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People v. Wyatt

May 10, 2010

THE PEOPLE,
PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
V. REGINALD WYATT,
DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



Ct. App. 1/2 A114612 Alameda County Super. Ct. No. C147107.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.

While in defendant's care, defendant's 14-month-old son died of shock and hemorrhage due to blunt force trauma to the chest and abdomen. A jury convicted defendant of involuntary manslaughter (Pen. Code, §á192, subd. (b))*fn1 and assault on a child causing death (§á273ab). The Court of Appeal reversed the section 273ab conviction, finding the evidence insufficient to prove the requisite mens rea for the assault element of the offense.

We conclude the Court of Appeal misapplied the mens rea standard for assault as stated in People v. Williams (2001) 26 Cal.4th 779 (Williams). Under Williams, a defendant may commit an assault without realizing he was harming the victim, but the prosecution must prove the defendant was aware of facts that would lead a reasonable person to realize that a battery would directly, naturally, and probably result from the defendant's conduct. Here, substantial evidence established that defendant knew he was striking his young son with his fist, forearm, knee, and elbow, and that he used an amount of force a reasonable person would realize was likely to result in great bodily injury. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remand the matter to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In May 2003, defendant, Reginald Wyatt, was living with his girlfriend, Tiffany Blake, and their infant daughter, Valerie. Defendant also had a 14-month-old son, Reginald Wyatt, Jr. (Reginald), from a previous relationship with Charrikka Harris. On the morning of May 18, 2003, Reginald stopped breathing while in defendant's care during a weekend visit. He was rushed to the hospital, but could not be revived. Although the treating doctor saw no signs of significant injury on the body, the autopsy disclosed that Reginald died of shock and hemorrhage due to blunt force trauma to the chest and abdomen.

Defendant admitted to police that he had hit Reginald multiple times in the chest, head, and back while play-wrestling with him. An information was filed charging defendant with one count of murder. (§á187, subd. (a).) The information also charged him with one count of assault on a child causing death, an offense sometimes referred to as child abuse homicide. (§á273ab.) As we shall discuss at greater length below, the evidence at trial included medical and physical evidence concerning Reginald's injuries, defendant's tape-recorded statements and trial testimony, and testimony from Harris and Blake. After the defense rested, the court granted defendant's motion for judgment of acquittal as to the murder count. (§á1118.1.) The jury found defendant guilty of the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter and of child abuse homicide. The court sentenced him to 25 years to life for child abuse homicide and stayed his sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

The Court of Appeal reversed the section 273ab conviction, but otherwise affirmed the judgment. The court concluded the evidence was insufficient to prove the requisite mens rea for child abuse homicide, because it failed to show defendant had "actual knowledge" he was "wrestling far too hard with his young son."

We granted review to determine whether substantial evidence supported the section 273ab conviction, and specifically, whether reversal was required under Williams, supra, 26 Cal.4th 779.

DISCUSSION

Section 273ab defines the offense of child abuse homicide.*fn2 The elements of the offense are: "(1) A person, having the care or custody of a child under the age of eight; (2) assaults this child; (3) by means of force that to a reasonable person would be likely to produce great bodily injury; (4) resulting in the child's death." (People v. Malfavon (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 727, 735; see People v. Stewart (2000) 77 Cal.App.4th 785, 794.) The manifest purpose of section 273ab is "to protect children at a young age who are particularly vulnerable." (People v. Albritton (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 647, 660 (Albritton).)

At issue here is the element of the offense that the defendant caretaker "commit an assault with force such that a reasonable person would know it was likely to inflict great bodily injury." (People v. Malfavon, supra, 102 Cal.App.4th at p. 743 [italics added].) In particular, the parties dispute the showing required to establish the mens rea for assault and the sufficiency of the trial evidence on that point. As we shall explain, these disagreements are readily resolved by applying the analysis in Williams, supra, 26 Cal.4th 779, and the settled rules governing sufficiency of the evidence challenges.

Even before Williams, our cases consistently recognized that assault does not require a specific intent to injure the victim. As we explained, the criminal intent required for assault is "the general intent to wilfully commit an act the direct, natural and probable consequences of which if successfully completed would be the injury to another." (People v. Rocha (1971) 3 Cal.3d 893, 899 (Rocha).) Put another way, "[t]he mens rea is established upon proof the defendant willfully committed an act that by its nature will probably and directly result in injury to another, i.e., a battery. Although the defendant must intentionally engage in conduct that will likely produce injurious consequences, the prosecution need not prove a specific intent to inflict a particular harm." (People v. Colantuono (1994) 7 Cal.4th 206, 214; see Rocha, at p. 899 [the intent to cause any particular injury, to severely injure another, or to injure in the sense of inflicting bodily harm, is not necessary].)

In addressing the mens rea for assault, Williams clarified: "Logically, a defendant cannot have [the required] intent unless he actually knows those facts sufficient to establish that his act by its nature will probably and directly result in physical force being applied to another, i.e., a battery. [Citation.] In other words, a defendant guilty of assault must be aware of the facts that would lead a reasonable person to realize that a battery would directly, naturally and probably result from his conduct. He may not be convicted based on facts he did not know but should have known. He, however, need not be subjectively aware of the risk that a battery might occur." (Williams, supra, 26 Cal.4th at pp. 787-788 [italics added, fn. omitted].) On this point, Williams emphasized: "[A] defendant who honestly believes that his act was not likely to result in a battery is still guilty of assault if a reasonable person, viewing the facts known to defendant, would find that the act would directly, naturally and probably result in a battery." (Id. at p. 788, fn. 3.)

Consistent with Williams, a defendant may be guilty of an assault within the meaning of section 273ab if he acts with awareness of facts that would lead a reasonable person to realize that great bodily injury would directly, naturally, and probably result from his act. (See Williams, supra, 26 Cal.4th at p. 788.) The defendant, however, need not know or be subjectively aware that his act is capable of causing great bodily injury. (Albritton, supra, 67 Cal.App.4th at pp. 658-659.) This means the requisite mens rea may ...


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