State v. Bowden, 80-494-C

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
Writing for the CourtKELLEHER
Citation439 A.2d 263
PartiesSTATE v. Michael BOWDEN. A.
Docket NumberNo. 80-494-C,80-494-C
Decision Date07 January 1982

Page 263

439 A.2d 263

Michael BOWDEN.
No. 80-494-C.A.
Supreme Court of Rhode Island.
Jan. 7, 1982.

Page 265

Dennis J. Roberts II, Atty. Gen., Susan E. McGuirl, Asst. Atty. Gen., for plaintiff.

Thomas W. Kelly, Howe & Dwyer, Kevin F. Dwyer, Newport, for defendant.


KELLEHER, Justice.

The defendant, Michael Bowden (Bowden), was charged with manslaughter in the death of Michael Harris. A September 1979 trial terminated with the jury unable to reach a verdict. A second trial was conducted in January 1980, and the jury returned a verdict of guilty, from which verdict the defendant now appeals.

In August 1977 Bowden, then a dental technician in the United States Navy, resided at the apartment of Yvette Harris, his girl friend, at 78 Mahan Street in Newport. During this time Bowden apparently developed a close relationship with Mrs. Harris's children, David and Michael, then ages five and twenty months, respectively, who also lived in the apartment. Bowden claims to have been especially fond of young Michael; and according to the child's mother, Michael was responsively affectionate toward Bowden.

In the fall Bowden was stationed in San Diego, California. While on holiday leave, he returned to Rhode Island, staying at the Harris household from Monday, November 28, 1977, through Thursday, December 1, 1977. Throughout that week he looked after the children whenever Mrs. Harris was out of the apartment on errands or at work between the hours of 4 p. m. and midnight.

Late in the afternoon of Thursday, December 1, Bowden, with Michael in his arms, ran frantically into the apartment of Barbara Winters, located next door at 80 Mahan Street. The child was choking on a piece of paper towel which had become lodged deep in his throat. The toddler was placed on the floor while Mrs. Winters, her brother-in-law Wayne Henderson, and Bowden worked on the child for several minutes in an attempt to clear his airway. The paper towel was finally dislodged from his throat, but immediately thereafter the child lapsed into unconsciousness. Bowden administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and Michael was transported to the hospital. He died sixteen days later, never having regained consciousness. The state medical examiner determined that death resulted from cranio-cerebral trauma (injury to the head and brain) produced, in his opinion, in a homicidal manner.

Bowden's appeal centers on two evidentiary rulings by the trial justice relating to the rebuttal evidence introduced by the prosecution. After reviewing the record, we conclude that the rulings to which he objects constitute prejudicial error, and we reverse the conviction. Before discussing the legal merits of his appeal, however, it is necessary to recount briefly the substance of the evidence admitted at trial in both the state and the defense cases-in-chief.

Page 266

The bulk of the prosecution's case consisted of testimony by five witnesses concerning noises they heard emanating from the Harris apartment during the week of Bowden's visit. These sounds were noted from the vantage point of the apartments adjoining the Harris apartment on either side. At no time did any of these witnesses observe Bowden strike or otherwise abuse Michael Harris. The testimony of the neighbors was that on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings they heard a young child in the Harris apartment crying and the sound of a child's head being banged against a wall of that apartment several times over the course of fifteen to twenty minutes. One of the neighbors also recalled hearing multiple slapping sounds and the sound of a toddler tumbling down the stairs within the Harris apartment. Two of the witnesses reported hearing a man's voice say, "(H)e'd teach him to go to the bathroom in his pants again." On Wednesday evening this same person was overheard telling a child to remain in bed or "his legs would be broken." The witnesses concluded that the crying was that of a child aged eighteen months to two years.

On cross-examination one of the neighbors admitted that the sounds he heard against the wall of the Harris apartment could have been caused by someone punching the wall rather than by a child's body being thrown against it. Another witness, on the other hand, rejected this possibility, steadfastly maintaining that the noise she heard could only have been that of the body of a small child hitting the wall. It was also conceded by one witness that the slaps she heard may have been produced by an open hand against a child's buttocks. In addition, a neighbor testified that in response to the toddler's falling down the stairs on Wednesday, Bowden called out Michael's name in a shocked voice and immediately went to him. She assumed that he consoled Michael because the child's crying ceased. She further stated that she heard no yelling on Tuesday or Wednesday prior to the sound of the child tumbling down the stairs, but she was not certain if Bowden had comforted the child after his fall on Tuesday.

While on the stand, Bowden admitted that he spanked Michael on the buttocks on several occasions during the week in an effort to discipline the child and to further his toilet training. He denied ever having abused either of the Harris children and stated that he had never punched or struck David or Michael. Bowden went on to explain that he frequently wrestled with the boys in play, and as part of this game he would raise his voice, making such statements in jest as, "Get over here," "I'm going to kill you," "Come here," and "Let me break your arm." Bowden also remarked that the toddler was quick to cry or whine whenever he was scolded.

His testimony was supported by the testimony of Mrs. Harris, who had been called as a witness by the state. She related that when the children wrestled with Bowden, they rolled around on the floor yelling and screaming. During these matches, the furniture would be moved about, resulting in loud banging and thumping noises. On the whole she stated, this type of play was accompanied by quite a loud "ruckus," which resounded throughout the apartment. She indicated that sometimes during these matches young Michael would end up crying if he accidentally banged into things.

More generally, Mrs. Harris explained that Michael's method of descending the stairs was to bounce down a step at a time on his rear-end, making thumping noises as he went down. In conflict with the testimony of her neighbors, she claimed that she had been home Tuesday and Wednesday mornings during the time they reported hearing a child thrown against a wall. Mrs. Harris stated that she did not see Bowden strike or abuse the toddler in any way on either of these days or at any other time, nor did she observe any bruises or other injuries on his body. She elaborated that Bowden's method of disciplining both children, to the best of her knowledge, consisted only of spanking them on their buttocks with his open hand when their misbehavior warranted such action.

Page 267

With regard to the injuries sustained by the child, Bowden asserted that Michael slipped Wednesday evening when climbing out of the bathtub, fell forward, and hit his forehead on the sink that was located only inches from the bathtub. Mrs. Harris substantiated his testimony, relating that upon returning home from work that night she found Bowden asleep in the bedroom with the toddler asleep on his chest. She noticed a red mark over the child's eye, and Bowden informed her about the child's fall in the bathroom. Young Michael awoke, told her that "he had a hurt on his head," and then walked to his own room and climbed into his crib.

Finally, Bowden described the choking incident as the tragic result of a game he had been playing with the toddler. He stated that Michael had been in the kitchen sucking on an ice cube. Some water from the cube dripped onto the floor, and he used a piece of paper towel to wipe it up. To amuse the child, he balled-up the paper towel and tossed it at him. A game of catch ensued. Bowden then put the towel in his mouth and blew it out at the child. In turn, Michael put the...

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