Williams v. State

Decision Date03 October 2007
Docket NumberNo. PD-0446-06.,PD-0446-06.
Citation235 S.W.3d 742
PartiesSharan Ann WILLIAMS, Appellant v. The STATE of Texas.
CourtTexas Court of Criminal Appeals

Anthony C. Odiorne, Wichita Falls, for Appellant.

John W. Brasher, Assistant District Atty., Austin, for State.


COCHRAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which, PRICE, WOMACK, JOHNSON, KEASLER, HERVEY and HOLCOMB, JJ., joined.

We granted appellant's petition for discretionary review to examine the culpable mental state of recklessness.

Appellant was convicted of injury to a child and sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment after her two children died in an accidental house fire while her boyfriend was babysitting them. We hold that the evidence in this case was legally insufficient to support her conviction under Section 22.04 of the Texas Penal Code.1 The court of appeals erred in concluding that the State proved the criminal offense of reckless injury to a child when the evidence showed that appellant took her children from their grandmother's house (which had working utilities) to her boyfriend's temporary home (which did not have working utilities) and left them under her boyfriend's care with a lit candle in the bedroom.2 The State's proof of these facts—proof beyond a reasonable doubt— did not establish a criminally culpable reckless state of mind. Further, the State did not prove that appellant's acts or omissions caused the death of her children.3


Two of appellant's children, Ujeana, age seven, and Precious, age eight, died in a house fire in the early morning hours of October 5, 2002. Ujeana, Precious, and appellant lived with appellant's mother, Zula Mae Scott, who routinely cared for the young girls. Occasionally the girls stayed with their father, Charles Leon Williams, Jr. Sometimes they stayed with appellant and her boyfriend, Herbert Ronald Bowden, in his "home." Bowden lived in an altered duplex with both halves of the house combined into a single unit. It was a four-room structure, but it had no kitchen or bathroom, no working utilities, and very little furniture. In Bowden's bedroom there was a bed, as well as a dresser under the window, and a chair in front of the nailed-up door to the outside. There was a couch in the living room. The house was, according to Bowden, "somewhat trashy." There was indeed trash on the floor, mainly in the living room.

Bowden lived in this makeshift home with permission, and he paid a nominal rent. He intended to live there until he saved enough money from his new job at Bennigan's restaurant to afford a proper apartment. About two weeks before the fire, Zula Mae learned that appellant and Bowden were taking the children to the duplex. She warned them both that "it was too dangerous to be taking them down there and burning candles," in part because of the risk of a house fire.

Nevertheless, after he got off work on October 4, 2002, Bowden went to Zula Mae's house to pick up appellant and her girls. Zula Mae was not yet home from work. The four walked to his duplex. Appellant went out to get cigarettes and ran into the girls' father, Charles Leon Williams, Jr., in the parking lot of the store. He asked appellant where the girls were. She told him that they were "at home," which meant, to Mr. Williams, "with Zula Mae." Mr. Williams saw appellant leave the store in a car with a man who was not Bowden.

When appellant returned to the duplex, she told Bowden that she wanted to go out with friends, and he agreed to watch the girls. He dressed them in his sweatshirts to keep them warm, and then he and appellant put the girls to bed in his bedroom. They placed a burning candle in an aluminum pie plate for light4 because Bowden did not want the girls to be left "in the dark." Bowden said that he and appellant "were sitting there talking and um, and uh, soon as we got through talking I took the candle and sat it over there in the corner at the edge of the bed. I sat it there." The candle was closer to the wall than the bed. After appellant left, Bowden checked on the girls who were asleep with the candle still lit. "I don't know why I didn't think to blow the candle out, I just didn't want them to be in the dark."

Bowden said that he left the house only once-around 9:30-to get a cigarette from his neighbor Preston. Then he "ran on back down the street and went on back in the house and went and checked on 'em and they were still sleep. And I went and sat in the living room on the couch. And then I went and got up and checked on 'em again and that was I'm saying that was about 10 o'clock or so."

Bowden finally fell asleep on the living-room couch. His neighbor Preston woke him up about 11:00 p.m. He was outside "hollering" and "asking about Sharan `cause apparently he had loaned her a couple of dollars or something and he needed it. So uh, I was telling him she wasn't there." Bowden came back inside because it was "cool" outside, and "I didn't have on any shoes or nothing and I went out there just in my socks." He checked on the girls again and then once more fell asleep on the couch.

Around 1:00 a.m., Bowden woke up to loud screams and saw that the bedroom where the girls were sleeping was on fire. When he looked in the "open" door all he could see "was flames and smoke."5 He said he got down close to the floor, but he "could barely even see the bottom of the bed you know? And it was that much smoke in there." He could still hear the girls screaming, and he was "hollering, calling their names, but they wasn't responding like they heard my voice." He ran out of the front door, and "I went around to the side window and uh, knocked it out. But flames were coming out of it." When he could not get in the window, he ran around to the boarded-up exterior bedroom door and tried to pull it open, but again he could not get inside.

Wichita Falls Police Officer Jonathan Lindsay was the first emergency responder. When he arrived, he saw Bowden with a towel wrapped around one of his hands, crying "my babies are inside, my babies are inside." Bowden was "frantic." By the time the fire department arrived, the house was "fully involved" with flames, and the firemen were unable to enter it. The children never got out.

Appellant, who had been told about the fire, arrived back at the scene as the fire department was extinguishing the blaze. Bowden—who had cut his hand when he broke the window trying to get to the children—was briefly checked out by medical personnel. He had no burns or cough.

Jim Graham, the Assistant Fire Marshal for the Wichita Falls Fire Department, talked to Bowden at the scene. Bowden told him about the candle, about waking up to find the bedroom on fire, and about how he tried to enter the room first through the open bedroom door, then through the outside window, and finally through the boarded-up back door.

A couple of hours later, Officer Ginger Harrill took statements from both Bowden (who was still in his socks) and appellant. They were both cooperative. Officer Harrill took a second statement from Bowden a couple of days later. Regarding these two statements, Officer Harrill said,

Basically he was—both statements were consistent, that he was asleep on this couch, and this door goes into this front bedroom, and the girls were sleeping in this rear bedroom, and he woke up on this couch and heard them screaming and goes to this door, which was open and at that point he could see the doorway into this room and see the room glowing.

When questioned about whether he was at Preston's house when the fire started, Bowden said, "No, no, absolutely not." He stressed that he has always looked out for the kids-and that he was there, asleep, when the fire broke out. "Their safety has always been a factor with me. . . . I been around them for as long as I been around their mother. And you know, I'm not their . . . father but it was just like they were my children you know?" Repeatedly pressed about whether he left the children alone, he stated

There's no way I would just leave, leave them in the house like that. Not them or anybody else's kids. I wouldn't even have to know 'em. I just wouldn't do it. Kids can't, they can't take care of they self.

He reiterated that he was not at Preston's when the fire started, and that he was willing to take a polygraph. He concluded,

I, you know I haven't lied to you about anything concerning that. I mean it's hard enough to admit that these kids died in my care you know? I couldn't, I couldn't have left them like that. If anything I would've took 'em with me. I would've woke 'em up and took 'em with me.

Appellant's statement related her activities that night. For the most part, her statement did not make much sense. It was fractured and incoherent. She stated that as soon as she, Bowden, and the girls arrived at the duplex, she went out to buy cigarettes. When she returned, she "hung out" for a while with the girls and Bowden. Then she lit a candle in the bedroom and put the girls to bed. Around 8:30 p.m., she went out to buy chips and Little Debbies for the girls-something she was supposed to have done on her first trip to the store. She mentioned a cast of characters that she saw or talked to during the evening: Paul Taylor, who gave her change for the girls' snacks; Judy, the owner of Lucky One Stop; a "young Spanish guy" who gave her a ride in a blue van; Christine, who lives down the street; Preston, from whose house she called Jerry, Christine's cousin; Easy B (AKA Anita Gibson) and Dee, who live at the Budget Motel; Shewe, who "got into it" with Easy B at the Budget Motel; an unknown man in a van, "I don't know his name, he just gave me a ride"; BL (AKA Lewis) and Pine, who told her the "girls just got burned up." Investigator Harrill asked appellant about Ujeana and Precious staying at Bowden's place:

Harrill: Ok. Uh, how often do you and the girls stay down there?

Williams: Uh, Uh, We go down there sometimes . . . We don't stay down there, we...

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