The Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed a decades-long sentence for a mother convicted of felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death after one of her children was killed in a rollover car crash stemming from intoxicated driving.
While driving more than 60 mph on the highway with her four children in the backseat, Jessica Skeens and her boyfriend got into a verbal and physical altercation. Skeens, who was in the driver’s seat and drinking whiskey from a water bottle, lost control of her van, which rolled over and off of the highway.
Three of Skeens’ children, including then-6-year-old T.W., were not properly restrained in the van. As a result, T.W. was partially ejected through one of the van’s windows during the rollover and was killed.
Skeens, who had also been smoking marijuana before the crash, was charged with Level 1 felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death, Level 4 felony causing death when operating a motor vehicle with a schedule I or II controlled substance in the blood, Level 5 felony causing death when operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, Level 5 felony reckless homicide, three counts of Level 6 felony neglect of a dependent, Class B misdemeanor marijuana possession, and Class C misdemeanor operating a motor vehicle without ever receiving a license.
A jury ultimately found Skeens guilty on all counts except for the reckless homicide and operating without a license charges. However, the trial court convicted Skeens on only the neglect and marijuana possession counts, handing her a 41-year sentence. It further imposed a concurrent six-month sentence for Skeens’ marijuana possession.
An appellate panel declined to agree with any of Skeens’ argument on appeal, affirming her sentence and convictions in Jessica M. Skeens v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-02475.
The appellate court first found Skeens had waived any argument regarding the admissibility of a state trooper’s testimony that she was impaired at the time of the accident and that her daughter had died because the child was not properly restrained in a car seat.
It also noted that Skeens’ sufficiency argument regarding the Level 1 felony conviction was based on a false premise — the argument that the state was obligated to present “medical or scientific expert” testimony that a particular act or omission on Skeens’ part resulted in T.W.’s death. Thus, Skeens alleged, its failure to present such testimony requires the appellate court to reduce her conviction to a Level 6 felony.
Citing its decision in Patel v. State, 60 N.E.3d 1041 (Ind. Ct. App. 2016), the appellate court noted that it “did not specifically hold that medical expert testimony was required to establish causation; we simply addressed the argument as framed by Patel, and the State pointed to no other competent evidence regarding causation.”
“But even assuming that medical expert testimony would have been required to prove causation in Patel, we note that this case presented no medical or scientific issues with respect to causation, and therefore no medical or scientific expert testimony was required,” Judge Terry Crone wrote for the appellate panel.
Lastly, the appellate panel further found no abuse of the Delaware Circuit Court’s discretion in instructing Skeens’ jury on causation, concluding that she had failed to establish that her sentence was inappropriate in light of the nature of the offense and her character.