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Stanfield v. State

Supreme Court of Idaho

December 3, 2019

KATHERINE LEA STANFIELD, Petitioner-Appellant,
STATE OF IDAHO, Respondent.

          Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, State of Idaho, Ada County. Jason D. Scott, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is vacated in part and affirmed in part. The case is remanded for further proceedings.

          Ferguson Durham, PLLC, Boise, for appellant Katherine Lea Stanfield. Craig H. Durham argued.

          Lawrence G. Wasden, Idaho Attorney General, Boise, for respondent State of Idaho. Kenneth K. Jorgensen argued.


         Katherine Lea Stanfield appeals from the district court's judgment summarily dismissing her petition for post-conviction relief. Stanfield was a daycare provider with decades of experience caring for young children. On December 11, 2009, she was caring for her two grandsons and W.F., the two-year-old son of her daughter's boyfriend. W.F. collapsed while in Stanfield's care and was rushed to a hospital emergency room. Two days later, he was taken off life support and died. In 2012, a jury found Stanfield guilty of first-degree murder committed through the aggravated battery and death of a child under twelve years old.

         Stanfield's direct appeal to this Court was unsuccessful. State v. Stanfield, 158 Idaho 327, 347 P.3d 175 (2015). She subsequently filed a petition for post-conviction relief based on allegations of ineffective assistance of trial counsel and violations of her due process rights. During the trial, several witnesses testified that W.F. had suffered serial abuse, the implication being that Stanfield had been the perpetrator of the abuse.

         Stanfield's daughter had personally observed W.F.'s father commit acts of abuse on W.F. She informed Stanfield's lawyers of her observations. In addition, W.F.'s mother informed a police investigator that she had also witnessed W.F.'s father abuse him and implored the authorities to investigate him. However, Stanfield's attorneys never elicited this evidence at trial. Stanfield maintains her lawyers were ineffective in their failure to present this potentially exculpatory evidence.

         The State moved for summary dismissal of her petition, which the district court granted. On appeal, Stanfield argues that the district court erred in not granting her an evidentiary hearing on four of her claims. Because there are genuine issues of material fact presented in Stanfield's petition, we vacate the district court's summary dismissal and remand so that Stanfield may be afforded an evidentiary hearing to determine whether her lawyers at trial were ineffective.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Stanfield was convicted of first-degree murder of W.F. by aggravated battery on a child under twelve years old. In December 2009, Stanfield provided daycare primarily for her two grandsons and W.F., the son of her daughter's boyfriend. Stanfield had been caring for W.F. most weekdays during the previous four months.

         On December 11, 2009, Stanfield called the Ada County Sheriff's dispatch service to report W.F. had fallen and was unresponsive. W.F. was transported to St. Luke's medical facility where he underwent a number of tests, including two CT scans, which indicated severe head trauma. W.F. never regained consciousness and died two days later when taken off life support. An autopsy revealed axonal injury to the brain. The pathologist who performed the autopsy concluded the injury could have been caused by either hypoxia or trauma. The pathologist suggested further studies by a neuropathologist. The neuropathologist's report concluded that W.F.'s death had been caused by non-accidental trauma.

         Police questioned Stanfield and her two grandsons, C.D. (aged 8) and J.D. (aged 5), about the incident immediately after W.F. was transported to the hospital and multiple times following W.F.'s death. Ultimately, in September 2010, Stanfield was charged with first-degree murder by aggravated battery on a child under twelve years old. Stanfield maintained that W.F. was not pushed or shaken but had fallen down while she was in the kitchen. C.D. and J.D. both corroborated Stanfield's version of events. Multiple experts concluded that W.F.'s injuries were inconsistent with this scenario. Stanfield pleaded not guilty and went to trial in May 2012. A jury returned a verdict of guilty on June 4, 2012. She was sentenced to an indeterminate life sentence with a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years.

         Stanfield brought a direct appeal of her conviction. In affirming the district court, this Court wrote: "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, 158 Idaho at 330, 347 P.3d at 178.

         Stanfield filed a post-conviction relief action following her unsuccessful appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Stanfield v. Idaho, 136 S.Ct. 794 (2016) (mem). She contends that her trial lawyers were ineffective for: (1) failing to adequately prepare, investigate, or present evidence that W.F.'s father had abused W.F.; (2) failing to present expert testimony regarding Stanfield's lack of emotional response to W.F.'s injuries; (3) unreasonably failing to object to a statement by the prosecutor that shifted the burden of proof to Stanfield; and (4) unreasonably waiving jury instructions on all lesser-included offenses.

         In particular, Stanfield maintains that her lawyers were ineffective in failing to combat the State's insinuation that Stanfield was W.F.'s abuser. The district court's decision acknowledged that the State attempted at trial to portray Stanfield as W.F.'s abuser:

Stanfield claims her counsel rendered ineffective assistance by not meeting the prosecution's evidence and argument that W.F. was an abused child with evidence that the abuser was W.F.'s father, Lance Fesler. Without that evidence, she says the jury might have convicted her of W.F.'s murder because it "had only Mrs. Stanfield to blame for the 'indicators' of child abuse."
During closing arguments, the prosecutor indeed argued that W.F.'s various injuries "are indicators of a child being abused. [Witnesses] also told you that you can look at the child's behavior, [there are] emotional or behavioral indicators that a child is being abused . . . . [Y]ou will see that they are all present in this case." It doesn't appear that the prosecutor explicitly argued that Stanfield had abused W.F. in the past. But because the State repeatedly mentioned W.F.'s old bruises, as well as the behavioral signs that he had been abused, and didn't present evidence of who the past abuser was, the jury could have inferred that Stanfield was responsible for the past abuse the prosecutor contended had occurred. This opens the possibility that the jury convicted her on propensity grounds.

         In addition, Stanfield had admissible evidence to present that W.F. had been abused by someone other than Stanfield: W.F.'s biological father. Both W.F.'s mother and Stanfield's daughter, who was cohabitating with W.F.'s father for the four months prior to W.F.'s death, claimed that they had witnessed W.F.'s father abuse W.F. Stanfield's daughter advised Stanfield's lawyers that she had witnessed W.F.'s father abuse W.F. However, this evidence was not elicited at trial. The district court rejected Stanfield's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel because of the strong presumption afforded counsel in the realm of tactics and denied Stanfield the opportunity to introduce evidence that her lawyers had been ineffective. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we hold the district court erred in summarily dismissing Stanfield's petition without affording her an opportunity to have an evidentiary hearing.

         II. Standard of Review

         A petition for post-conviction relief initiates a civil proceeding, even though it is a continuation of an underlying criminal proceeding. Like most civil actions, the burden is on the petitioner to "prove the allegations in the request for relief by a preponderance of the evidence." State v. Dunlap, 155 Idaho 345, 361, 313 P.3d 1, 17 (2013) (citation omitted). The application for post-conviction relief differs from a complaint in an ordinary civil action in that it must contain much more than a short and plain statement of the claim that would suffice for a complaint under the Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(1). State v. Abdullah, 158 Idaho 386, 417, 348 P.3d 1, 32 (2015) (citation omitted). "The application must present or be accompanied by admissible evidence supporting its allegations, or the application will be subject to dismissal." State v. Yakovac, 145 Idaho 437, 444, 180 P.3d 476, 483 (2008) (citing I.C. § 19-4903).

Idaho Code § 19-4906 authorizes summary dismissal of an application for post-conviction relief, either pursuant to motion of a party or upon the trial court's own initiative. Summary dismissal of an application is the procedural equivalent of summary judgment under I.R.C.P. 56. . . . [W]hen reviewing a district court's order of summary dismissal in a post-conviction relief proceeding, we apply the same standard as that applied by the district court. Thus, when reviewing such a dismissal, this Court must determine whether a genuine issue of fact exists based on the pleadings, depositions and admissions together with any affidavits on file.

Ridgley v. State, 148 Idaho 671, 675, 227 P.3d 925, 929 (2010) (internal citations and quotation ...

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