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Court rules on parental discipline case

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has held that a woman’s prior conviction for battering her daughter in a way similar to a current case is admissible pursuant to the state’s rules of evidence.

In Lavern Ceaser v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-1106-CR-580, the appellate court affirmed several decisions by Marion Superior Master Commissioner Teresa A. Hall in a case involving a mother’s Class D felony battery conviction against her daughter.

The mother, Lavern Ceaser, was accused of battering her 9-year-old daughter by striking her on the arms, back, legs and bottom for as long as 15 minutes and causing the girl to cry and scream in pain. The girl showed a teacher at school the welts the following day and that teacher notified the local Department of Child Services, leading to this case. Ceaser had a previous Class A misdemeanor battery on a child conviction from 2006 involving the same child, who was then 7 years old. The daughter was removed from her mother’s care but then returned to Ceaser in 2008 just several months before this incident occurred.

After the state charged Ceaser with felony battery on a child and trial began, prosecutors wanted to introduce the prior conviction. The trial court ruled that the state couldn’t use the evidence in its case-in-chief but could use the evidence for rebuttal purposes if Ceaser relied on the parental privilege defense.

The mother testified at trial and said she’d tried various ways of disciplining her daughter unsuccessfully because the girl had apparently lied about homework and not keeping her bedroom clean. She said that the 2006 conduct may not have been reasonable, but the felt the 2008 discipline was reasonable. The jury convicted Ceaser, who received a 545-day sentence, with all of the time suspended to probation.

On appeal, Ceaser argued the trial court erred by allowing the prior conviction as evidence, that the court wrongly denied her motion to dismiss, and that evidence was insufficient to rebut her claim of parental privilege.

Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote the 17-page appellate opinion and acknowledged the potential for unfair prejudice was tangible, but the trial court properly limited the evidence and weighed the probative value versus the threat of prejudice.

Specifically, the appellate judges found that the prior conviction was admissible under the intent and lack of accident or mistake exceptions to Indiana Evidence Rule 404(b).

The court also concluded that the trial court properly denied Ceaser’s motion to dismiss and that the trial evidence was sufficient to rebut her claim of parental privilege. Vaidik wrote that Ceaser’s appellate arguments attempt to minimize the harm to her daughter and insist that the mother’s behavior was not excessive but justified. The court described that as an invitation to reweigh the evidence, and it cannot do that.

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