People v. Sargent

Citation81 Cal.Rptr.2d 835,970 P.2d 409,19 Cal.4th 1206
Decision Date01 February 1999
Docket NumberNo. S067672,S067672
Parties, 20 Cal.4th 100A, 970 P.2d 409, 99 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 853, 99 Daily Journal D.A.R. 1107 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Michael Daniel SARGENT, Sr., Defendant and Appellant
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General, George Williamson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Robert R. Anderson, Assistant Attorney General, Stan Cross, Cynthia G. Besemer and Janis Shank McLean, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.


In this case we determine the required mens rea for a conviction of felony child abuse based on direct infliction of unjustifiable physical pain and mental suffering. (Pen.Code, 1 § 273a, former subd. (1), now § 273a, subd. (a) (section 273a(1)).) 2 The Court of Appeal concluded criminal negligence is required.

[970 P.2d 411] We disagree, and therefore reverse its judgment.


Michael Sargent, Jr. (Michael), defendant's son, was born on March 24, 1993, three months premature. He weighed two pounds, four ounces, and spent the first three months of his life in the hospital. By August 19, 1993, he was the equivalent of a four- to six-week-old infant in terms of neck muscle development. On that date, Marysville Fire Department personnel and a paramedic responding to a "911" call found Michael in a deep coma and close to death on defendant's apartment floor. He was not breathing, had no heartbeat, no eye or motor movement, and no response to verbal stimuli. There was bright red blood coming from his nose and mouth.

Michael was ultimately airlifted to the University of California at Davis Medical Center. While Michael's subsequent condition was not made clear at trial, it appears he survived and was released from the hospital on September 3, 1993.

Defendant's explanation of Michael's injuries varied. On August 19, 1993, defendant told a neighbor, paramedic, and hospital personnel Michael had rolled off the couch and fallen 18 to 20 inches to a carpeted floor. On August 24, 1993, defendant was interviewed by the police. He denied dropping Michael or losing his temper.

On August 25, 1993, defendant was again interviewed by the police. He stated he had dropped Michael while throwing him up in the air to stop him from crying, causing Michael to strike his head on the linoleum kitchen floor. The interviewing officers told defendant a consulting physician had concluded Michael was a victim of shaken baby syndrome. Defendant initially denied Michael was ever shaken. He then changed his story a third time. He said he and Michael's mother had an argument, and she dropped defendant and Michael off at the house. Defendant carried Michael in his car seat into the house. The infant was crying inconsolably. Defendant started to try to make a bottle for Michael. When Michael continued crying, defendant shook him front to back as Michael sat in his car seat. Defendant then returned to making the bottle. When Michael continued to cry, and refused a pacifier, "that's when I was shaking him more hard." Defendant shook Michael four or five times, causing the infant's head to lose contact with the car seat "a couple of times." Michael stopped crying. He "had this weird look in his eyes ... like [he] was going to sleep you know like he was falling or something." When defendant picked him up, Michael's back bowed. His eyes closed, and he appeared to have difficulty breathing.

Defendant was charged with felony child abuse (§ 273a(1)), alleged to be a serious felony because it involved the personal infliction of great bodily injury. (§§ 667, subd. (a), 1192.7, subd. (c)(8).) It was further alleged that defendant had suffered a prior serious felony conviction for burglary (§§ 459, 667, subd. (a); 1192.7, subd. (c)(18)), and served two prior prison terms (§ 667.5, subd. (b)).

At trial, Dr. John McCann, a pediatrician and director of the Davis Medical Center's child protection program, testified as a medical expert on child abuse for the prosecution. When Michael arrived at the Davis Medical Center he was sedated and consequently paralyzed because he appeared to be having seizures. No bruises or other external trauma, except for swelling around the eyes Based on all of this information, Dr. McCann opined Michael was a victim of shaken baby syndrome. Seventy to seventy-five percent of the children injured by shaking suffer either severe long-term disabling injury, such as blindness, seizures, and difficulty walking or talking, or death. McCann stated that shaking Michael was a circumstance likely to result in great bodily injury or death. For a fall to have caused the injuries sustained, Michael would have to fall out a second story window, not off the couch or from his father's arms.

[970 P.2d 412] were observed. A CAT (computerized axial tomography) scan revealed bilateral subdural hematomas, or blood over the surface of Michael's brain on both sides behind his ears. In addition, his brain was swollen. During his examination of Michael, Dr. McCann observed flame-shaped retinal hemorrhages in both eyes.

Dr. Todd Brandtman testified as a defense medical expert. He was an emergency room physician who had neither treated nor examined Michael. He did not have an expertise in child abuse. He testified Michael's injuries could have resulted from being dropped, and that photographs of Michael taken two days after he left the hospital showed a swollen spot on the back of his head.

Tapes of defendant's interviews with the police were played for the jury. Defendant testified his admission of shaking the infant was false and his prior account of dropping him was accurate. He confessed to shaking the infant because that was what the interviewing officers wanted to hear and because the officers and other government agents had told him they wanted to keep the family together and did not want him to get into trouble.

Michael's mother testified she had seen defendant throwing Michael up in the air on other occasions and gotten angry at him for doing so. On August 19, 1993, she heard a thump and saw the infant crying, but concluded he had not been injured by his fall and left the apartment. Several other family members and friends testified they saw a bump on the back of Michael's head at various times following his discharge from the hospital.

The jury was instructed that it could find defendant guilty of violating section 273a(1) based on general criminal intent if it found defendant willfully inflicted unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering on Michael. In addition, the jury was required to find the infliction occurred under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death. The jury was further instructed that permitting a child to suffer unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or when having the care or custody of a child permitting the child to be injured, or permitting the child to be placed in a situation that endangers the child's person or health in violation of section 273a(1) required criminal negligence. Both general criminal intent and criminal negligence were defined. 3 The prosecutor argued that the jury could conclude defendant committed child abuse whether it found defendant had shaken Michael with general criminal intent, or dropped Michael with criminal negligence, and that this crime was a felony if it was committed under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death.

The jury found defendant guilty of a violation of section 273a(1). The verdict did not indicate which branch of section 273a(1) the jury found defendant had violated, that is, whether defendant had directly inflicted the abuse by shaking Michael, or had been criminally negligent in dropping him. In a bifurcated court trial, the enhancement allegations were found true. The court sentenced defendant to the upper term of six years for the felony child abuse count, consecutive to five years for an enhancement. 4

The Court of Appeal, with one justice dissenting, concluded criminal negligence must be demonstrated to convict a defendant of infliction of unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, and the evidence did not support the inference that defendant was criminally negligent. The court relied on cases involving other branches of section 273a(1) that generally required criminal negligence. It disagreed with People v. Atkins (1975) 53 Cal.App.3d 348, 125 Cal.Rptr. 855 and People v. Wright (1976) 60 Cal.App.3d 6, 131 Cal.Rptr. 311, disapproved on other grounds in People v. Wells (1996) 12 Cal.4th 979, 988, 50 Cal.Rptr.2d 699, 911 P.2d 1374, concluding their interpretation of section 273a(1) "reads out of the statute the element which embodies criminal negligence, the requirement that the culpable conduct occur in circumstances likely to produce great bodily harm or death."

The court further concluded that "[t]here is nothing in the record from which it can be inferred that the defendant knew or should have known of the risk of great bodily harm or death from shaking the infant, e.g., attendance at a prenatal education session concerning this risk.... Nor can we take judicial notice that such a risk is generally known....

... The defendant denied knowledge of the syndrome and the record is devoid of evidence showing that he knew or should have known of the syndrome. Accordingly Finally, the court concluded that "defendant was convicted under the second branch of section [273a(1) ], the 'inflict[ion of] ... unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering' upon a child 'under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death....' " The prosecution was not predicated on criminal negligence in dropping Michael. While defendant testified "he...

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