Bennett v. State, No. 2003-DP-00765-SCT.

Citation933 So.2d 930
Decision Date11 May 2006
Docket NumberNo. 2003-DP-00765-SCT.
PartiesDevin A. BENNETT v. STATE of Mississippi.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi

Office of Capital Defense Counsel, by Andre De Gruy, Stacy P. Ferraro, J. Edward Rainer, attorneys for appellant.

Office of the Attorney General, by Melanie Kathryn Dotson, Marvin L. White, attorneys for appellee.

EN BANC.

DICKINSON, Justice, for the Court.

¶ 1. This is the appeal of a capital murder conviction and death sentence handed down by a Rankin County Circuit Court jury.

BACKGROUND FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

¶ 2. Brandon Allen Bennett ("Brandon") was born in June 2000 to Yolanda Lewis ("Lewis") and the Appellant, Devin Bennett ("Bennett"). Two months later on August 25, 2000, at 8:45 a.m., Bennett took Brandon to River Oaks Hospital where nurse Collette Moreland ("Moreland") took Brandon from Bennett, noting that the baby was pale, cold, and not breathing. The medical records indicate Brandon was asystolic, meaning he had no heartbeat or pulse.

¶ 3. Moreland took Brandon to the emergency room where she began mouth to mouth resuscitation and chest compressions. Brandon was intubated, and an IV was started. Two more nurses, an emergency room doctor, a neonatologist, and a respiratory therapist were called in to assist with Brandon's condition. After approximately twenty-five minutes, Brandon's heartbeat returned.

¶ 4. Bennett initially did not follow Moreland when she took Brandon into the emergency room. Later, when asked by the medical staff what happened to Brandon, Bennett said he awoke around four o'clock that morning to find that Brandon "appeared to have slipped out of his car seat onto the floor." This was Bennett's first of at least seven different versions of the events leading to Brandon's death. When questioned by two social workers at River Oaks, Bennett offered two accounts of the story. He told Jerri Strickland ("Strickland") that he noticed the baby breathing funny sometime around four o'clock in the morning and he gave him a bottle and placed him in a car seat. He then told Strickland that he awoke later to find Brandon on the floor. However, when he spoke with social worker Leslie Jacobs ("Jacobs"), he told her that sometime around eight o'clock that morning he found the infant on the bedroom floor. Bennett specifically stated to Jacobs that the car seat in which he placed Brandon was located on the floor — not on the bed. He also told Jacobs that because Brandon was very strong, he must have moved around in his seat and toppled onto the floor. Both Strickland and Jacobs noted that Bennett was acting in an odd fashion.

¶ 5. Ultimately, after Brandon's heartbeat returned, the medical staff decided to transfer him to the pediatric unit at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson ("UMC"), which they felt was better equipped to handle an infant in Brandon's condition. Upon his arrival at UMC, Brandon was in a coma, unresponsive, and on life support. Rebecca Pruitt ("Pruitt"), a social worker in the neonatal intensive care unit at UMC, spoke with both Bennett and Lewis. Bennett told Pruitt that he had been visiting a neighbor on the night of August 24, and that upon arriving home at 12:30 a.m. on the morning of August 25, he put Brandon in his car seat which was on the floor. Bennett said he woke up at 3:00 a.m. to find Brandon had toppled out of the car seat and was crying and lying on the floor. He told Pruitt that he placed Brandon back in the seat and went back to sleep.

¶ 6. At UMC, Brandon was placed under the care of Dr. Bonnie Woodall ("Dr. Woodall"), who the State would later call as an expert in pediatric emergency medicine. Dr. Woodall examined Brandon for head injuries and performed a complete neurological exam. She also looked over Brandon's body for evidence of trauma or infection, and she noticed that Brandon had bruising to his scalp in the "left ecchymosis" or "left frontoparietal scalp," bruising on his right scapula area, and bruising on his right lumbar area. She also observed swelling and discoloration along Brandon's upper left forearm. Dr. Woodall found multiple retinal hemorrhages in Brandon's eyes where blood had leaked out into the tissue of Brandon's retinas. Dr. Woodall stated that retinal hemorrhages to the degree suffered by Brandon "are associated with extreme trauma, motor vehicle accidents or injuries that require a great deal of force."

¶ 7. X-rays of Brandon's body displayed a fracture in the left parietal of his skull. A CT scan revealed that Brandon had a subdural hematoma, which is a collection of blood just outside the brain but within the covering of the brain. Additionally, the neurological assessment showed that Brandon was in a coma, meaning he had no response to pain and made no respiratory effort. The medical staff further noted there were no signs of brain function.

¶ 8. When Dr. Woodall asked for Brandon's history to help her diagnose and treat him, Bennett stated that Brandon was sleeping in the car seat located on the floor, and that when he woke up and found Brandon on the floor, he put him back in the seat. In observing that the medical records included several versions provided by Bennett of when Brandon fell from the car seat, Dr. Woodall stated: "[i]n one notation, it was around 6:00 to 6:30. In another notation, it was 3:00 to 3:30 a.m. And another notation around 4:00 to 5:00 a.m." Brandon never awoke from the coma and was pronounced dead on August 27, 2003.

¶ 9. Master Sergeant Rodney Eriksen ("Sergeant Eriksen") of the Madison Police Department went to the hospital to obtain statements from Brandon's parents. Brandon's mother told him that she and Bennett did not live together, and that Brandon had been alone with Bennett on the night he was injured. Sergeant Eriksen asked Bennett to accompany him and Sergeant John Chance to the police station to give a statement. Bennett provided Sergeant Eriksen several conflicting versions of the incident. When Sergeant Eriksen asked how Brandon could have flung himself out of his car seat onto the floor, Bennett changed his story and claimed the car seat fell to the floor. Later, he changed his story again to say that he accidently kicked the car seat off the bed onto the floor while he was sleeping. Eventually, Bennett admitted to Sergeant Eriksen that he shook Brandon, claiming it was an effort to elicit a response from his unresponsive child. Bennett stated, "[y]eah, I shook him . . . I shook him too hard." However, Bennett maintained he was not trying to hurt Brandon, but rather was just trying to wake him. Sergeant Eriksen also questioned Bennett as to why he took Brandon to River Oaks instead of the Richland Police Department, one of the two fire stations, or the Baptist Medical Clinic which were all within one mile of his home. Bennett responded that it did not take long to get to the hospital, just ten or twenty minutes.

¶ 10. On November 7, 2000, a Rankin County grand jury indicted Bennett for capital murder. He was charged with the underlying crime of felonious child abuse. At pre-trial hearings on February 5 and 14, 2003, the court heard several defense motions including three motions to suppress, one motion to dismiss, and one motion to quash. Also at the February 14 hearing, the court considered and rejected Bennett's proffered guilty plea on the charge of heat of passion manslaughter. On February 18, 2003, jury selection began in the Rankin County Circuit Court, the Honorable William Chapman, III, presiding.

¶ 11. At trial, Dr. Woodall testified that Brandon had a subdural hematoma, diffuse swelling of the brain, a skull fracture, an intercranial hemorrhage, and extensive bilateral retinal hemorrhages. Dr. Woodall also stated that she could conclude to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that these injuries were not consistent with a child falling out of a car seat to the floor. She further testified that a skull fracture associated with intercranial injuries, such as the type suffered by Brandon, is an "indication that there was a more severe trauma involved." Additionally, Dr. Woodall stated that, in children, a hematoma is often the result of shaken baby syndrome, or the severe and violent shaking of an infant. When asked about the force necessary to cause a subdural hematoma, Dr. Woodall noted that the injury required "pretty significant force, and it would have to be a fall with some sort of angular rotational component to it, as flipping over or rotating in some fashion before they strike a surface." Furthermore, Dr. Woodall testified that it would be impossible for a ten-week-old infant, such as Brandon, to have sustained these injuries alone.

¶ 12. Dr. Woodall's expert analysis concluded that Brandon did not fall out of his carrier. She stated to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that if the infant carrier was raised fourteen inches and placed on top of a box spring, the injuries Brandon suffered would not be consistent with him falling out of a carrier from that position. According to Dr. Woodall, Brandon's injuries, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, were consistent with being shaken and thrown down on a hard surface.

¶ 13. The State also consulted Dr. Andrew Parent ("Dr. Parent"), chairman of neurosurgery at UMC and an expert in the field of pediatric neurosurgery. Dr. Parent noted that Brandon had a bruise over his frontal area, that his pupils were fixed and dilated, and that he had hemorrhages in both eyes. Dr. Parent also noted that Brandon's CT scan showed the presence of a subdural hematoma, located under the dura (the tissue covering the brain) but on top of the brain, and a subarachnoid hematoma, located on top of the brain but beneath the subaracnoid membrane. The CT scan also revealed blood collected under the tentorium, the piece of tissue that separated the upper part of Brandon's brain from...

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