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Harris v. State

Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals

September 7, 2018

Monica Nyree Harris
v.
State of Alabama

          Appeal from Morgan Circuit Court (CC-17-370)

          WELCH, JUDGE.

         Following a jury trial, the appellant, Monica Nyree Harris, was convicted in the Morgan Circuit Court of child abuse, see § 26-15-3, Ala. Code 1975, for leaving her six-week-old baby, N.R., unattended in a vehicle while Harris was in a store. Harris was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, which was suspended, and she was ordered to serve 18 months of supervised probation. This appeal followed.

         The State's evidence tended to show that on August 24, 2016, police were dispatched to the Committee of Church Cooperation ("CCC") facility in Decatur in response to a 911 emergency call that there was an unattended child in a vehicle. Officer Walter Segars with the Decatur Police Department testified that when he arrived he located a small white car, that the windows were up, that there was a fleece blanket in the backseat, and that the child was no longer in the vehicle. Harris was holding her six-week-old son. Officer Segars testified that it was very hot that day and that the baby was sweating "very badly," but Harris was not. (R. 127.) He took Harris into custody. Police testimony showed that the temperature at approximately the time the baby was left in the car was 91 degrees.

         Teresa Martin testified that on August 24, 2016, she went with a friend to CCC. She said that when they got out of the car at CCC they immediately heard "[a] child hollering" and "screaming and crying." (R. 41.) Martin testified: "After I looked in there, in the car, I couldn't see the baby. It was covered up. I couldn't see it, but I knew it was in there. And I was hollering at [my friend]: There's a baby crying." (R. 42.) The baby, she said, was lying flat and was covered with a baby blanket from head to toe. The windows of the car, she said, were all up and the engine of the car was not running. (R. 43.) Martin said that she ran into the center and started "holler[ing]" and that a woman ran out to the car and opened the door and got the baby out. (R. 43.) The baby was wearing a long-sleeve shirt and jeans.

         Leslie Williams testified that she is an intake processor at CCC, that she determines what services are requested, and that CCC maintains a clothing closet for those in need. On August 24, 2016, she said, Harris came in with her baby about 9:00 a.m. She told Harris that the hours for the CCC clothing closet had passed, that children were not allowed in the facility, and that she would need to get a babysitter and come back at 1:00 p.m. that day. Williams said that Harris came back that day at around 12:45 p.m., got in line, and was there about 20 or 30 minutes before "the commotion started." (R. 83.) Williams said: "Two ladies came into the office stating that they heard noise from a car. I then, remembered that that was the car that [Harris] got out of and there's no partition separating my office part from the clothing closet. So she must have heard, and she went outside." (R. 83.) Martin said that Harris brought the baby inside the facility and that Martin took the baby to the break room where it was cooler. The baby, she said, was hot to the touch.

         Derrell Willis, a paramedic with the City of Decatur, testified that he was dispatched to CCC in response to a report that a baby had been locked in a car. He said that the child looked to be about one month old and that he was crying and was sweaty. He transported the child to Decatur General Hospital.

         Dr. Robert H. Williams, an emergency-room doctor at Decatur General, testified that he treated N.R. for heat-related issues. He stated that, by the time he saw the child, the child was doing better because he had been in air conditioning and had been given a lot of water. Dr. Williams stated that he diagnosed the child with hyperthermia, a nonlife-threatening diagnosis.

         Officer Jarrod Birchfield with the Decatur Police Department testified that he questioned Harris after she was taken into custody. He testified that he read Harris her Miranda[1] rights, that he went over those rights with her, and that Harris indicated that she was willing to talk, and she signed a rights-waiver form. Harris made the following statement to Officer Birchfield:

"This morning I went to the Committee for Church Cooperation, the CCC, to get clothes for me and [N.R.]. I was told by a worker there that I could not get clothes until later that day. Around 1:15 p.m. I went back to the CCC to get the clothes. I was driving my white Nissan Altima. I brought my six-week-old child back with me because I didn't have anyone to watch him. I knew when I got there that I could not take him inside with me.
"I turned my car off, left the windows up, and left [N.R.] inside the car. There was a blanket draped over his car seat to keep the sun out of his eyes. I knew that it was hot outside, and it would get dangerous hot inside the car where [N.R.] was. I wasn't thinking like a mother should and went into the store to get the clothes. I got some outfits for [N.R.] and some pants for me. It took me about 20 minutes inside the store. I would look out the windows of the store at my car but couldn't directly see [N.R.].
"I finished getting our clothes and went back to the car. I got [N.R.] out of the car seat. He was sweating and crying. I put him in the front seat with me and made him a bottle. A black lady that works at the CCC came out to the car and asked if she could take [N.R.] inside and cool him off. I let her take him inside.
"We went inside and the black lady took him to a room with a white door. I eventually asked for my son back and the black lady opened the white door and gave him back. As I was leaving, the cops showed up. I waited with paramedics while they checked [N.R.] They took him to the hospital. The cop arrested me and took me to the police department."

(R. 191-92.)

         Harris testified at trial that N.R. was her first child, that she was 29 years of age, and that she had a college degree. Harris said that on the day she left N.R. in the car she left one of the back windows of her car "cracked" because it was hot. (R. 223.) She said that she did not believe it would harm her son to be in the car "for a short period of time." (R. 235.)

         I.

         Harris first argues that the evidence was insufficient to support her conviction; therefore, she says, the circuit court erred in denying her motion for a judgment of acquittal. Specifically, Harris argues that the State failed to prove "any injury to the child rising to the level of torture, willful abuse, cruel beating, or otherwise willful maltreatment." (Harris's brief, at p. 28.) She further argues that there was no evidence indicating that her conduct was intentional. (Harris's brief at p. 29.)

         Harris was convicted of violating § 26-15-3, Ala. Code 1975. That section provides:

"A responsible person, as defined in Section 26-15-2, who shall torture, willfully abuse, cruelly beat, or otherwise willfully maltreat any child under the age of 18 years shall, on conviction, be guilty of a Class C felony."

         Section 26-15-2, Ala. Code 1975, defines a "responsible person" as: "A child's natural parent, stepparent, adoptive parent, legal guardian, custodian, or any other person who has the permanent or temporary care or custody ...


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