The New Mexico Supreme Court published its first opinion of the new year last week. In State v. Garcia, the Court reviewed the conviction of a man for child abuse related to the death of a 14 month old boy. Finding insufficient evidence to support the conviction, the Court reversed. Justice Thomson dissented.
Isaac’s parents frequently let Defendant watch him. One morning, they received a frantic call from Defendant that Isaac had fallen from bed and hit a nightstand. Rather than call 911, Defendant returned the mortally wounded Isaac back to his parents. He also told the parents not to reveal his involvement, claiming that CYFD would investigate the parents if they found out about his involvement. Isaac later died at the hospital.
At trial, the court heard medical testimony from several experts. Several experts testified that Isaac’s injuries were likely caused by him being shaken. One testified that the injuries could not have been caused by shaking alone, and that blunt force trauma from multiple impacts must have been a cause. The experts agreed that delay in treatment reduced Isaac’s chances of survival, but could not testify as to whether he would have lived had he been treated earlier.
The State’s theory at trial was that Defendant had beaten the baby and then denied him care. Accordingly, he was charged with child abuse for allegedly beating Isaac, and child abuse by way of medical neglect. The jury found Defendant not guilty of beating Isaac, but guilty of child abuse by medical neglect, and sentenced him to life imprison. Because of the life sentence, Defendant’s appeal was taken directly to the supreme court.
Defendant argued that his conviction for child abuse by endangerement was not supported by sufficient evidence. Insufficient evidence arguments are difficult to win, and opinions finding the evidence insufficient are therefore uncommon.
Medical neglect is not defined by the child abuse statute, but the courts have defined it as the failure to provide medical, dental, or psychiatric care that is necessary to prevent or to treat serious physical or emotional injury or illness. It is a viable theory of child abuse so long as it is supported by the evidence.
The test for sufficiency of the evidence is whether substantial evidence of either a direct or circumstantial nature exists to support a verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with respect to every element essential to a conviction. Evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the conviction. This standard is very deferential to the jury’s verdict while still ensuring that the verdict is supported by evidence, not conjecture.
Looking at the evidence, the Court concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to prove that the neglect had caused Isaac’s death. The State was required to prove that Isaac would not have died or would have had a “significantly greater chance of living” if Defendant had called 911. Multiple experts had testified that the child died because its injuries prevented it from breathing. That type of injury proceeds rapidly. And no expert would say that Isaac would have lived with earlier medical care. Ultimately, the Court found that lack of expert testimony to be fatal to the State’s case.
Justice Thomson wrote separately, concurring in part and dissenting in part. He believed that the majority had imposed a higher causation standard on child abuse by medical neglect than was applicable to other crimes.
The dissent argues that the correct standard is that “a defendant may be a ‘but-for’ cause if that defendant’s neglect is a “significant cause” of death.” It seems to reject the majority’s reasoning that a cause cannot be a “but for” cause unless the victim would have died but for that cause. This strikes me as untenable. By definition, a cause cannot be a “but for” cause unless without it the victim would have died.
The dissent proceeds to explain Justice Thomson’s view that there was sufficient evidence to convict, but that errors in the jury instructions on causation require a retrial. Because the majority had concluded that the evidence was not sufficient, it had not reached the jury instruction question.
Although the dissent seems concerned that this decision alters more than just child abuse / medical neglect law, I think this case ultimately affirms existing causation standards. In the future, the State will need expert testimony showing but-for causation in medical neglect cases. This is probably the right policy result as well, since the contrary result seems like it would expand criminal liability greatly.
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