Appeal from a judgment of conviction, pursuant to a jury verdict, of first-degree murder. Eighth Judicial District Court, Clark County; Michael Villani, Judge.
Reversed and remanded.
David M. Schieck, Special Public Defender, and JoNell Thomas, Deputy Special Public Defender, Clark County, for Appellant.
Catherine Cortez Masto, Attorney General, Carson City; Steven B. Wolfson, District Attorney, Steven S. Owens, Chief Deputy District Attorney, and Giancarlo Pesci, Deputy District Attorney, Clark County, for Respondent.
BEFORE HARDESTY, PARRAGUIRRE and CHERRY, JJ.
Appellant Rayshaun Coleman was convicted of first-degree murder by child abuse following the death of an infant, Tristen Hilburn. Tristen was the victim of multiple injuries, many of which occurred days and weeks prior to the day of his death. Coleman insists that he is innocent and that the injuries were inflicted by his girlfriend, Tristen's mother Crystal Hilburn Gaynor, or others associated with her, including her methamphetamine-addicted brother. In this appeal, Coleman challenges the constitutionality of NRS 51.345, the statement-against-interest exception to the hearsay bar, the district court's exclusion of defense witnesses, and jury instructions on the felony-murder rule and child abuse.
In resolving Coleman's appeal, we conclude that NRS 51.345 is constitutional but clarify that the standard for admissibility of a statement against penal interest offered to exculpate an accused--" corroborating circumstances
[that] clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement" --must not be so rigorously applied that it ignores the purpose for the rule and instead infringes the defendant's constitutional right to a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense. We conclude that the district court, in applying this provision, abused its discretion by refusing to permit two defense witnesses to testify about admissions made by Gaynor concerning a methamphetamine explosion and resulting burns to Tristen's body. In reversing this portion of the decision, we take the opportunity to clarify the relevant considerations for identifying the corroboration necessary to support the admission of a hearsay statement under NRS 51.345. We also conclude that the instructions were not in error.
This case stems from the death of Tristen on Sunday, March 8, 2009, when he was just six weeks old. While Tristen was healthy and alert at birth, Gaynor indicated that Tristen had breathing issues to the point where he had stopped breathing and turned blue. Despite this and the fact that he was small and had a weak cry, he was never taken to a doctor because of a lack of health insurance. At the time of Tristen's death, Gaynor lived in a house with her brother Brian Harris, her five-year-old son Devin, and her then-boyfriend Coleman. During this time period, Brian was using methamphetamine on a daily basis. To support his addiction, Brian would often act as a middleman, procuring drugs for acquaintances and receiving either money or drugs in return. It was not uncommon for these acquaintances to stop by the house to either purchase drugs from, or do drugs with, Brian. Brian sometimes took care of Devin, but he was not entrusted with the care of Tristen. On the day of Tristen's death, Brian spent much of the day in and out of the house with friends, pursuing and using methamphetamine.
In Tristen's six weeks of life, Gaynor left him with Coleman on three weekends, including the final weekend of Tristen's life. Tristen was in Coleman's care that weekend because Gaynor was incarcerated for an unrelated misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. Gaynor was home that Friday and early Saturday morning, but turned herself in at the jail around 8 a.m. on Saturday, March 7, 2009. When Coleman watched Tristen, he would keep Tristen in the master bedroom with the door closed and locked. Although a crib was available, Tristen slept between the couch cushions.
Coleman called 911 on the night of Tristen's death. He met the responding officers at the door and directed them to the back bedroom. Besides the emergency personnel, the only individuals in the house were Tristen, Coleman, and Devin. Upon entering the master bedroom, the responding officers found Tristen lying on the floor, unconscious, and not breathing. Tristen was cold to the touch but was not stiff. A number of responders testified to observing red blotches or burns on Tristen's face and body. Many also noted that the burns appeared to be recent. Responders performed CPR, but it was unsuccessful and Tristen was pronounced dead. Officers on the scene found Tristen's blood and pieces of sloughed skin around the house.
Examination of Tristen's body revealed that he suffered from many health issues and injuries at the time of his death that indicated that he had been abused and neglected. He was extremely small and malnourished, weighing only five and a half pounds (less than he weighed at birth). His brain was small and swollen and some of the brain tissue was dead. Due to the damage to his brain, Tristen may have had problems crying and feeding. Although no tests were conducted to determine bone density, the medical examiner indicated that Tristen likely did not get enough calcium in his diet, which would have affected the density of his bones. Tristan also suffered numerous physical injuries. There were debrided first- to second-degree burns across approximately 36 percent of his body, two skull fractures as the result of blunt force trauma, fresh bleeding in the muscles of his back, and multiple fractured ribs consistent with blunt force trauma. The cause of death was determined to be inflicted head injuries and burns with
starvation contributing to the death, and the manner of death to be homicide.
The investigation focused on Coleman. According to the medical examiner, it was not possible for the lethal burns or skull fractures to have been inflicted before 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, March 7, 2009, because there was no evidence of healing. This evidence suggested that the injuries were inflicted while Tristen was in Coleman's care; however, the healing process used to determine the time of injury can be affected by a person's strength and the injuries, and in this case, Tristen's immune system appeared to be inactive at the time of his death due to stress and inadequate nutrition. When he was questioned on the day that Tristen died, Coleman initially gave officers a false name. When asked what had happened, Coleman said that he had bathed Tristen and put him down to sleep. He indicated that he then also fell asleep and when he woke he found Tristen unresponsive and with skin peeling from his burns. There was some evidence that the burns could have happened when Coleman bathed Tristen: the temperature of the hot water in the house reached 131 degrees and a crime scene analyst observed that the hot and cold faucets in the bathtub were reversed.
The State charged Coleman with one count of murder by child abuse and two counts of child abuse and neglect with substantial bodily harm. It also charged Gaynor with one count of child neglect with substantial bodily harm. Both pleaded not guilty. The trials were severed, and the State filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Coleman. The State subsequently filed an amended information in which it solely charged Coleman with murder by child abuse.
Before trial, Coleman's counsel informed the court that he intended to call three female witnesses who had been incarcerated with Gaynor. These witnesses would testify about statements allegedly made by Gaynor about burns that both she and Tristen suffered after being splashed by cooking methamphetamine. The State objected to the testimony on hearsay grounds, and Coleman argued that the statements were admissible as statements against interest and pointed out that the statements were exculpatory and relevant as to bias and a lack of investigation. The district court held an evidentiary hearing and ultimately found that the statements were exculpatory as to both Gaynor and Coleman, but were so lacking in any indicia of trustworthiness that they could not be admitted as statements against penal interest under NRS 51.345. Coleman's attorney later lodged a complaint on the record alleging potential due process issues with NRS 51.345.
After Coleman's trial began, instructions were proposed on the felony-murder rule and child abuse. Coleman's counsel objected to the use of the term " accidental" as being confusing given the nonaccidental statutory definition of child abuse under the felony-murder rule in NRS 200.030. The State argued that the instruction was accurate given that the killing can be accidental while the physical injury must be nonaccidental. The district court allowed the instruction unaltered.
During the culpability phase of the trial, the jury ultimately found Coleman guilty of first-degree murder by child abuse. In the penalty phase of the trial, one or more of the jurors found several mitigating circumstances, including an " [a]bsence of intent to cause death" and " [i]nvolvement of others in injuries to Tristen." The jury did not find the aggravating circumstance of mutilation of the victim. It found that the mitigating circumstances outweighed the single aggravating circumstance (the victim's age), and imposed a sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 20 years. Coleman now appeals from the judgment of conviction.
Sufficiency of the evidence