COA reinstates, then reverses, neglect conviction

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After reinstating a woman’s neglect conviction based on trial court error, the Court of Appeals of Indiana then reversed that conviction based on insufficient evidence.

Judge Rudolph Pyle wrote the opinion Tuesday in State of Indiana v. Trisha M. Woodworth, 22A-CR-2557.

According to court records, M.M. was born in July 2015 to Ryan Moore and Megan Garner.

Garner asked Trisha Woodworth if she could take care of M.M. four days a week while the parents worked.

On the evening of April 11, 2016, Garner was sitting on the floor playing with 8-month-old M.M. when the child fell over Garner’s leg and hit her head on the hardwood floor. M.M. had a “little red scuff” on her forehead above her eyebrow and cried for about 30 seconds.

The parents did not notice any changes in her behavior that evening and did not seek medical assistance. But over the next week, Garner noticed that M.M. was fussier and whinier than usual.

Then on April 15, Garner dropped M.M. off at Woodworth’s home. Later that day, Woodworth attempted to feed M.M, but the child’s eyes closed, she “kind of slumped over[,]” and she would not take the bottle.

The mother told Woodworth to call 911. There had been a nine-minute delay before Woodworth made the 911 call.

An ambulance transported M.M. to Methodist Hospital in Gary, and she was helicopter transferred to the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital.

M.M. died two days later at the hospital.

Following an autopsy, the medical examiner concluded that M.M.’s cause of death was “blunt force head injuries with … cervical injuries as a contributing factor.” The medical examiner further concluded that the manner of M.M.’s death was homicide.

A Lake Superior Court jury eventually convicted Woodworth of Level 1 felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death but acquitted her of Level 1 felony aggravated battery and Level 2 felony battery resulting in death to a person less than 14 years of age.

In August 2022, Woodworth filed a motion to correct error, wherein she argued that there was insufficient evidence to support her conviction.

She asked the trial court to either direct a verdict in her favor or to grant her a new trial. Woodworth also asked the trial court to grant her a new trial based on a juror’s letter that had expressed doubt about her guilt.

The trial court ultimately granted its own motion to correct error, vacating Woodworth’s conviction and granting her a new trial.

The state appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion when it granted its own motion to correct error.

On cross-appeal, Woodworth argued there was insufficient evidence to support her conviction.

The Court of Appeals reinstated the woman’s conviction, but also reversed it, finding there was insufficient evidence to support her conviction.

According to Pyle, the appellate court agreed with the state’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion when it granted its own motion to correct error and ordered a new trial.

The trial court had found that Woodworth’s counsel was ineffective, and that the jury’s verdict did not accord with the evidence because nine minutes was a reasonable amount of time for Woodworth to determine whether she should call 911.

“Neither reason supports the trial court’s grant of its own motion to correct error,” Pyle wrote.

First, Woodworth’s counsel did not ask for a new trial based on his own ineffective representation, Pyle pointed out.

“Rather, despite showering Woodworth’s counsel with glowing compliments regarding his excellent advocacy, the trial court sua sponte found that Woodworth’s counsel was ineffective. Johnson does not support the trial court’s action in this case,” Pyle wrote, citing State v. Johnson, 714 N.E.2d 1209 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999).

Further, the trial court did not state whether the jury’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence or clearly erroneous, Pyle added.

“Rather, the trial court made only general findings and not the special findings required by Trial Rule 59(J),” he wrote. “We, therefore, reinstate Woodworth’s conviction for Level 1 felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death.”

But turning to Woodworth’s cross-appeal, Pyle pointed out that there was no doubt that M.M.’s need for medical care was actual and apparent, and that Woodworth was actually and subjectively aware of that need.

The appellate court concluded that Woodworth’s actions were those of a reasonable caregiver who finds that a child in her care is having difficulty waking up from a nap and does not “look right.”

“Stated differently, we conclude that Woodworth’s nine-minute delay in calling 911 — while she contacted Mother and while her mother and sister simultaneously tended to M.M. by applying a cold rag to M.M.’s head and taking her outside to get some fresh air — was not a failure to provide immediate medical attention to M.M.,” Pyle concluded. “Woodworth did not knowingly place M.M. in a situation that endangered M.M.’s life.”

Judges Nancy Vaidik and Paul Mathias concurred.

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