CRIMINAL APPEAL FROM BUTLER COUNTY COURT OF COMMON PLEAS Case No. CR2012-03-0460
Michael T. Gmoser, Butler County Prosecuting Attorney, Michael A. Oster, Jr., Government Services Center, for plaintiff-appellee.
Charles M. Conliff, for defendant-appellant.
S. POWELL, J.
(¶ 1} Defendant-appellant, Steven J. Haley, appeals from his conviction in the Butler County Court of Common Pleas for felony murder. For the reasons outlined below, we affirm.
(¶ 2} On April 4, 2012, the Butler County grand jury returned an indictment against Haley charging him with one count each of child endangering and felony murder. The charges stemmed from the death of James Robert Smith, the infant son of Haley's fiancé, Adrienne Wesley, a state-tested nurse's aide, after the child was found unresponsive in the couple's Butler County home during the early morning hours of February 27, 2012. The Hamilton County Coroner later concluded the child's death was a homicide due to a series of severe blunt impacts to his head and neck that caused significant brain swelling.
(¶ 3} Following a two-day bench trial, the trial court found Haley guilty on both charges. After finding Haley guilty, the trial court merged the charges for sentencing purposes and the state elected to proceed on the felony murder charge. The trial court then sentenced Haley to a mandatory and indefinite term of 15 years to life in prison. Haley now appeals from his conviction, raising a single assignment of error for review.
(¶ 4} THE STATE'S EVIDENCE WAS CONSTITUTIONALLY INSUFFICIENT TO SUPPORT CONVICTIONS FOR MURDER AND ENDANGERING CHILDREN.
(¶ 5} In his single assignment of error, Haley argues the state failed to provide sufficient evidence to support his felony murder conviction, a charge which was predicated on finding him guilty of child endangering. We disagree.
(¶ 6} Whether the evidence presented is legally sufficient to sustain a verdict is a question of law. State v. Grinstead, 194 Ohio App.3d 755, 2011-Ohio-3018, ¶ 10 (12th Dist.); State v. Thompkins, 78 Ohio St.3d 380, 386 (1997). In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, "'[t]he relevant inquiry is whether, after viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt.'" State v. Diar, 120 Ohio St.3d 460, 2008-Ohio-6266, ¶ 113, quoting State v. Jenks, 61 Ohio St.3d 259 (1991), paragraph two of the syllabus. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is "proof of such character that an ordinary person would be willing to rely and act upon it in the most important of his own affairs." R.C. 2901.05(E).
(¶ 7} In evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence, a court must give "full play to the responsibility of the trier of fact fairly to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts." State v. Howland, 12th Dist Fayette. No. CA2006-08-035, 2008-Ohio-521, ¶ 31, quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781 (1979). The credibility of witnesses is primarily a determination for the trier of fact, who is in the best position to observe the witnesses' demeanor, gestures and voice inflections. State v. Benson, 12th Dist. Butler No. CA2009-02-061, 2009-Ohio-6741, ¶ 13, citing State v. Wilson, 113 Ohio St.3d 382, 2007-Ohio-2202, ¶ 24. "A reviewing court must not substitute its evaluation of witnesses' credibility for that of the trier of fact." State v. Montoya, 12th Dist. Clermont No. CA2012-02-015, 2013-Ohio-3312, ¶ 30.
(¶ 8} It is well-established that both circumstantial and direct evidence have the same probative value. State v. Saunders, 12th Dist. Fayette No. CA2012-03-006, 2013-Ohio-2052, ¶ 44; State v. Robinson, 12th Dist. Clinton No. CA2001-12-048, 2003-Ohio-1615, ¶ 15. In fact, in some instances, certain facts can be established only by circumstantial evidence. State v. McKnight, 107 Ohio St.3d 101, 2005-Ohio-6046, ¶ 75; State v. Crutchfield, 12th Dist. Warren No. CA2005-11-121, 2006-Ohio-6549, ¶ 20. Circumstantial evidence is proof of certain facts and circumstances in a given case, from which the jury may infer other, connected facts, which usually and reasonably follow according to the common experience of mankind. State v. Ortiz-Bajeca, 12th Dist. Butler No. CA2010-07-181, 2011-Ohio-3137, ¶ 20; State v. Cranford, 2d Dist. Montgomery No. 23055, 2011-Ohio-384, ¶ 38. A conviction based on purely circumstantial evidence is no less sound than a conviction based on direct evidence. State v. Shannon, 191 Ohio App.3d 8, 2010-Ohio-6079, ¶ 10 (12th Dist.).
(¶ 9} Haley was convicted of felony murder in violation of R.C. 2903.02(B), an unclassified felony. Pursuant to R.C. 2903.02(B), Ohio's felony murder statute, "[n]o person shall cause the death of another as a proximate result of the offender's committing or attempting to commit an offense of violence that is a felony of the first or second degree and that is not a violation of section 2903.03 or 2903.04 of the Revised Code." As noted above, the predicate offense for Haley's felony murder charge was child endangering under R.C. 2919.22(B)(1), a second-degree felony.
(¶ 10} To establish a violation of R.C. 2919.22(B)(1), the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt "'(1) that the child is under eighteen years of age or a mentally or physically handicapped child under twenty-one years of age, (2) an affirmative act of abuse, and (3) which act was reckless, that is, perpetrated with heedless indifference to the consequences of the action.'" State v. Burdine-Justice, 125 Ohio App.3d 707, 713 (12th Dist.1998), quoting State v. Bogan, 2d Dist. Montgomery No. 11920, 1990 WL 80572, *3-*4; see also State v. Willis, 12th Dist. Butler No. CA2009-10-270, 2010-Ohio-4404, ¶ 10. Child abuse has been defined as "an act which inflicts serious physical harm or creates a substantial risk of serious harm to the physical health or safety of the child." Burdine-Justice at 714; State v. Moore, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 94446, 2011-Ohio-454, ¶ 10. Child abuse has also been described as "any form of cruelty to a child's physical, moral or mental well-being." State v. Cooper, 147 Ohio App.3d 116, 2002-Ohio-617, ¶ 16 (12th Dist.), quoting State v. Ivey, 98 Ohio App.3d 249, 258 (8th Dist.1994).
(¶ 11} In arguing his convictions should be reversed, Haley contends the facts here are analogous to those in State v. Miley, 114 Ohio App.3d 738 (4th Dist.1996), where the Fourth District Court of Appeals reversed a child endangering conviction on manifest weight grounds. However, since its release, numerous courts throughout the state, including this court, have found Miley provides limited precedential value due to its highly distinguishable facts. See, e.g., State v. Villarreal, 12th Dist. Butler No. CA2004-02-035, 2005-Ohio-1924, ¶ 21-24; State v. Brooks, 10th Dist. Franklin No. 00AP-1440, 2001 WL 1117464, *7 (Sept. 25, 2001). This includes the fact that, in Miley, there was no evidence the defendant was with the child when she was injured. See State v. Hendrex, 11 th Dist. Trumbull No. 2009-T-0091, 2010-Ohio-2820, ¶ 42-46. The Fourth District has also distinguished its holding in Miley on the grounds the state could not establish a specific period of time during which the abuse occurred. See State v. Meadows, 4th Dist. Scioto No. 99CA2651, 2001 WL 803822 (Feb. 12, 2001). Therefore, based on its limited precedential value, we again find Miley to be distinguishable for not only is it clear the child's injury transpired during the early morning hours of February 27, 2012, it is equally clear Haley was the only adult with the child at that time. See State v. Hall, 11th Dist. Trumbull No. 2011-T-0115, 2012-Ohio-4336, ¶ 17.
(¶ 12} Relying on Miley, Haley initially claims his conviction must be reversed because the state failed to provide sufficient evidence that the child's injuries occurred "within a short time frame when [he] was the only possible abuser." The record, however, indicates the child was acting normally when Wesley left James with Haley to go to work at 3:00 p.m. After Wesley left for work, Kim Anderson, a childhood friend of both Haley and Wesley, arrived at the house with her two children ages three and ...