Sunday, May 11, 2008
I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means: Mississippi Court Misuses Harmless Error Doctrine In Mother's Day Related Case
The Court of Appeals of Mississippi's recent opinion in O'Neal v. State, 977 So.2d 1252 (Miss.App. 2008), stretches the meaning of the term "harmless error." In O'Neal, Shawn Gavin O'Neal and Mary Landry were involved in a romantic relationship and lived together in the same household along with Landry's teenage son, Nicholas. In August 2004, the three were having a cookout at their home; Nicholas eventually left the house, which left O'Neal and Landry alone together. According to Landry's testimony at trial, she was afraid of being alone with O'Neal, so she decided to leave, but as she was pulling her car out of the garage, O'Neal reached into the car to pull the keys out of the ignition. Landry claimed that O'Neal grabbed her hair and pulled her out of the car; as she resisted, he kicked her in the leg with his steel-toed boots and stomped on her back and side before she passed out from the pain.
Paramedics later arrived, and as they were attending to Landry, O'Neal told an investigator from the sheriff's department that he was trying to keep Landry from driving while intoxicated. He said that while he was trying to get her out of the car, their dog got in the way, and he tried to kick the dog, but he kicked Landry instead. At trial, O'Neal testified that as he was helping Landry out of the car, he lost his balance, and they both fell over. A responding officer testified at trial that Landry was in a great deal of pain. Landry was later diagnosed with a broken femur.
At trial, Nicholas testified that O'Neal told him two different versions of what happened. Nicholas claimed that O'Neal called him to tell him to come home because his mother had tripped over the dog and injured her leg. Nicholas claimed, however, that after he arrived at the house, O'Neal told him that, as Landry was trying to get out of the car, the dog got in her way, and O'Neal tried to kick the dog, but he missed and kicked Landry. Nicholas further testified that he found a necklace that he had given to his mother for Mother's Day in the garage. The necklace was broken into pieces with a lock of hair stuck to it. Nicholas, however, did not turn the necklace over to the police or mention finding it; instead, he kept it until he delivered it to the district attorney just days before the trial began.
From the opinion, it appears that the only witness besides Landry, O'Neal, Nicholas, and the officer who gave relevant testimony was Dr. Barbieri, the orthopedic surgeon who repaired Landry's broken femur. He stated that the type of break that Landry sustained was usually the result of a high-energy force like a fall from a great height or a car accident, not the result of a simple fall. Photographs of O'Neal's bruises were also introduced at trial After O'Neal was convicted of aggravated domestic violence he raised two evidentiary arguments on appeal.
The first argument was that the court erred by allowing testimony about the necklace, which was not produced until days before trial. The Court of Appeals of Mississippi doubted that the trial court committed error and further found that "testimony about the broken necklace was cumulative evidence of Landry's testimony that she was violently removed from the car by her hair and thrown onto the garage floor by O'Neal. Thus, any error created by the admission of the necklace was harmless in nature."
The second argument was that Dr. Barbieri was not classified as an expert witness an yet rendered expert opinion testimony regarding causation. The Court of Appeals of Mississippi agreed with O'Neal but found that the admission of Dr. Barbieri's testimony was harmless error because "[e]ven without Dr. Barbieri's testimony as to causation, there was sufficient evidence submitted to the jury to establish the crime of aggravated domestic violence. Landry testified that O'Neal forced her out of her car, threw her down on the garage floor, and kicked and stomped on her leg and back. Photographs that show the bruises on her body, which were consistent with her testimony, were admitted into evidence. The officer who arrived on the scene testified that Landry was in a great deal of pain from the injury."
In other words, the only evidence of O'Neal's guilt was Landry's testimony. The photographs showing bruises on Landry's body were consistent with her story, but they were also ostensibly consistent with O'Neal's story at trial that Landry and he fell over while he was helping her out of the car. This is where Dr. Barbieri's testimony about the injuries being caused high energy force rather than a simple fall was necessary. Similarly, the officer's testimony that Landry was in a great deal of pain was consistent with either O'Neal's story or Landry's story. This is where the testimony about hair in the necklace was necessary to corroborate Landry's claim that O'Neal grabbed her by the hair.
Now, certainly, Landry's testimony was more credible than O'Neal's story based upon the fact that O'Neal apparently told a few people slightly different accounts of what happened; however, I simply don't see how the Court of Appeals of Mississippi could have found that the admission of the only testimony corroborating Landry's testimony was "harmless error."