Appeals court upholds mom’s 40-year neglect sentence in toddler’s death

The mother of a child whose boyfriend was sentenced to life in prison without parole in the 18-month-old’s death failed to show in her appeal that she was wrongly convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison for her role in the child’s brutalization and death.

Tuesday’s decision in Jennifer Lynn Harris v. State of Indiana, 
20A-CR-847, lets stand Jennifer Harris’ sentence and conviction of Level 1 felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the Madison Circuit Court’s rulings less than a month after the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the life-without-parole sentence and murder and child molestation convictions for Harris’ boyfriend, Dylan Thomas Tate.

While Harris slept, Tate had taken the child, H.H., who had previously been evaluated for suspected abuse. Driving while intoxicated early in the morning of Feb. 23, 2018, Tate slammed his vehicle into a tree then carried the child to a hospital, alleging H.H.’s injuries had been caused by the crash. Tate was ultimately charged and convicted of murder and multiple other charges.

Justices affirming Tate’s sentence and conviction concluded, “… The record contains substantial evidence of both the torture and child-molest aggravators on which the jury could reasonably rely.”

Harris on appeal argued the evidence against her was insufficient, the trial court abused its discretion in sentencing her and in admitting evidence, and that her sentence was inappropriate. The COA panel rejected all of her claims on appeal.

After finding the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing photographic evidence of H.H.’s extensive injuries, the panel found the evidence supporting Harris’ conviction more than sufficient.

“Here, our review of the evidence reveals that, in December 2017, Harris twice took H.H. to the Anderson (Community) Hospital ER because of swelling injuries to his head and face. At the end of December 2017, H.H.’s primary care provider suspected that H.H. was the victim of child abuse and referred him to the Peyton Manning ER, which has a Team to investigate such abuse. The Peyton Manning ER physician, Dr. (Kelly) Slama-McManus, clearly told Harris that H.H., who had two black eyes, an internal ear injury, and a broken leg, was being abused. Dr. Slama-McManus was so concerned about H.H.’s injuries that she wanted him admitted to the hospital that day. In addition, Harris knew that Tate was volatile. He kicked her out of the house in January 2018 because, as Harris told [a relative], ‘he was still angry over the broken leg incident,’” Judge Rudy Pyle III wrote for the panel.

“… However, a few weeks later, Harris had moved back in with Tate and wanted H.H. to return home. Harris also knew that Tate was both taking and selling drugs and had, as Harris told (Anderson Police) Detective (Clifford) Cole, ‘been getting angrier and angrier’ around the time that he brutally beat H.H. … This evidence, which is sufficient to establish that Harris knowingly placed H.H. in a dangerous situation, is sufficient to support Harris’ Level 1 felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death conviction,” the panel held.

Likewise, the panel found that, by itself, Harris’ abuse of her position of trust with regard to H.H. was a sufficient aggravating factor to support her 40-year sentence. The panel declined to find the sentence inappropriate.

“The character of the offender is found in what we learn of the offender’s life and conduct. Here, Harris’ violation of her position of trust with her eighteen-month-old son reflects very poorly on her character,” Pyle wrote after a recitation of the abuse the child had suffered. “As the trial court pointed out, there was no one that H.H. should have been able to depend on and trust more than Harris, and Harris ‘betrayed that.’”

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