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Cardona v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

January 15, 2020

Ana Maria Cardona, Appellant,
v.
The State of Florida, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          An Appeal from the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, Lower Tribunal No. 90-48092B Miguel M. de la O, Judge.

          Carlos J. Martinez, Public Defender, and Andrew Stanton, Assistant Public Defender, for appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Gabrielle Raemy Charest-Turken, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Before LOGUE, SCALES and GORDO, JJ.

          GORDO, J.

         Ana Maria Cardona appeals the final judgment of conviction and sentence rendered following her third trial on December 13, 2017. Cardona was charged with and convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the 1990 death of her three-year-old son, Lazaro Figueroa ("L.F."). At trial, the State proffered the testimony of the former Chief Medical Examiner of the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, Dr. Bruce Hyma, who examined L.F.'s body on the date it was found.[1] Specifically, Dr. Hyma testified that L.F.'s cause of death was child abuse syndrome. The defense argues this testimony was inadmissible because the "true cause of death" was blunt force injury. The defense contends that Dr. Hyma's testimony was inadmissible because it confused and misled the jurors and forced them to reject the defense theory of the case. We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting Dr. Hyma's cause of death testimony and affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The facts of this case are extensive and are set out in great detail in opinions from the Florida Supreme Court. See Cardona v. State, 185 So.3d 514, 517-19 (Fla. 2016); Cardona v. State, 826 So.2d 968, 969-72 (Fla. 2002); Cardona v. State, 641 So.2d 361, 361-63 (Fla. 1994). This opinion contains only a summary of the facts relevant to the issue on appeal.

         On November 2, 1990, L.F.'s body was discovered in the yard of a home in Miami Beach. Dr. Bruce Hyma, the medical examiner at that time, examined L.F.'s body and documented his injuries.

         Following the discovery of L.F.'s body, it took over a month to identify him. Eventually, the authorities located Cardona who had fled to Orlando with her then-girlfriend and two older children. In the course of police interviews that day, Cardona gave several iterations of what had happened to L.F. One such version was that L.F.'s death had been an accident resulting from a fall from his bed.

         At the time of his death, three-year-old L.F. had been victim to years of child abuse and had numerous injuries to show for it. From early in L.F.'s life, Cardona often left him in the care of others. In fact, sometimes Cardona would drop off her son and not return for several months. Because of this lack of continuity in L.F.'s care, Cardona's defense claimed that the systemic injuries were not entirely her responsibility. Further, Cardona alleged that L.F. was not in her care in the weeks and months that preceded his death because she was living in an efficiency where children were not allowed. She contended that her girlfriend had taken L.F. from her to live with a wealthy friend in Miami Beach and that the girlfriend had prohibited her from seeing him again prior to his death.[2] Conversely, the State presented testimony and evidence that L.F. had, in fact, been living in the efficiency with Cardona, her other children, and her girlfriend.

         Prior to trial, Cardona's counsel sought to exclude the testimony regarding child abuse syndrome or battered child syndrome.[3] Dr. Hyma's autopsy report stated that the cause of death was "child abuse syndrome." Cardona's defense posited that a blunt force injury to the head was the true cause of L.F.'s death. The defense argued because their case theory was based on an identifiable, discrete, fatal injury, it was inappropriate for the medical examiner to opine otherwise as it negated Cardona's defense.

         The trial court denied Cardona's motion in limine concluding that the child abuse syndrome testimony was both relevant and was not more prejudicial than probative. The trial court concluded that the testimony was relevant to prove intent. The trial court also determined that "the evidence of abuse found during [L.F.'s] autopsy is not substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice, confusion, or misleading the jury." The court then stated that it was "open to ...


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