After a lonnnnnnnng day in court, I just needed to sit at my desk, decompress, and read some law. This case, which I saw argued immediately prior to my argument in this case, got partial relief in the realm of child abuse/neglect. Plus, I was just discussing with a client whether the Juvenile Court findings in his case could be used against him in Criminal Court.
In State v. McKinney, the Defendant was indicted for murdering his wife and one count of child abuse/neglect against their seventeen month-old daughter. The story goes that Mr. McKinney and his wife had a rocky marriage, and had moved to an apartment in Fayetteville, Tennessee about a week prior to the murder. On the morning of the shooting, Ms. McKinney asked her family to come pick her up and move her out. Meanwhile, Mr. McKinney, who worked at a local factory was taking frequent bathroom breaks and returning angry, before he eventually got mad and left work. Numerous co-workers testified to this behavior - as well as his history of carrying a gun on his person.
Police were dispatched later that morning to a “possible suicide.” Upon arrival at the apartment complex, Mr. McKinney was standing outside the building with a gun to his head. After police convinced him to drop the gun, he made a myriad of conflicting statements – that his wife had shot herself, that he had shot her, and that he deserved to be shot. Several items belonging to the baby were found burnt in the entryway to the apartment, but they also showed residue from use of a fire extinguisher. Ms. McKinney was found inside the apartment on the couch, deceased from gunshot wounds to the head.
At trial, the medical examiner testified there was no soot or stippling present (a sign of close proximity between the gun and the victim). Eight bullets were removed during the autopsy. One of the jailors inquired about Mr. McKinney not being hungry at dinner time, to which he allegedly replied, “No I’m not too hungry. I just shot my wife.” Upon initial questioning, Mr. McKinney said he saw a “black man” run out of the apartment, but when police pushed him to be “honest,” he invoked his right to counsel.
The next day, an officer received a call from the Defendant’s mother saying the Defendant wanted to speak with the officer. Sgt. Eubanks prepared a special waiver of rights, because Mr. McKinney had previously invoked, and then took his confession. McKinney admitted to shooting his wife, but said it was not self-defense, but third-party self defense. His wife became irate as he comforted the child, and she grabbed at his gun at the coffee table, but instead, he grabbed it and shot her. He then ran out of the apartment with the child, leaving her with a neighbor, and proceeded outside where police found him upon arrival. Records show that Ms. McKinney had purchased the gun in September 2011.
Defense proof consisted of Mr. McKinney’s friend, who had feelings for Ms. McKinney, and had met and given her $200 earlier that week. Mr. McKinney’s grandmother, with whom he, wife, and child all lived for fifteen months prior to getting their apartment, testified that he was a great father and Ms. McKinney just slept all day after staying up all night. Mr. McKinney was convicted of second-degree murder, as well as child abuse and neglect.
The main reason this case came on my radar is because the child abuse/neglect statute in Tennessee has been ever-expanding. Here, the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction (which was a concurrent sentence) because the State of Tennessee was allowed to put on proof that the maternal grandmother was given custody of the child due to a Juvenile Court finding of severe abuse. Y’all, this is a GREAT holding for the defense bar! It means that the findings of Juvenile Court shall not be used in Criminal Court trials – even with a curative instruction to the jury that the burden of proof is different between the Courts. The CCA stated the following:
"In this case, the trial court allowed the jury to hear testimony that a juvenile court judge had determined that the Defendant was guilty of severe child abuse based upon the conduct for which the Defendant was charged with child abuse in this case. The trial court found that this evidence was relevant to show why the child’s maternal grandmother had custody of the child at the time of trial. In our view, the custody of the victim at the time of trial was not relevant to any issue in the Defendant’s trial. Even assuming that this prior adjudication by the juvenile court was relevant, any probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. The jury was told by a witness that the juvenile court judge had already determined that severe child abuse had been committed by the Defendant as a result of the shooting incident. This was the very issue to be decided by the jury in the Defendant’s trial for child abuse and child neglect."
However, be aware that the CCA found that firing a gun with a child in “close proximity” is sufficient evidence of child abuse/neglect. Evidence that the child was traumatized – gasping for air, displaying “nervous shoulders” and crying – was sufficient to meet the standard of the law.
Read the full opinion here: http://www.tsc.state.tn.us/sites/default/files/opinion_cca.pdf.
The best stories you'll want to know about from Tennessee and around the country.
Certifications of Specialization are available to Tennessee lawyers in all areas of practice relating to or included in the areas of Accounting Malpractice, Business Bankruptcy, Civil Trial, Consumer Bankruptcy, Creditors’ Rights, Criminal Trial, DUI Defense Law, Elder Law, Estate Planning, Family Law, Juvenile Law, Legal Malpractice, Medical Malpractice, and Social Security Law. Listing of related or included practice areas herein does not constitute or imply a representation of certification of specialization.