Sunday, December 7, 2014

Great Guilt?

State v. Theriault, 2014 VT 119 (mem.)

By Andrew Delaney

I don’t think “whether the evidence of guilt is great” is the best phrase to use in the criminal context. But it’s the phrase that’s used.

Mr. Theriault was charged with second-degree murder of two-year-old Jamaal (Munyon) Turkvan. The trial court held a weight-of the-evidence hearing, and determined the evidence of guilt was great. Mr. Theriault was held without bail under the statute that allows a defendant to be held without bail when the evidence of guilt is great and the offense charged is punishable by life imprisonment. He appeals.

The SCOV notes that the trial court hasn’t yet made a discretionary determination regarding whether Mr. Theriault should be released on conditions or whether he should continue to be held without bail, so the only issue on appeal is whether the evidence of guilt was great, or as I would phrase it, whether the evidence strongly indicates guilt. Alas, I don’t run the world . . . yet. 
The standard of review should be familiar. The SCOV must consider “whether the evidence, taken in the light most favorable to the State and excluding modifying evidence, can fairly and reasonably show defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” The SCOV acknowledges that the applicable threshold is somewhere between “probable cause” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” and thus the State’s burden is the same as its burden on a motion to dismiss for lack of a prima facie case: the State must show that “substantial, admissible evidence of guilt exists, and (2) the evidence can fairly and reasonably convince a fact-finder beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant is guilty.”

Mr. Theriault’s first challenge is the alleged act itself—that he killed Jamaal Turkvan with a physical blow. The SCOV notes that it has often upheld “convictions based solely on circumstantial evidence” and that guilt may be proved by circumstantial evidence alone. Here, the SCOV notes that there is circumstantial evidence that strongly indicates guilt. There were no witnesses to the fatal injury. The medical examiner determined that the child died from abdomen trauma similar to that seen in automobile accidents. There were no periods unaccounted for and only Mr. Theriault and his girlfriend had access to the toddler. Mr. Theirault also mentioned that Jamaal Turkvan was complaining of a stomachache before the cause of death had been revealed and nobody else was aware such complaints. He told police he went to bed around 9:00 or 10:00, but his girlfriend testified that he didn’t come to bed until 4:00 a.m. the next morning. While the SCOV acknowledges that there could be other explanations for the abdomen trauma, it concludes that the indications of guilt are sufficient for a jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the toddler was killed by Mr. Theriault.

Mr. Theriault also argues that the trial court failed to make a specific finding on mens rea (intent) and that even if it did, there was insufficient evidence on that element. Here, the SCOV reasons that the trial court did make such a finding—and quotes the trial court doing so—and that if a jury found that Mr. Theriault did commit the act that the act itself would be sufficient for the jury to find that he did so with “intent to do great bodily harm or wanton disregard that such harm would result.”

Thus, the SCOV affirms.

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