Lefebvre v. State, 022420 RISUP, PM-2019-3924

Docket Nº:C. A. PM-2019-3924
Opinion Judge:VOGEL, J.
Attorney:For Plaintiff: Kathleen A. Nee, Esq. For Defendant: Shannon Signore, Esq.
Case Date:February 24, 2020
Court:Superior Court of Rhode Island




C. A. No. PM-2019-3924

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

February 24, 2020

For Plaintiff: Kathleen A. Nee, Esq.

For Defendant: Shannon Signore, Esq.



Danielle Lefebvre brings this application for post-conviction relief asserting that she did not receive effective assistance of counsel at trial and that the Court should grant her application and order a new trial. On March 24, 2015, Ms. Lefebvre was convicted by a jury of first-degree child abuse in causing horrific permanent injuries to her seven-week old infant son. This Court denied Ms. Lefebvre's motion for a new trial and sentenced her to twenty years at the Adult Correctional Institutions, with eighteen years to serve and the balance suspended with probation. The Supreme Court affirmed the conviction on January 7, 2019. For the reasons set forth in this Decision, the Court denies Ms. Lefebvre's application for post-conviction relief.

I Standard of Review

The standard by which a hearing justice considers a petition for post-conviction relief based upon a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is clear. To prevail on a petition for post-conviction relief, an applicant must demonstrate by a fair preponderance of the evidence that the conviction violated her constitutional rights requiring that the conviction be vacated "in the interest of justice." Mattatall v. State, 947 A.2d 896, 901 (R.I. 2008); see also Washington v. State, 989 A.2d 94, 98 (R.I. 2010); Larngar v. Wall, 918 A.2d 850, 855 (R.I. 2007); Page v. State, 995 A.2d 934, 942 (R.I. 2010). In Rhode Island, the Court patterns its evaluation of ineffective assistance of counsel cases "under the requirements of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984)." Brennan v. Vose, 764 A.2d 168, 171 (R.I. 2001); see also Washington, 989 A.2d at 99; Armenakes v. State, 821 A.2d 239, 245 (R.I. 2003). In applying Strickland, the hearing justice must determine '"whether counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied on as having produced a just result."' Heath v. Vose, 747 A.2d 475, 478 (R.I. 2000) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 686).

The standard enunciated in Strickland has two prongs. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. First, an applicant must demonstrate "that counsel's performance was deficient, to the point that the errors were so serious that trial counsel did not function at the level guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment." Brennan, 764 A.2d at 171; see also Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. In other words, the applicant must prove that trial counsel's performance fell "below an objective standard of reasonableness * * * considering all the circumstances." Brennan, 764 A.2d at 171 (internal quotation marks omitted); see Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688; see also Rodrigues v. State, 985 A.2d 311, 315 (R.I. 2009) ("The Court will reject an allegation of ineffective assistance of counsel unless a defendant can demonstrate that counsel's advice was not within the range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal cases.") (Internal quotation omitted.) There is a strong (but rebuttable) presumption "that counsel's performance was competent." Gonder v. State, 935 A.2d 82, 86 (R.I. 2007); see also State v. Figueroa, 639 A.2d 495, 500 (R.I. 1994).

If deficient performance is found to have existed, the Court proceeds to the second step or "prong" of the Strickland analytical scheme. In that second step, the applicant must demonstrate that the "deficient performance was so prejudicial to the defense and the errors were so serious as to amount to a deprivation of the applicant's right to a fair trial." Brennan, 764 A.2d at 171; see

Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. Additionally, the prejudice prong of the Strickland test requires the applicant to show that there is "a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694 (emphasis added). Unless an applicant satisfies both prongs of the Strickland test, '"it cannot be said that the conviction or * * * sentence resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable."' Simpson v. State, 769 A.2d 1257, 1266 (R.I. 2001) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687); see also Hazard v. State, 968 A.2d 886, 892 (R.I. 2009) ("[T]he applicant's failure to satisfy either prong will result in the denial of the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.").

II Facts and Background

To put this application in perspective, the Court will review certain pertinent evidence adduced at trial. The infant presented to the Hasbro Children's Hospital for emergency treatment on Wednesday, October 19, 2011, at which time medical staff performed a head CT scan and a skeletal survey of his body. Those tests revealed multiple injuries, including complex skull fractures with subdural and subarachnoid hemorrhages and brain contusions, all of which were life threatening and which have caused serious permanent damage. He was admitted to the hospital, and while an inpatient on November 3, 2011, he was x-rayed, and it was determined that he also sustained rib fractures. It is undisputed that rib fractures do not often appear on x-ray immediately, and the baby's rib fractures are consistent with having been suffered on October 18, 2011 or a few days one side or the other of that date.

There is no evidence that the infant had any pre-existing conditions. His birth was uncomplicated, and by all accounts, Ms. Lefebvre delivered a healthy baby boy just seven weeks earlier.

Ms. Lefebvre testified at trial as to her version of how the injuries occurred. Her testimony just was not credible, and the Court and likely the jury discounted it and rejected her claim that the baby suffered his life-threatening injuries in an accidental short-fall from her bed.

Other witnesses and statements given by Ms. Lefebvre herself portrayed her as someone who never bonded with the baby, felt resentful and angry toward him, and demonstrated aggressiveness in caring for the newborn, even shaking him and throwing him on the bed just to get away from him.

The first witness called by the State was Sgt. Carl Weston of the Providence Police Department assigned to the Youth Services Bureau. He provided compelling testimony as to Ms. Lefebvre's admitted failure to bond with the baby and her aggressiveness toward the seven-week old infant. She admitted to him that she had indeed shaken the baby. Sgt. Carl Weston obtained a recorded interview with Ms. Lefebvre on October 22, 2011, after giving her the Miranda warnings. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). That recorded statement was played for the jury, and they likely were struck by her demeanor in that audio interview. Her baby was in critical condition. Yet, Ms. Lefebvre's manner appeared matter-of-fact. She sounded cold and detached. However, even more than her demeanor, Ms. Lefebvre's words were very damaging to her case.

She told Sgt. Weston that she had been sitting at the foot of her bed against the foot board (not the head of the bed by the pillows) and that the baby had been cradled on her stomach or on her chest. She dozed off, and when she woke up, the baby was on the hardwood floor next to the bed crying. It was mid-day on October 18, 2011, and her plan was to take the infant to her grandmother's home for an overnight stay. Ms. Lefebvre was scheduled to return to work for the first time after her maternity leave the next day, Wednesday, October 19, 2011. The Court, and likely the jury, found the explanation of her sitting against the foot board convenient because if she had been sitting in any other location on the bed, the baby would have fallen entirely on an area rug. Even in her version of events, part of the infant would have landed on the rug. The bed was standard height, 2.5 to 3 feet. She stated that when she first found the baby on the floor, the whole back of his head was red, but that the redness faded.

In spite of the age of the infant, the fact that he supposedly fell, and that the whole back of his head was red, she virtually disregarded the incident and proceeded to take the baby to her grandmother without even mentioning the fall to the caregiver. By noon the next day, her grandmother told her over the telephone that the baby had rapid eye movement or twitching. He was listless, and her grandmother expressed concerns for his well-being. Nonetheless, Ms. Lefebvre remained at work until 1:30 p.m. The Court, and likely the jury, would have been shocked that she did not make sure the baby got immediate medical attention, particularly if she knew the baby had fallen the day before.

Instead, Ms. Lefebvre went to her...

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