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State v. Layton

Superior Court of Delaware

December 6, 2017

STATE OF DELAWARE
v.
CASEY LAYTON

          Date Submitted: October 30, 2017

         Upon Defendant's Motion in Limine. Denied. Upon the State's Motion in Limine to Determine Admissibility Pursuant to the Delaware Rules of Evidence. Granted in part.

          Melanie C. Withers, Esq., Deputy Attorney General.

          Natalie S. Woloshin, Esq., Woloshin, Lynch, & Associates, P.A.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          STOKES, J.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court are the pretrial motions submitted in this case. The Court will address the Defendant's Motion in Limine and the State's Motion in Limine seriatim. Defendant, Casey Layton's ("Defendant" or "Layton"), Motion in Limine is, in essence, a motion to dismiss. She seeks to have count two of the indictment, Murder by Neglect, dismissed for unconstitutional vagueness. For the reasons expressed below, the Motion is DENIED. The State's Motion in Limine seeks a determination of the admissibility of certain evidence to be used in its case-in-chief. For the reasons expressed below, portions of the evidence in question are admissible. The State's Motion is GRANTED IN PART.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         The victim, Aiden Hundley ("Aiden"), was born on February 19, 2015 addicted to narcotics. After a four week stay in the hospital to be weaned from drugs, Aiden was released to his parents, Doyle J. Hundley ("Hundley") and Casey Layton. The Division of Family Services ("DFS") became involved with this family after Aiden's birth.

         When Aiden was barely three months old, emergency personnel were called to Hundley and Layton's home in Harbeson, Delaware. On May 23, 2015, Aiden was found to be unconscious, unresponsive, and his face and lips were blue. He was ventilated with a mask and bag, and an IV was begun through a hole drilled in his leg. He was transported to Beebe Hospital in Lewes.

         Neither Hundley nor Layton offered an explanation as to why Aiden was unconscious and unresponsive. Neither Hundley nor Layton accompanied Aiden to the hospital. Layton eventually went to the hospital with a police officer; Hundley never went to the hospital.

         Aiden was immediately transferred from Beebe Medical Center to Nemours/Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children ("A.I. DuPont") in Wilmington, Delaware. On May 26, 2015, Dr. Allan DeJong, the medical director of A.I. duPont's child abuse program, and an expert in child abuse pediatrics and medical evaluation of children for abuse and neglect examined Aiden. Dr. DeJong opined that Aiden sustained multiple fracture caused by unexplained abusive trauma. In addition to multiple fractures, Aiden's other diagnoses included chronic bilateral subdural hematomas, destruction of brain tissue, seizures, respiratory failure, malnourishment, and splitting of the layers of the retina of his left eye.

         On May 28, 2015, DFS filed a Dependency/Neglect Petition for Custody, requesting emergency ex parte custody of Aiden. The petition alleged that Aiden was neglected and abused in the care of his parents. DFS asserted that Aiden had been hospitalized for serious physical injuries. Because his parents were suspects in this abuse, the Family Court awarded emergency custody of Aiden to DFS.

         On May 28, 2015, the Family Court appointed Kim DeBonte, Esq., of the Office of the Child Advocate, as Aiden's attorney guardian ad litem ("AGAL").

         On June 4, 2015, the Family Court held a Preliminary Protective Hearing. Layton appeared, but Hundley did not. Service of process had not yet occurred on Hundley. The Family Court found Layton to be indigent and appointed counsel on her behalf. Layton consented to a finding of probable cause that Aiden, as well as his older brother, Jaxsun Hundley, continued to be in actual physical, mental, or emotional harm, or there was a substantial imminent risk thereof.

         The Family Court received testimony that Aiden had suffered extensive injuries and would likely require institutional care and/or life support for the remainder of his life. Due to Aiden's injuries, as well as concerns as to the nature of the care being provided by Layton and Hundley, the Family Court found that probable cause existed to believe that both children continued to be in actual physical, mental, or emotional danger with regard to Hundley. The Family Court also found that DFS had made reasonable efforts to prevent the unnecessary removal of the children from their home. Accordingly, the Family Court continued temporary custody of both children with DFS. The Family Court ordered genetic testing of both children. The Family Court also scheduled an Adjudicatory Hearing.

         On June 26, 2015, the AGAL filed a Motion to De-Escalate Medical Treatment, in which she requested a hearing to determine whether it was in Aiden's best interest to de-escalate his medical intervention. The Motion stated that Aiden had been diagnosed with numerous medical conditions which were highly characteristic of non-accidental trauma. As a result of his injuries, Aiden was placed on life support. Layton visited Aiden twice in June after his admission to A.I. DuPont and cancelled other scheduled visits without providing an explanation. Hundley did not visit Aiden once in June or contact DFS to schedule a visit.

         Attached to the Motion to De-Escalate Medical Treatment were several affidavits from Aiden's Physicians at A.I. DuPont, all of which concluded that it would be in Aiden's best interest to de-escalate his medical treatment and to provide "comfort care" instead. Layton had been informed of Aiden's prognosis, but indicated that she did not wish to withdraw care.

         On June 30, 2015, the Family Court held an emergency hearing to receive evidence concerning the Motion to De-Escalate Medical Treatment. Layton had been personally served with notice of the hearing on June 27, 2015, and she was present with counsel. Hundley had not been personally served, but appeared anyway. The Family Court found Hundley to be indigent and appointed counsel on his behalf. Hundley's attorney requested a continuance, arguing that she had just met Hundley, only learned of the hearing the previous day, and did not have time to prepare for a hearing with such significant consequences. The Family Court denied the request.

         On July 6, 2015, the Family Court issued its Order from the June 30 hearing, denying the Motion to De-Escalate Medical Treatment due to a lack of evidence indicating that Aiden was at risk of immediate and irreparable harm as well as the absence of a finding of dependency, neglect, or abuse. The Adjudicatory Hearing had not yet been held, and therefore a finding of dependency, neglect, or abuse had not yet been made. The Family Court's Order stated that Layton and Hundley would be permitted to seek an independent medical expert's opinion of Aiden's condition, and that the Motion would be re-addressed at an appropriate time.

         On July 23 and 28, 2015, the Family Court held an Adjudicatory Hearing with regard to Aiden and Jaxsun. Both parents were represented by counsel. During the hearing, evidence was presented that Aiden was born addicted to narcotics and spent four weeks in the hospital. The evidence also revealed that Aiden was in the exclusive control of Layton and Hundley at the time he sustained his injuries, and that it was not possible for Aiden to cause the harm to himself. Lastly, the evidence showed that Layton and Hundley failed to seek medical attention for Aiden despite obvious signs that he was severely injured.

         On August 10, 2015, the Family Court held a teleconference with counsel for Layton and Hundley, DFS, and Aiden's AGAL. The primary purpose of the teleconference was to determine the status of an independent medical examination requested by Layton and Hundley at the conclusion of the June 30, 2015 hearing. The Family Court was informed that an independent examination of Aiden had not been performed.

         Counsel for Layton and Hundley stated that The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins of Baltimore, St. Christopher's Hospital for Children ("St. Christopher's") in Philadelphia, and the Children's National Medical Center ("CNMC") in Washington, D.C. all declined to perform the evaluation. The Family Court and counsel engaged in a discussion as to the purpose of an independent medical examination. Counsel for Layton responded that such an examination is required due to the finality of the Family Court's decision. The AGAL asserted that it is simply good practice. The AGAL also asserted, however, that it is her position that an independent assessment of Aiden's condition was performed by Dr. Stephen Falchek. Dr. Falchek is the Chief of Pediatric Neurology at A.I. duPont. The AGAL explained that there are very few pediatric neurologists in the area not associated with A.I. duPont and that Dr. Falchek had never been involved with Aiden's treatment.

         At the conclusion of the teleconference, the AGAL renewed her Motion to De-Escalate Medical Treatment. Additionally, all of the parties agreed that there was no additional evidence or argument to be presented in this matter other than the results of an independent medical examination, if one was performed.

         On August 11, 2015, the Family Court issued its Order from the Adjudicatory Hearing, finding that Jaxsun was neglected in the care of his parents, and that Aiden was neglected and abused in that care of his parents. Accordingly, the Family Court awarded custody of both children to DFS.

         On August 13, 2015, the Family Court issued a decision addressing the Motion to De-Escalate Medical Treatment. The Family Court found that an examination of Aiden's condition by a physician completely unaffiliated with A.I. duPont was not required prior to resolving the Motion. The Family Court found that there was no indication that Dr. Falchek's employment with A.L duPont affected his ability to perform an independent examination of Aiden's condition. Dr Falchek had little knowledge of Aiden or his condition prior to his examination. He swore to his independence under penalty of perjury. There were no allegations or evidence indicating that the testifying physicians had engaged in any sort of collusion or impropriety. All four of the physicians who testified in this case provided an almost identical assessment of Aiden's condition and prognosis. The certainty in each of those medical opinions led the Family Court to believe that a fifth examination would not result in a different opinion. The Family Court also noted that this case was time sensitive, as Aiden's condition was deteriorating, and his current life support systems were nearing the end of their sustainability. Therefore, the Family Court ordered that the parties could move forward without a fifth medical evaluation.

         The decision of the Family Court was appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court. On September 4, 2015, the Supreme Court remanded the case and directed the Family Court to appoint an independent medical expert to examine Aiden and provide an opinion concerning his diagnosis, prognosis, and recommended course of treatment. Dr. Richard Fisher of Christiana Health Care Systems was appointed to conduct the analysis. On September 9, 2015, Dr. Fisher submitted his opinion to the Family Court. He concurred with the opinions of the four other doctors who had previously performed examinations of Aiden.

         The case was then sent to the Supreme Court to determine whether the Family Court had jurisdiction to order the de-escalation of Aiden's medical treatment and whether the Family Court applied the proper legal standard when making the determination. On September 16, 2015, the Supreme Court held that the Family Court did have jurisdiction to order the de-escalation of medical treatment and that the Court has properly done so. Following the issuance of the Supreme Court's opinion, Aiden was taken off life support. He died on September 22, 2015.

         Thereafter, Defendant was charged with one count each of Murder by Abuse[2], Murder by Neglect, and Endangering the Welfare.

         She now seeks to have the Murder by Neglect charged dismissed for being unconstitutionally vague. The applicable statute reads:

(a) A person is guilty of murder by abuse or neglect in the first degree when the person recklessly causes the death of a child:
(1) Through an act of abuse and/or neglect of such child; or
(2) When the person has engaged in a previous pattern of abuse and/or neglect of such child.[3]

         Additionally, the State seeks a determination regarding the admissibility of certain prior bad act evidence.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. II Del. C. $ 634 Is Not Unconstitutionally Vague

         According to Defendant, the statute in question is void for vagueness because § 634(a)(1) requires a causal link between the alleged act of abuse and/or neglect and the child's death, while § 634(a)(2) does not require there to be a causal link between the previous pattern of abuse and/or neglect and the death. Defendant believes that, as a result, "a person could be charged and convicted for a Class A felony when his or her prior neglect did not cause the death of a child."[4]Accordingly, the statute does not provide fair notice of the prohibited behavior and encourages arbitrary enforcement of the law because it allows for the "prosecution of defendants who previously engaged in a pattern of abuse completely unrelated to the child's death."[5]

         The State argues that the statute is not unconstitutionally vague, so the charge should not be dismissed. In the State's view, the ".. .statute puts the defendant on notice that it is a crime to recklessly cause the death of a child when she engages in a pattern of neglect of the child."[6]

         The factors that a court must analyze when considering whether a statute is unconstitutionally vague are well-settled law. The Supreme Court, in Hoover v. State, explained:

"A statute is void for vagueness if it fails to give a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice that his contemplated behavior is forbidden" or "if it encourages arbitrary or erratic enforcement." This Court applies a two-step analysis to determine whether a criminal statute is unconstitutionally vague. First, we consider whether the terms of the statute are sufficiently explicit to inform those subject to the statute of the prohibited conduct. Second, we consider whether the terms of the statute are so vague that persons of common intelligence must guess at the statute's meaning and would differ as to its application.[7]

         Additionally, it is established law in Delaware that legislation enacted by the General Assembly is presumptively constitutional.[8] When possible, the Court should read a statute to be consistent with the legislative intent as well as ensure that the interpretation does not lead to absurd results, generally by giving the "language its reasonable and suitable meaning."[9]

         Here, there is no question that the statute is detailed enough to alert a potential offender of the prohibited behavior, and it does not encourage arbitrary or erratic enforcement. The statute makes clear that a person is guilty of Murder by Neglect if his or her reckless behavior constituted a previous pattern of abuse or neglect of the victim child, which ultimately culminated in the child's death. The fact that the word "when" is used instead of the word "through" is inconsequential. A person of ordinary intelligence would still understand the provision to mean that a previous pattern of abuse and/or neglect would have to cause the child's death, regardless of which word is used. Reasonable minds would not differ as to the application of the law. Furthermore, since the statute does not allow for the prosecution of defendants who previously engaged in a pattern of abuse and/or neglect unrelated to the child's death, there is no risk that it will be applied arbitrarily or erratically. Thus, the statute is not unconstitutionally vague.

         Considering the foregoing, Defendant's Motion in Limine is DENIED.

         B. Portions of the Evidence Sought to be Admitted by the State will be Admissible at Trial

         The State seeks to have certain evidence of Layton's prior bad acts admitted at trial. Therefore, the State now seeks a determination of whether the prior bad act evidence will be admissible at trial. The evidence reasonably anticipated includes:

1. Evidence that Defendant consumed opiates and other illegal drugs while pregnant with two other children, one of whom was removed from her care by DFS due to severe neglect and ...

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