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Medina v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

August 30, 2017

ANGEL MEDINA, DOC #H45754, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellee.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Polk County; Catherine L. Combee, Judge.

          David Maldonado of The Maldonado Law Firm, P.A., Lakeland, for Appellant.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Wendy Buffington, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellee.

          WALLACE, Judge.

         Angel Medina challenges his judgment and sentence for neglect of a child causing great bodily harm in violation of section 827.03, Florida Statutes (2012), following a jury trial. Because Mr. Medina's conduct in allowing a four-year-old child to descend a flight of stairs unassisted-stairs that the child had regularly traversed previously without significant incident-did not rise to the level of culpable negligence or a willful failure to care for the child's well-being, we reverse.

         I. THE FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND A. The Incident

         On January 10, 2013, Mr. Medina was babysitting his girlfriend's four-year-old son, J.A., when J.A. fell down a set of unfinished wooden stairs inside of Mr. Medina's residence. The fall caused traumatic brain injuries and required a piece of J.A.'s skull to be removed in order to relieve pressure on the brain.[1] J.A. was in a medically induced coma in the pediatric intensive care unit for several days and had to stay at the hospital for over two months.

         The incident in question began around 4:40 p.m. when J.A.'s mother left to go to work. Later that evening, J.A. was upstairs when he called down to Mr. Medina, who was on the first floor playing video games, and asked him if he could play video games with him. Upon Mr. Medina giving J.A. permission to come down and to bring his controller, J.A. began running down the stairs, where he subsequently fell, cracked his head open, was knocked unconscious, and stopped breathing. Mr. Medina then picked up J.A., ran upstairs, called 911, and tried performing CPR on J.A. until sheriff's deputies and paramedics arrived. The State later charged Mr. Medina with neglect of a child causing great bodily harm.[2]

         B. The Trial

         At the trial, the State introduced Mr. Medina's personal statements made in a recorded interview with a detective. In the interview, the detective asked Mr. Medina if the child ever had any trouble with the stairs, and Mr. Medina stated that "[o]ne time there was [an] incident." When the detective later inquired about that prior incident, Mr. Medina stated, "It was-it was on the last step though. It was on the last stair. [J.A.] just-I don't know. I guess he tripped. He came-come down fast again. He just boom, boom, boom." It is not clear from this statement whether the references to "com[ing] down fast again" and "boom, boom, boom" referred to the January 10 incident for which Mr. Medina was on trial or to an earlier incident. The detective did not ask Mr. Medina any follow-up questions to clarify this ambiguity.

         The State then introduced a reenactment video in which Mr. Medina had participated. In the video, Mr. Medina stated that J.A. was about halfway down the stairs when he fell. Mr. Medina further stated in the interview that he did not see J.A. fall but heard it. He asserted that he did not watch J.A. descend the stairs because he was sitting on the couch focusing on his video games. Also, Mr. Medina stated that J.A. frequently traversed the stairs and that he only knew of one other time when J.A. had trouble walking up and down the stairs by himself. Specifically, Mr. Medina stated that J.A. fell "going up" the stairs but that it was "nothing serious." Mr. Medina's report of J.A.'s fall "going up" the stairs seems to be the earlier incident that he referenced in the recorded interview.

         A detective who was involved in the reenactment video then testified that the stairs were narrow, "very steep, " and "progress[ed] upward pretty quickly." The steep stairs connected the first and second floors of the home, and J.A.'s bedroom was located on the second floor. There were about twelve steps in total and all of them were wooden with rough edges. The detective stated that the stairs were "still in the process of being refur[b]ished." There were two handrails to the right and to the left of the staircase, including balusters attached to the handrail on one side of the staircase. However, the handrail with balusters was not properly secured. Further, both handrails did not go all the way to the top of the staircase. Accordingly, there were no handrails for a person to hold at the very top of the stairs to prevent someone from falling off the step. The State introduced photographs of the stairs into evidence.

         A Department of Children and Families investigator also interviewed Mr. Medina regarding J.A.'s incident. The DCF investigator testified that Mr. Medina told him that at the time of the incident, he had been playing video games and smoking marijuana. On cross-examination, the DCF investigator again stated that Mr. Medina had admitted to smoking marijuana on the day of the incident. However, the DCF investigator testified that it was "possible" that Mr. Medina had stated that he was smoking marijuana before the child was in the residence. The DCF investigator further clarified that it was not "one hundred percent true" to say that Mr. Medina had actually said, "I was smoking at the time of the incident."

         In addition to the DCF investigator's testimony, the State and Mr. Medina introduced testimony from several law enforcement officers. Two of the responding officers testified that they did not remember smelling marijuana in the home when they arrived. However, a third officer testified that he smelled a "faint odor" of marijuana when he entered the residence, as if Mr. Medina had smoked marijuana a couple hours earlier. Additionally, through one of the responding officer's testimony, the State was able to introduce and identify various objects evidencing drug use found in Mr. Medina's home, including baggies containing marijuana, marijuana shavings, a marijuana butt in an ashtray, a bong in the bedroom, a hookah, and three to four rolled up cigarillos on a child's table. No one tested Mr. Medina to determine whether or not he had recently used any drugs or alcohol.

         At the time of the trial, J.A. was six years old and in the first grade at school. The State called J.A. as a witness at trial but did not first proffer his testimony outside the presence of the jury. Thus, J.A. gave extensive testimony before the jury. There were multiple problems with J.A.'s testimony and demeanor as a witness that we need not detail here. Ultimately, the trial court called a halt to the testimony, and J.A. was excused. After hearing the parties' arguments, the trial court ruled that J.A. was incompetent to testify. Defense counsel moved for a mistrial. The trial court never actually ruled on the mistrial motion but declared that it would give a curative instruction to the jury. The prosecutor and defense counsel agreed on the text of a curative instruction that the trial court ...


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