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State v. Qualls

July 07, 1998

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
SHERALD BERNIE QUALLS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Walker, Judge.

Appeal by defendant from judgment entered 27 September 1996 by judge Gregory A. Weeks in Cumberland County Superior Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 17 March 1998.

Defendant was charged with felonious child abuse and second degree murder following the death of his two-month-old son (the victim). The evidence presented at trial tended to show the victim was born on 29 January 1993. From that date until March of 1993, defendant and his wife took the victim to the doctor on several occasions complaining of irritability and feeding problems. About a week after the victim was born, defendant's wife returned to work and defendant was the primary caretaker. Defendant had recently been released from the military and was collecting unemployment compensation while seeking new employment.

On 15 March 1993, the victim's pediatrician, Dr. James S. Hall, admitted the victim to Cape Fear Valley Hospital in Fayetteville when defendant and his wife complained the victim was irritable, not eating well, and had a slight fever. Dr. Hall conducted a spinal tap in order to rule out the possibility of septicemic meningitis, which is an inflammation of the membranes protecting the brain and spinal cord caused by the presence of disease-causing bacteria in the bloodstream. This procedure, which is accomplished by inserting a needle into the cerebral spinal cord and drawing some spinal fluid, proved unremarkable, although Dr. Hall did discover a small amount of blood in the fluid. Dr. Hall dismissed this finding as simply an error in inserting the needle into a vein alongside the spinal cord rather than an internal injury and discharged the victim from the hospital on 17 March 1993. Thereafter, either Dr. Hall or one of his colleagues saw the victim on 19 March 1993, 22 March 1993 and 24 March 1993 for similar symptoms but found no significant physical problems.

On 26 March 1993, defendant was home alone with the victim and the victim's four-year-old sister when, according to defendant, "all of a sudden, [the victim] started gagging, and stuff was all coming from his nose and mouth." Defendant stated he then called his wife at work to tell her to come home, and when she arrived, they called 911 for emergency assistance. When the ambulance arrived, the victim was transported to Cape Fear Valley Hospital and was then flown to UNC Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill (UNC Hospital), where he was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit.

Dr. Paul C. Tobin, a resident in the pediatric intensive care unit of UNC Hospital, saw the victim when he arrived on 27 March 1993. Dr. Tobin testified that upon his arrival, the victim was not breathing and was receiving full life support. The victim was not exhibiting any involuntary reflexes, such as blinking and gagging, which indicated there was no brain activity at that time. There was also evidence of brain swelling. A bulging soft spot on the top of the victim's head indicated an increase in pressure on the brain. Further, Dr. Tobin observed a possible sheering of the blood vessels in the victim's eyes behind the retinas.

In addition, Dr. Tobin ordered x-rays and a CAT scan of the victim's head, which revealed a skull fracture possibly caused by a blunt trauma to the head. There was also evidence of a previous head injury due to an older collection of blood in the brain. Dr. Tobin testified that the prior head injury could have caused the victim to be more irritable or fussy and might have also caused the victim to feed poorly or spit up more often. As a result of his examination of the victim, Dr. Tobin concluded as follows:

There are a number of findings on [the victim's] exam . . . that are consistent with a shaking type injury, one of the most remarkable of those being that the hemorrhages, or bleeding, that was seen . . . in the back of . . . the eye or on the retina. When . . . an infant's head is shaken, or forcefully accelerated and decelerated, there can be sheering of the blood vessels that line the back of the eye, and that can cause little blood spots that you can see with . . . what we call an opthalmoscope to look in the back of the eye. That, along with the evidence of head trauma and the fractures that were seen on a brain scan and swelling of the brain, taken together, were evidence that . . . this baby had suffered a severe injury and possibly some shaking to cause that swelling and those findings.

Dr. Desmond Runyan, a pediatrician on staff at UNC Hospital, consulted with Dr. Tobin regarding the victim's injuries. After viewing the victim's charts and x-rays and conducting an examination of the victim, Dr. Runyan opined it was likely that when the victim was taken to Cape Fear Valley Hospital on 15 March 1993, "there had been an original episode of injury that had happened that had been misdiagnosed or had been thought to be [septicemic meningitis] when, in fact, the real explanation was that this child had been injured."

Dr. Runyan further testified that in his opinion the victim had suffered two distinct injuries. First, the victim suffered an epidural hematoma, which is a blood clot between the outer membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord and the inner surface of the skull, when his skull was fractured about the time of the first hospitalization on 15 March 1993. According to Dr. Runyan, this type of injury may have caused the victim to become very irritable, to experience increased, inconsolable crying from pain, and to have poor feeding habits. Next, the victim suffered a subdural hematoma, which is a blood clot beneath the outer membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord, as a result of an injury suffered about 26 March 1993. Dr. Runyan determined that this injury was "not an accidental injury," and was most likely caused by "violent shaking, back and forth." Further, Dr. Runyan stated that "the hemorrhages behind the eyes in [the victim] that were also found are further evidence of that shaking."

On 29 March 1993, after receiving a report of suspected child abuse from a social worker at UNC Hospital, Linda Parlett (Parlett), a child protective services investigator, met with defendant and his wife at their home. During her initial interview, defendant denied having done anything to harm the victim. He stated that the victim had a cold and had slept from approximately 11:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. on 26 March 1993. Thereafter, when the victim awoke, the defendant aspirated mucus from the victim's nose and then began to feed him. Defendant then attempted to clear the victim's airway. When this did not work, he called his wife at work and asked her to come home. Upon her arrival, defendant called 911 to receive emergency assistance, and with the help of his neighbor, a deputy sheriff, attempted to resuscitate the victim by administering CPR.

However, in an interview with defendant later that day at the Law Enforcement Center, defendant told Parlett that he may have accidentally kicked or tripped on the victim when he was attempting to call 911 for emergency assistance. The next day, Parlett had a telephone conversation with defendant in which defendant advised her that, in addition to possibly kicking or tripping on the victim when he was attempting to call 911 for emergency assistance, he may have also shaken the victim when he was trying to arouse him. However, on 31 March 1993, Parlett again met with defendant at his home, and he denied that he either shook, kicked or tripped on the victim, and refused to talk further with Parlett.

On 29 March 1993, Detective Clifton Massengill of the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department interviewed defendant on two different occasions. During the first interview, defendant denied having any knowledge of how the victim's injuries could have occurred. However, shortly after the first interview was concluded, defendant told Detective Massengill that he wished to continue the interview so that he could change some of his testimony. Thereafter, defendant told Detective Massengill during this second interview that he may have accidentally kicked the victim when he was attempting to call 911 for emergency assistance. *fn1

The victim died at UNC Hospital on 30 March 1993 at 6:00 p.m. Dr. Deborah L. Radisch, a forensic pathologist, performed an autopsy on the victim on 31 March 1993. In her autopsy report, she observed a subdural hematoma on the left side of the brain, multiple skull fractures on the left side of the head, and retinal hemorrhages in both eyes. Dr. Radisch opined that:

The cause of death in this case was due to subdural hemorrhage secondary to blunt trauma of the head. The subdural hemorrhage and bilateral retinal hemorrhages are features of this case consistent with shaken baby syndrome, although in this case there is a definite component of blunt traumatic injury of severe degree which has caused the left parietal skull fracture.

The focal areas of resolution of the contusion of the left side of the scalp are consistent with more than one episode of intentionally-inflicted injury. Further, Dr. Radisch explained shaken baby syndrome as follows: Shaken baby syndrome is used to describe a constellation of findings, either clinical findings or autopsy findings. And the primary components would be subdural hematoma, or blood clot, over part of the brain, combined with retinal hemorrhages, or small areas of bleeding, . . . into the back part of the eyes . . . [that] occurs as a result of violent shaking of a young infant.

The jury returned verdicts of guilty as to the charges of felonious child abuse and second degree murder, which were consolidated for judgment, and defendant was sentenced to a term of 25 years in prison.

I.

Defendant's first two assignments of error deal with the charge of felonious child abuse. At the close of the State's evidence and again at the close of all the evidence, the trial court denied defendant's motion to dismiss the charge of felonious child abuse due to insufficient evidence. On appeal defendant raises two principal assignments of error with regard to the trial court's denial: (1) there was a fatal variance between the indictment and the State's evidence at trial, and (2) the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant inflicted the blow that caused the victim's death.

At the outset, we note that in ruling on a motion to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence, the trial court must consider "all the evidence . . . in the light most favorable to the State, giving the State the benefit of every reasonable inference and resolving any contradictions in its favor." State v. Pierce, 346 N.C. 471, 491, 488 S.E.2d 576, 588 (1997). Further, there must be substantial evidence of every element of the crime charged and that the defendant was the perpetrator of that crime. State v. Elliott, 344 N.C. 242, 266-267, 475 S.E.2d 202, 212 (1996), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 137 L. Ed. 2d 312 (1997). In addition, this Court has held that:

"When the motion [to dismiss] calls into question the sufficiency of circumstantial evidence, the question for the court is whether a reasonable inference of defendant's guilt may be drawn from the circumstances. If so, it is for the jury to decide whether the facts, taken singly or in combination, satisfy them beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty."

State v. Mapp, 45 N.C. App. 574, 581, 264 S.E.2d 348, 353 (1980)(citation omitted).

In order to establish felonious child abuse pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-318.4, the State must produce evidence tending to show that: (1) the defendant is a parent or any other person providing care to or supervision to, (2) a child less than 16 years of age, (3) who intentionally inflicts any serious physical injury upon or to the child, (4) or who intentionally commits an assault upon the child, and (5) which results in any serious injury to the child. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-318.4(a)(1993); see also State v. Pierce, 346 N.C. at 492-493, 488 S.E.2d at 588; State v. Elliott, 344 N.C. at 278, 475 S.E.2d at 218-219. Further, our Supreme Court has held that:

Where an adult has exclusive custody of a child for a period of time and during such time the child suffers injuries which are neither self-inflicted nor accidental, the evidence is sufficient to ...


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