelford, 150 Idaho 355, 363, 247 P.3d 582, 590 (2010). Even if evidence was admitted in error, this court will not grant relief if we find the error to be harmless. Id.; see also I.C.R. 52.


We first consider whether the district court erred by permitting the introduction of Dr. Rorke-Adams' testimony. This requires a determination whether the introduction of her testimony abridged Stanfield's Sixth Amendment right of confrontation. We then separately consider whether Dr. Rorke-Adams' testimony included inadmissible hearsay. Finally, we address Stanfield's challenge to the jury instruction.

A. The district court did not err by admitting Dr. Rorke-Adams' testimony.

1. The admission of the testimony did not violate Stanfield's Sixth Amendment right of confrontation.

As previously noted, the district court overruled Stanfield's objection and permitted Dr. Rorke-Adams to testify that the slides she examined contained W.F.'s brain tissue and as to the findings and conclusions she reached based upon her examination of those slides. Dr. Rorke-Adams did not personally prepare the slides that she examined; rather, a technician in her lab purportedly prepared the slides in accordance with instructions from Dr. Rorke-Adams. Stanfield contends that the technician, by labeling the slides, asserted that they contained W.F.'s tissue, and that, by returning the slides to Dr. Rorke-Adams without any notations, asserted that the proper chemicals had been applied to the tissue samples in accordance with her instructions. Stanfield argues that these assertions are testimonial and that Dr. Rorke-Adams introduced them for their truth. Thus, Stanfield contends that the Confrontation Clause required that the State produce the testimony of the laboratory technician in addition to that of Dr. Rorke-Adams. Absent this testimony, Stanfield argues, Dr. Rorke-Adams' opinions and conclusions were not relevant or reliable and should not have been presented to the jury.

Page 180

a. Current Confrontation Clause jurisprudence

The Confrontation Clause provides that " [i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right. .. to be confronted with witnesses against him." U.S. Const. amend. VI; see also Idaho Const. Art. I § 13. The right to confrontation is fundamental and applies equally to state prosecutions. Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400, 403, 85 S.Ct. 1065, 13 L.Ed.2d 923 (1965). Our state constitution does not contain a confrontation clause similar to that found in the United States Constitution; therefore, this issue is analyzed solely under the United States Constitution. State v. Sharp, 101 Idaho 498, 502, 616 P.2d 1034, 1038 (1980).

The Confrontation Clause only " applies to 'witnesses' against the accused--in other words, those who 'bear testimony.'" Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 51, 124 S.Ct. 1354, 158 L.Ed.2d 177 (2004). The United States Supreme Court has determined that this language restricts the Confrontation Clause to testimonial hearsay. Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813, 823--24, 126 S.Ct. 2266, 165 L.Ed.2d 224 (2006); Crawford, 541 U.S. at 51. The Confrontation Clause only applies to statements that are " testimonial." Davis, 547 U.S. at 823; Crawford, 541 U.S. at 51. The Clause does not bar statements not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Crawford, 541 U.S. at 59 n.9 (citing Tennessee v. Street, 471 U.S. 409, 414, 105 S.Ct. 2078, 85 L.Ed.2d 425 (1985)). If the statement is testimonial, then its admission is permitted only if the declarant is unavailable and the defendant has had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the declarant. Crawford, 541 U.S. at 59; Hooper, 145 Idaho at 143, 176 P.3d at 915.

Any declaration, affirmation, omission, or nonverbal conduct made for the purpose of establishing some fact, qualifies as a statement. The Supreme Court has recognized that affirmations made by way of omissions may constitute statements. Bullcoming v. New Mexico, 131 S.Ct. 2705, 2714, 180 L.Ed.2d 610 (2011) (" He further represented, by leaving the '[r]emarks' section of the report blank, that no 'circumstance or condition. .. affect[ed] the integrity of the sample or. .. the validity of the analysis.'" ). In this case, the technician's labeling and the omission of any indication that Dr. Rorke-Adams' instructions had not been followed constitute statements for Confrontation Clause purposes. However, these statements must be testimonial for the Confrontation Clause to apply.

The Supreme Court has not provided a comprehensive definition of " testimonial," but some guiding principles may be gleaned from that Court's recent decisions. Whether a statement is testimonial is determined by looking at the statement's primary purpose and its similarities to traditional testimony. Davis, 547 U.S. at 822. Testimony is defined as " [a] solemn declaration or affirmation made for the purpose of establishing or proving some fact." Crawford, 541 U.S. at 51 (alteration in original; citation omitted). Therefore, a statement is testimonial when " the circumstances objectively indicate that. .. the primary purpose. .. is to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution." Davis, 547 U.S. at 822. When no such primary purpose exists, the ...

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