State v. Reed, 371 N.C. 106 (May. 11, 2018)

In case where the defendant was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, the court reversed the opinion below, State v. Reed, ___ N.C. App. ___, 789 S.E.2d 703 (2016), for the reasons stated in the dissent. Considering the defendant’s evidence, along with the State’s evidence, in this appeal from a denial of a motion to dismiss, the Court of Appeals held, over a dissent, that the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction of misdemeanor child abuse. The evidence showed that the defendant went to use the bathroom in her home for a few minutes, and her toddler, Mercadiez, managed to fall into their outdoor pool and drown. The defendant’s evidence, which supplemented and did not contradict the State’s evidence, showed that the defendant left the child in the care of another responsible adult while she used the bathroom. Although the concurring judge did not agree, the court went on to hold that the motion should also have been granted even without consideration of the defendant’s evidence. Specifically, the State’s evidence failed to establish that the defendant’s conduct was “by other than accidental means.” Reviewing prior cases, the court found: “the State’s evidence never crossed the threshold from ‘accidental’ to ‘nonaccidental.’” It continued:

The known danger here was an outdoor pool. The only purposeful action defendant took, even in the light most favorable to the State, was that defendant went to the bathroom for five to ten minutes. In choosing to go to the restroom, defendant did not leave her child in a circumstance that was likely to create physical injury. . . . If defendant’s conduct herein is considered enough to sustain a conviction for misdemeanor child abuse, it seems that any parent who leaves a small child alone in her own home, for even a moment, could be prosecuted if the child is injured during that time, not because the behavior she engaged in was negligent or different from what all other parents typically do, but simply because theirs is the exceedingly rare situation that resulted in a tragic accident.

With the same lineup of opinions, the court held that the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The dissenting judge believed the evidence was sufficient to support both convictions. The dissenting judge broke from the majority, finding that the defendant’s evidence regarding the events immediately before the child drowned was contradictory to, not consistent with, the State’s evidence. According to the dissenting judge, the critical issue was not whether adults were in the home at the time but rather who was supervising the child. “On that critical issue,” the dissenting judge concluded, “the State’s evidence showed that defendant left her 19-month-old baby in the care of [a] nine-year-old [child]. I simply do not agree with the majority’s assertion that the acknowledged presence of [another adult] somewhere inside a multi-room house, without any evidence that he could hear or see Mercadiez as she played outside on the side porch with other children, was in any way relevant to the question of who was supervising Mercadiez when she wandered away to her death.” Citing the evidence presented, the dissenting judge disagreed that the State offered no evidence of a lack of supervision by the defendant and asserted that because the defendant’s husband’s version of the events was inconsistent with the State’s evidence, it should not have been considered with respect to the motion to dismiss. The dissenting judge found that the evidence was sufficient to support the convictions for misdemeanor child abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile by neglect. The dissenting judge summarized the evidence as follows:

Taken together the State’s evidence at trial shows that defendant knew (1) how quickly unsupervised toddlers in general could wander away into dangerous situations, (2) that two of her young children, including a toddler who appears to have been Mercadiez, had wandered unsupervised to the edge of the street only the month before, (3) that some of defendant’s older children were in the habit of leaving gates open which allowed younger children to wander, (4) how attractive and dangerous open water sources like her backyard pool could be for toddlers, and (5) that defendant had previously been held criminally responsible in the death of a toddler she was babysitting after that child was left unsupervised inside defendant’s home for five to fifteen minutes, managed to get outside, and wandered into a creek where she drowned. Despite this knowledge, defendant still chose to (6) leave toddler Mercadiez outside on a side porch (7) supervised only by other children (8) while defendant spent five to ten minutes in a bathroom where she could not see or hear her youngest child.