This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota,
Sheri Lynn Alger,
Filed September 9, 2003
Carver County District Court
File No. K9-01-1205
John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Lawrence W. Pry, Assistant State Public Defender, 2221 University Avenue Southeast, Suite 425, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)
Michael A. Fahey, Carver County Attorney, 600 East Fourth Street, Chaska, MN 55318; and
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, Thomas R. Ragatz, Catherine M. Powell, Assistants Attorney General, 1800 NCL Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Anderson, Presiding Judge, Harten, Judge, and Wright, Judge.
Appellant challenges her conviction for second-degree felony murder, arguing that the evidence is insufficient to support a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt that she committed the predicate felony of first-degree assault and to show that her act killed the victim. Because the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, is sufficient to show that appellant committed first-degree assault and that her act caused the victim’s death, we affirm.
Appellant Sheri Lynn Alger operated a daycare facility in her home. Among the children she cared for was four-month-old I.D. On 3 July 2001, I.D. was hospitalized after being injured while at the daycare facility. Appellant gave the detectives who interviewed her four different and conflicting accounts of the injury, implicating first her two-year-old daughter, then herself, as the cause.
Doctors determined that I.D. had been shaken, and he was placed on life support systems. On 15 July, the physicians treating I.D. reported that he would never regain consciousness and was in a permanent vegetative state. On 16 July, I.D.’s mother decided to withdraw life support. I.D. died on 31 July.
Appellant was charged with unintentional murder in the second degree (felony murder) while committing or attempting to commit first degree assault; manslaughter in the first degree while committing or attempting to commit malicious punishment of a child; and manslaughter in the second degree.
In September 2001, appellant claimed for the first time that I.D. had actually been injured by appellant’s husband, Brad Alger, and said her previous stories were intended to shield Alger. Appellant waived her right to a jury trial and continued to argue throughout her bench trial that Alger had caused I.D.’s injury. Appellant also moved for acquittal, arguing that I.D.’s death was caused not by his injury but by the decision to withdraw life support.
The district court found appellant guilty as charged. She appeals, arguing that the evidence is insufficient to show the intent element of the first-degree assault underlying her felony murder conviction and reiterating, pro se, the argument made on her motion for judgment of acquittal.
D E C I S I O N
In considering claims of insufficient evidence, this court’s review is limited to a painstaking analysis of the record to determine whether the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the conviction, was sufficient to allow the jurors to reach their verdict. State v. Webb, 440 N.W.2d 426, 430 (Minn. 1989). This court will not disturb the verdict if the jury, acting with due regard for the presumption of innocence and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, could reasonably conclude the defendant was guilty of the charged offense. State v. Alton, 432 N.W.2d 754, 756 (Minn. 1988). The same standard applies to both jury and bench trials. State v. Hough, 585 N.W.2d 393, 396 (Minn. 1998).
1. First-Degree Assault
Second-degree felony murder is committed by one who “causes the death of a human being, without intent to effect the death of any person, while committing . . . a felony.” Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 2(1) (2002). Appellant was convicted of felony murder based on the felony of first-degree assault, which is committed by one who “assaults another and inflicts great bodily harm.” Minn. Stat. § 609.221, subd. 1 (2002). Assault is defined as “the intentional infliction of . . . bodily harm upon another.” Minn. Stat. § 609.02, subd. 10(2) (2002). “‘Intentionally’ means that the actor either has a purpose to do the thing or cause the result specified or believes that the act . . . , if successful, will cause that result.” Minn. Stat. § 609.02, subd. 9(3) (2002).
As a threshold matter, appellant argues that a finding of intent to injure is required for a conviction of assault resulting in infliction of bodily harm. For this argument, she relies on dictum from Ill. Farmers Ins. Co. v. Reed, 647 N.W.2d 553, 567 (Minn. App. 2002) (“Because a finding of intent to injure was necessary to the adjudication of . . . guilt for assault . . . .”), rev’d on other grounds, 662 N.W.2d 529 (Minn. 2003). But Minnesota appellate courts have held that a finding of intent to injure is not required when the assault results in the infliction of actual bodily harm. See, e.g., State v. Lindahl, 309 N.W.2d 763, 767 (Minn. 1981) (“[a]ll that was required * * * was to show that the blows to complainant were not accidental but were intentionally inflicted”); State v. Fortman, 474 N.W.2d 401, 404 (Minn. App. 1991) (citing Lindahl and holding that “assault resulting in the infliction of actual bodily injury . . . [does] not require any specific intent beyond a general intent to do the prohibited physical act of committing a battery”). Appellant’s assault of I.D. resulted in actual bodily harm to him; therefore, only her general intent to shake him is required for a conviction.
But even if a finding of intent to injure were required, that finding could be inferred from the evidence. Intent is a state of mind that generally is proved circumstantially, by inference from words and acts of the actor. State v. Johnson, 616 N.W.2d 720, 726 (Minn. 2000). A factfinder “may infer that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of his actions.” State v. Cooper, 561 N.W.2d 175, 179 (Minn. 1997). The natural and probable consequence of shaking a baby is injury to the baby. From the medical evidence that I.D. was shaken, the district court legitimately inferred that appellant intended to injure him, particularly in light of appellant’s testimony that she knew severe shaking could produce a head injury and could be fatal.
Appellant claims that there is insufficient evidence of her intent to injure I.D. because, although she gave the detectives who interrogated her after the incident four different conflicting accounts of how I.D. was injured, she repeatedly told them that she did not intend to hurt I.D. But “a defendant’s statements as to his intentions are not binding on the jury if his acts demonstrated a contrary intent.” Cooper, 561 N.W.2d at 179 (citing State v. Lundstrom, 285 Minn. 130, 140, 171 N.W.2d 718, 724-25 (1969)). Appellant’s act in shaking I.D. when she knew that shaking an infant could cause fatal injury demonstrated an intent contrary to her assertions that she did not intend to injure him. The district court was free to infer appellant’s intent to injure I.D. Sufficient evidence supports the district court’s judgment.
Appellant argues, pro se, that the state failed to prove that her shaking of I.D. caused his death because the superseding and intervening cause of his death was the decision to take him off life support. This argument was addressed in State v. Olson, 435 N.W.2d 530 (Minn. 1989).
To prove defendant guilty of the crimes charged, the state must prove that the defendant’s acts were a substantial causal factor in causing the child’s death. It must be shown that defendant’s acts injured the child’s brain which then led to the child’s death. [The child] is now dead by any definition. Continued use of the mechanical support system would not have prevented [his] death; it would only have postponed the cessation of breathing and heartbeat, the traditional determinants of death, for a short time. . . .
. . . As the trial court properly ruled, the doctors’ conduct [in removing the life support system] was not, as a matter of law, a superseding intervening cause. The medical intervention was a normal, foreseeable consequence of defendant’s shaking the child. To be a superseding cause, the intervening conduct must be the sole cause of the end result and that is not the case here. Removal of the life support system did not produce a death that would not otherwise have occurred. In effect, the doctors were just passively stepping aside to let the natural course of events lead from brain death to common law death.
Id. at 534. (quotations and citations omitted).
The pediatric neurologist who handled I.D.’s case testified that his condition was closer to persistent vegetative state than to brain dead. Appellant relies on this testimony in her attempt to distinguish Olson by arguing that the child there was brain dead, while I.D. was in a persistent vegetative state. But the pediatric neurologist also testified that the test done shortly after the injury showed “very little evidence of brain activity . . . there was essentially no normal activity.” One week after the injury,
[I]t was becoming obvious . . . that we were prolonging the child’s dying . . . .
. . . .
[I.D.] was kept alive by artificial means at this point. . . . [H]e was still on the ventilator. He was not able to eat or drink and so he was kept alive by . . . fluids administered intravenously. . . . [W]e were supporting his life in an artificial way.
. . . .
[O]n the 15th we had repeated the CT brain scan. And this showed that the—that huge parts of the brain had died. . . . Most of the brain was clinically dead as shown on the CT scan.
The primary cause of death given on I.D.’s autopsy report was complications of blunt force head injuries. The doctor who performed the autopsy testified that he had formed an opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty as to the cause of I.D.’s death and that the cause was “[c]omplications of blunt-force head injuries.” Asked what had led him to conclude this, he answered:
Well, clearly there were changes to his brain that are the long-term result of a prior head injury. And—um—in sort of a lay person’s sense that the brain had shrunk tremendously and instead of being a robust semi-solid structure, it turned into to essentially a bag [of] fluid.
The parts of the brain that do—um—real thinking, if you will, were gone. Just the lower parts of the brain that we typically associate with lower forms of life that, for instance, maintain breathing and effect heart rate were largely intact, but—um—those portions of the brain that make us human beings were essentially gone.
The doctor testified further that he had formed an opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty as to the manner of I.D.’s death and that the manner was “[h]omicide . . . the injuries that [I.D.] sustained [on 3 July 2001], would have to have been the result of being inflicted by another person.” Evidence established that the “other person” was appellant.
The evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, supports the district court’s conclusion that appellant’s act caused I.D.’s death.