Fishers couple’s reconviction in toddler’s daycare death affirmed 

The involuntary manslaughter conviction of a Fishers couple after a retrial over the death of a toddler at their home daycare facility has been upheld by a divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals.

Daniel and Saundra Wahl, who operated a daycare business from the basement of their Fishers home, had several security gates in the residence including a white metal gate closing off the stairway leading to the first floor.

That gate caused issues for the Wahls when it started to give way, prompting Daniel to repair it twice in 2006. However, he didn’t use screws to secure the gate’s hinges but instead used washers, bolts and nuts to hold it in place.

In 2013, a 20-month-year-old toddler died after getting his head stuck between the wall and the broken baby gate. As a result, the Wahls were subsequently charged and found guilty of Class D felony involuntary manslaughter.

However, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned their convictions in 2016 after finding that the Wahls’ motion for mistrial due to juror misconduct should have been granted.

After the reversal and remand of their case for a new trial, the Wahls moved to suppress photographs taken from inside the residence, an audio recording of the Wahls conducted in the living room, a video recording of Saundra reenacting the events that occurred before she discovered the child stuck in the gate, and the metal security gate that trapped him.

Excluding the actual gate, the evidence was found admissible and the Wahls were ultimately found guilty a second time. They were sentenced to 550 days in the Department of Correction with credit for 550 days served, and ordered to pay restitution of $22,353.72 to the child’s parents.

A split panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed Tuesday in Daniel Wahl and Saundra Wahl v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-2258, with the majority first finding no abuse of the trial court’s discretion in excluding testimony from the Wahls’ potential expert witness. That witness had admitted that his expertise did not involve interpreting regulations affecting daycares for preschool children.

Additionally, the appellate majority found Saundra voluntarily and knowingly consented to the search of her home, which led to the video reenactment. It therefore concluded that the Wahls’ Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution were not violated, and neither were their state rights.

“Saundra on behalf of Daniel, waived any and all of the Wahls’ search rights since she agreed to submit to the video reenactment,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the majority. “Thus, given the reasonably high degree of suspicion of criminal activity, the minimally intrusive nature of police conduct prior to obtaining Saundra’s consent, and the extent of law enforcement needs, the Wahls have failed to establish that the video reenactment, was unreasonable under Article I, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution.”

The majority further held that the evidence supported the restitution amount of $22,353.72. It additionally found that Saundra was not in custody and therefore was not required to be advised of her Miranda rights when she was asked to narrate the events that were captured in a video.

In a separate concurring opinion, Judge Elizabeth Tavitas emphasized relevant statutory provisions under Indiana Code Section 36-2-14-6 which she said further support the conclusion that Miranda warnings were not required.

“The events on June 20, 2013, were tragic, and there is no positive outcome here. Nonetheless, I am compelled to conclude law enforcement was conducting a general on-the-scene investigation to assist the coroner, and Saundra was not subjected to a custodial interrogation during the reenactment video,” Tavitas wrote.

But appellate Judge Paul D. Mathias disagreed with the majority on that point, dissenting in a separate opinion and arguing that the admission of the video reenactment violated Saundra’s Miranda rights.

Mathias opined that the totality of the circumstances demonstrated Saundra was in custody at the time she was asked to reenact what she saw by detectives. Rather than simply asking her to recreate the scene of the child’s death in order to help the police assist the coroner, Mathias argued that the police were encouraging Saundra to incriminate herself.

“Under the totality of these facts and circumstances, I believe that Saundra’s freedom of action and movement were deprived in a significant way, i.e., she was in custody for purposes of Miranda. Because Saundra was subject to custodial interrogation, the police were required to advise her of her Miranda rights,” Mathias wrote. “The failure to so advise Saundra of her Miranda rights means that the trial court should have excluded the video reenactment from evidence, and I respectfully dissent from the majority’s conclusion otherwise.”

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