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Crowell v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

September 18, 2019

Tonisha Lache Crowell, Appellant,
State of Florida, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Okaloosa County. John T. Brown, Judge.

          Andy Thomas, Public Defender, and Kathryn Lane, Assistant Public Defender, Tallahassee, for Appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Virginia Chester Harris, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, for Appellee.

          Osterhaus, J.

         Tonisha Lache Crowell appeals a conviction and life sentence for murdering her baby. She seeks a new trial arguing that the trial court abused its discretion by giving deficient jury instructions that weren't supported by the evidence. We affirm.


         In October 2013, Ms. Crowell received treatment from a doctor for nausea and vomiting and learned that she was pregnant. Three months later, Ms. Crowell went to the hospital complaining again of stomach pain. She was told again that she was pregnant, and an ultrasound revealed that the baby was at thirty-nine weeks gestation. Ms. Crowell left the hospital, and two days later, she gave birth to a baby in the privacy of her bathroom at home. After the birth, Ms. Crowell cut the umbilical cord and placed the baby in a trash bag with garbage in it. She cleaned up the blood in the bathroom and then discarded the trash bag with the baby outside. The baby remained in the trash bag for hours in forty-something-degree weather. Ms. Crowell then got help for herself from a roommate who didn't know she was pregnant. The roommate thought Ms. Crowell was bleeding from a bowel issue and took her to the hospital.

         Upon arrival at the hospital, medical personnel discovered that Ms. Crowell had been there just two days before, while thirty-nine weeks pregnant, and that she was not pregnant anymore. Ms. Crowell denied at first that she was the same person. But after a couple of hours, she admitted to delivering a baby and leaving the newborn in a trash bag beside her home. The hospital alerted law enforcement and they found the baby still in the bag with her feet sticking out. Law enforcement officers and a paramedic testified to seeing the baby's chest rise and fall. But upon arrival at the hospital, the baby was pronounced dead. According to the death report, the cause of the baby's death was a combination of hypothermia and asphyxia. The baby had been stashed outside in the bag for about four hours.

         The State charged and tried Ms. Crowell for first-degree murder. A jury heard the case and returned a general verdict of guilty. The trial court sentenced Ms. Crowell to life in prison without parole. This timely appeal followed.


         This case involves the jury instructions given in Ms. Crowell's first-degree murder trial. We review the trial court's decision to give or withhold a proposed jury instruction for an abuse of discretion. Kervin v. State, 195 So. 3d 1181, 1182 (Fla. 1st DCA 2016). Whether an abuse of discretion occurred depends upon: "(1) whether the instruction given accurately states the applicable law; (2) whether the facts in the case support the instruction; and (3) whether the instruction given was necessary to allow the jury to properly resolve all issues in the case." Id. at 1182-83. We presume that the trial court's ruling on a jury instruction is correct. Langston v. State, 789 So.2d 1024, 1026 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001).

         Under Florida law, the State can make out a first-degree murder case either by proving premeditated murder or felony murder. See Dessaure v. State, 891 So.2d 455, 472 (Fla. 2004). The State's case here included evidence supporting both theories of first-degree murder and the court instructed the jury on both theories. Ms. Crowell asserts that her conviction and sentence should be reversed because the felony murder instructions referred to "caging" and "torture" of the victim, which she argues to be unsupported by the facts.

         A felony murder occurs when an offender kills someone while committing one of the crimes listed in § 782.04(1)(a)2., Florida Statutes (2013). Among these crimes is "aggravated child abuse." Id. Aggravated child abuse occurs when a person: (1) commits aggravated battery on a child; (2) willfully tortures, maliciously punishes, or willfully and unlawfully cages a child; or (3) knowingly or willfully abuses a child causing great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement to the child. ยง 827.03, Fla. Stat. (emphasis added). At the charge conference, defense counsel objected to the jury being instructed on these theories, except for child abuse causing great bodily harm or permanent disability. The trial court agreed to remove the "maliciously punishes" and "permanent ...

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