People v. Taggart

Decision Date05 January 1981
Docket NumberNo. 80SA32,80SA32
Citation621 P.2d 1375
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Ricky Lyle TAGGART, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

J. D. MacFarlane, Atty. Gen., Richard F. Hennessey, Deputy Atty. Gen., Mary J. Mullarkey, Sol. Gen., William Morris, Asst. Atty. Gen., Denver, for plaintiff-appellee.

J. Gregory Walta, Colorado State Public Defender, Terri L. Brake, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, for defendant-appellant.

QUINN, Justice:

Ricky Lyle Taggart (defendant) was convicted of the crimes of child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury, section 18-6-401, C.R.S. 1973 (1978 Repl.Vol. 8), a class 3 felony, 1 and criminally negligent homicide, section 18-3-105, C.R.S. 1973 (1978 Repl.Vol. 8), a class 1 misdemeanor. 2 He claims that the statutory scheme underlying his conviction for child abuse is constitutionally infirm, that the trial court erred in its rulings on challenges for cause during jury selection and on evidential matters during the trial, and, lastly, that the form of verdict submitted to the jury violated the constitutional requirement of unanimity. We affirm.

I. Trial Proceedings

The information charged that the defendant on November 30, 1977, knowingly or negligently, and without justifiable excuse, caused a child, Christopher D. Stone (Chris), to be placed in a situation that might endanger his life or caused him to be cruelly punished, and as a result thereof the child suffered serious bodily injury. The charge arose out of the death of Chris, the defendant's four-year old stepson. Chris lived in the trailer home at 5225 Adams Street in Denver with the defendant and Donna Taggart, who was Chris' natural mother and the defendant's wife.

The cause of injury and death was the central issue during the trial. The prosecution's evidence established that Chris died of severe brain damage inflicted by the defendant in the course of a severe beating with a thermos jug while he and the child were alone in the trailer home. The incident that precipitated the beating was Chris' wetting the bed during an afternoon nap. The defendant maintained throughout the trial that Chris fell from his grasp during a spanking and struck his head on a night stand and against the floor. According to the defendant Chris then went into an epileptic seizure and the defendant slapped him repeatedly in order to revive him but to no avail.

The asserted errors during jury selection are tied to the court's denial of the defendant's causal challenges to two prospective jurors, Kathryn Woods and Doris Anderson. The defendant ultimately excused these jurors by peremptory challenge and expended his remaining peremptory challenges on other prospective jurors.

The claimed evidential errors relate to the following: the admission of evidence of prior acts of child abuse by the defendant toward Chris; the limitation of the defendant's cross-examination of Donna Taggart; the admission on Donna Taggart's redirect examination of testimony about a fight in which the defendant struck her; the testimony of an ambulance driver regarding a statement made to him by the defendant; the admission of photographs depicting the injuries to Chris; and the testimony of three doctors concerning the injuries inflicted on Chris. A summary of the circumstances underlying these evidential rulings will place the issues in proper focus.

Donna Taggart's Testimony

During Donna Taggart's direct examination the district attorney, outside the presence of the jury, advised the court that he was about to elicit from the witness evidence of prior beatings inflicted by the defendant on Chris. The stated purpose of this evidence was to establish that the defendant's actions on November 30, 1977, were part of a plan or scheme to abuse the child and that the defendant had the requisite culpability of knowingly causing the child to be cruelly punished. The court allowed the testimony and instructed the jury on its limited admissibility. Donna Taggart then testified before the jury about five incidents of child abuse by the defendant. The first occurred in 1976 when the defendant spanked Chris to the point where his buttocks and lower back were covered with bruises. The second incident occurred in the summer of 1977 when he hit Chris in the face for bed wetting. The last three incidents occurred within the three weeks preceding Chris' death. On these occasions the witness observed bumps and bruises on the child's body when she returned from work or errands. The defendant on four occasions told her that he had disciplined Chris for wetting his pants, and on the other occasion the stated cause of the discipline was the child's crying.

During cross-examination of Donna Taggart defense counsel questioned her about whether she had been abused as a child and the attitude of her relatives toward her parental ability. Upon the district attorney's objection, made after the initial question had been asked and answered, the court limited further inquiry into these areas. Defense counsel also attempted to question the witness about her alleged statement to the defendant following a juvenile court proceeding involving the custody of her infant daughter, at which point the court directed counsel to avoid any reference to the specific nature of the juvenile court proceeding. The defendant claims that these limitations constitute reversible error.

In the course of further cross-examination of Donna Taggart, defense counsel inquired about an incident in which she jumped on the hood of the defendant's car during an argument in order to prevent him from driving away. The witness stated that she remembered the incident because the defendant "tore up all my plants" and damaged the house. On redirect examination the prosecutor asked her to again explain what happened during the argument and she answered "I'm not real sure what it was over, but he hit me." Defense counsel objected to this redirect examination but the objection was overruled.

The Ambulance Driver's Testimony

James Lloyd, an ambulance driver for Denver General Hospital, testified in the prosecution's case that on the evening of November 30, 1977, he responded to a call from a trailer court at 5225 Adams Street. Upon his arrival a woman was holding an unconscious four-year old child wrapped in a blanket. Without objection the witness then testified that, as he was putting the child in the ambulance, "Mr. Taggart" said "Don't worry about it, it's no big deal." The defendant did not raise an objection to this testimony until the prosecution rested its case. He then unsuccessfully moved to strike it or, in the alternative, for a mistrial, on the ground the witness never made an in-court identification of the defendant as the declarant.

Photographic Evidence and the Doctors' Testimony

The prosecution also called three doctors who had examined Chris at various times at the hospital. Dr. Vincent Markovchick was the physician on duty in the emergency room when the child was brought there by ambulance on November 30, 1977. He testified to his examination and treatment of "Christopher Stone." He also identified three photographs as accurately depicting the nature and extent of the injuries he observed during his examination. Doctor William Meredith, an ophthalmologist, testified to his examination of "a young boy by the name of Christopher Stone" at Denver General Hospital on November 30, 1977, and the injuries he observed in and about his eyes. This witness also identified various photographs depicting the eyes of "Christopher Stone." Doctor George Ogura, a pathologist, described his post-mortem examination of "a deceased little boy identified to (him) as Christopher Stone." This witness also identified a photograph of the child. The photographs were admitted into evidence over the defendant's objections that they were inflammatory and inaccurate.

At the conclusion of the prosecution's case the defendant moved to strike the testimony of the three doctors because the prosecution failed to establish the child about whom the doctors testified was the same Christopher D. Stone alleged in the information as the victim of the offense. The defendant's motion to strike was denied.

The Form of Verdict, Conviction and Sentence

At the conclusion of the evidence the court submitted to the jury general verdicts of guilty and not guilty for the crime of child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury and criminally negligent homicide. The defendant made no objection to the form of the verdicts. The jury returned verdicts of guilty on both charges. The court sentenced the defendant to 20 to 25 years for child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury, and 6 months for criminally negligent homicide, to be served concurrently. The defendant now disputes the constitutional validity of the guilty verdict for child abuse and the sentence for that offense.

We first address the defendant's constitutional challenges to the statute, next the alleged errors occurring during jury selection, then the evidential issues during trial, and finally the propriety of the verdict form.

I. The Constitutionality of Section 18-6-401
A. Equal Protection

The defendant claims that the child abuse statute, section 18-6-401, C.R.S. 1973 (1978 Repl.Vol. 8), violates equal protection of the laws, U.S. Const. Amend. XIV; Colo.Const. Art. II, Sec. 25, 3 because it proscribes the same conduct forbidden by the criminally negligent homicide statute, section 18-3-105, C.R.S. 1973 (1978 Repl.Vol. 8), but carries a disproportionately greater penalty. One who asserts a statute's unconstitutionality carries the burden of establishing it beyond a reasonable doubt. E. g., Colorado Auto and Truck Wreckers Assoc. v. Dept. of Revenue, Colo., 618 P.2d 646 (1980); People v. Sequin, Colo., 609 P.2d 622 (1980); Mr. Lucky's, Inc. v. Dolan, 197 Colo. 195, 591 P.2d 1021 (1979); People v....

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