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State v. Hall

Court of Appeals of Iowa

June 7, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
CHARLES EMANUEL HALL, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Taylor County, John D. Lloyd, Judge.

         The defendant appeals his convictions for murder in the first degree and child endangerment.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Shellie L. Knipfer, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Elisabeth S. Reynoldson, Special Counsel, for appellee.

          Considered by Potterfield, P.J., and Doyle and Tabor, JJ.

          POTTERFIELD, Presiding Judge.

         Charles Hall appeals from his convictions for murder in the first degree and child endangerment causing serious injury. Hall maintains the district court abused its discretion when it denied his motion for mistrial after one of the State's witnesses vomited outside of the courtroom after a 911 call was played for the jury. Additionally, he maintains there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for child endangerment resulting in serious injury.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         In July 2015, Hall was charged by trial information with murder in the first degree and child endangerment resulting in serious injury. His three-year-old daughter, J.K., was the alleged victim in each instance.

         The charges were tried to a jury in January 2016.

         The State's first witness was Hall's live-in girlfriend, April Clair. Clair testified J.K. had been staying with her and Hall because she wanted their daughter and J.K. to become acquainted. At Clair's urging, J.K. came to stay with Clair and Hall (and Clair's other children) in April 2015. During J.K.'s stay, Clair witnessed Hall using corporal punishment-hitting J.K. on the backs of her legs and hands with a piece of wood that was sometimes used to hold up windows in the home. At some point in May, Clair came home and noticed a burn on the side of J.K.'s face. Hall told Clair J.K. had knocked hot water from boiling hot dogs onto herself. J.K. was not taken to the doctor following the burn, but either Clair or Hall[1] put some type of ointment on the burn.

         Clair further testified that one of her children graduated from kindergarten on May 21. Clair, Hall, and the children spent the day with the family of Clair's cousin, Annette Wilson. Wilson and her family lived approximately one block from Clair and Hall's home, and the families often walked to visit each other. J.K. had been recovering from the flu or a bug of some type, and she acted tired and reserved all day. Hall and J.K. left Wilson's home shortly before Clair and the rest of the children. J.K. did not want to walk, and Hall picked her up, stating, "She's going to get her ass beat when she [gets] home if she's not going to walk."

         When Clair got home with the other children, she went up to the bathroom on the second floor of the home, where Hall and J.K. were. When she opened the door, Clair saw J.K. standing in the tub without clothes on. Hall was holding the piece of wood he had previously used to hit J.K. Clair saw that J.K.'s "butt was raw, " "[t]here was no skin on it." Clair also noticed an additional mark on J.K.'s face near her eye, which Clair thought looked like a carpet burn. When Clair asked Hall what had happened, he stated, "She needs to learn how to fucken listen." Clair noticed there was water in the tub and what appeared to be skin fragments in the water. J.K. was not taken to the doctor; Clair's nine-year-old daughter eventually helped J.K. out of the tub, and Clair put underwear on her.

         The next morning, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Wilson called Clair and asked her to go to the grocery store for her. On the way out, Clair saw J.K. going to use the bathroom; she told J.K. she was leaving and Hall was downstairs. Then Clair left to go to Wilson's home, leaving only Hall and J.K. in the house.

         Clair checked out at a local grocery store at 9:23 a.m. She then returned to Wilson's home, and Wilson cooked breakfast. At approximately 11:00 a.m., [2]Clair left Wilson's to return home. As she walked up to her house, she saw Hall outside smoking a cigar. Hall did not have any cigars when Clair left, and later investigation showed Hall by himself purchasing the cigar from a nearby convenience store at 10:14 a.m. Clair asked Hall about J.K., and he stated she was up using the bathroom. Clair asked Hall to "get the car ready"-their vehicle had a flat tire-so they could take J.K. back to her mother's home in Chicago. At some point during the conversation, Hall walked off to go to a tire shop.

         Clair walked into the home, looking for J.K; she found J.K. laying on her back on the bathroom floor. Clair picked her up and heard "[l]ike an exhale, a sigh or something." She carried J.K. into the dining room and set her down on the carpet. Once she laid J.K. down, Clair realized J.K. was not breathing and felt cold to the touch. Clair called Wilson at 11:33 a.m.; she then called one of Hall's friends twice-at 11:35 and 11:36-and then called 911 at 11:36.

         At this point in the trial, the State offered into evidence the audio from Clair's 911 call and played it for the jury. The audio is forty-three seconds in length; in it, a person-the dispatcher-can be heard answering the 911 call, and then Clair asks for an ambulance to be sent to her address. The dispatcher repeats the address to Clair, and she confirms it. Clair is then asked what the problem is, and Clair responds, "My step-daughter, she's not breathing." The dispatcher confirms Clair's identity, and then Clair hangs up. Clair sounds upset during the call.

         After the audio was played, the prosecutor asked the court for a short break. The court replied, "Why don't we go ahead and combine this with our afternoon recess. We'll be in recess for 15 minutes. Ladies and gentlemen, please remember that admonition. Leave your notepads on your chairs and be back in 15."

         Approximately twenty-five minutes later, the court came back on the record outside the presence of the jury. The following exchange took place:

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Yes, Your Honor, thank you. Just prior to recessing court for our afternoon break, April Clair, the witness, essentially bolted and ran from the courtroom. She left the courtroom. The jury left the courtroom immediately behind her, and it's my understanding that April vomited in a trash can just outside the courtroom right in front of the jurors. She could be heard vomiting from the courtroom. I heard it. I believe [the prosecutor] heard it. The defendant heard it.
Based on that, Your Honor, we believe that the defendant's opportunity to receive a fair trial has been [severely] compromised, and we would move for a mistrial at this time.
It is difficult enough trying to base this on the facts and-not facts, the evidence that is put forth in the courtroom. The case should not be decided on things that happen outside the ...

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