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Rams v. Commonwealth

Court of Appeals of Virginia

February 26, 2019


          FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY Randy I. Bellows, Judge Designate

          Meghan Shapiro, Deputy Capital Defender (Christopher Leibig; Law Offices of Christopher Leibig, on briefs), for appellant.

          Christopher P. Schandevel, Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

          Present: Chief Judge Decker, [*] Judge Malveaux and Senior Judge Haley Argued at Fredericksburg, Virginia



         Joaquin Shadow Rams, Sr., appeals his conviction for capital murder in violation of Code § 18.2-31.[1] He argues that the circumstantial evidence was insufficient to prove that the death was a homicide and, consequently, that he was the criminal agent. The appellant also contends that the circuit court's denial of his request for a bill of particulars regarding the specific cause of death that the Commonwealth sought to prove violated his due process rights. We hold that the evidence was sufficient to support the appellant's conviction and the denial of his request for a bill of particulars was not reversible error. Consequently, we affirm the challenged conviction.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         A. The Victim and the Crime

         The appellant's son, P.R., was born on July 1, 2011. The appellant and P.R.'s mother resided together at the time of the birth, but the mother moved out with P.R. when he was about two weeks old. The mother had sole legal and physical custody of the child, and the appellant was eventually permitted to have unsupervised visitation.

         P.R. developed normally as an infant and met all developmental milestones. Between eleven and fifteen months of age, P.R. had at least five febrile seizures, which were described by various doctors as "benign."[3] Each seizure was "brief," lasting two seconds to ten minutes. P.R. stopped breathing briefly during one of the seizures, but each one resolved on its own without the need for resuscitation. P.R. had one of those seizures during a visit with the appellant.

         A pediatric neurologist examined P.R. after the first three seizures and opined that he was a "neurologically . . . and developmentally normal" infant who was experiencing "classic febrile seizures." After that visit, P.R.'s mother provided the appellant with information regarding the seizures. That information included cooling P.R. during a seizure with a sponge bath.

         On October 20, 2012, during visitation with the appellant, fifteen-month-old P.R. became unresponsive and later died. The appellant, who reported that he found P.R. unresponsive in his crib, claimed that P.R. was "very hot" and in the midst of a seizure. Others in the home who responded to the appellant's pleas for help could not confirm these claims. In the presence of witnesses, the appellant splashed the child with cold water in the bathtub while waiting for emergency medical personnel to arrive. First responders found P.R. cold, wet, and unresponsive. They began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other emergency measures, and transported P.R. to the hospital by ambulance. He was eventually resuscitated at the hospital, but he died the next day. The death occurred after the appellant had purchased more than $500, 000 of insurance on P.R.'s life.

         B. Pre-Trial Motions and Theories of the Case

         The appellant was charged with capital murder under an indictment alleging in relevant part that he "kill[ed]" P.R. "deliberately and with premeditation." The parties consulted numerous medical experts in preparation for trial. Those experts agreed that P.R.'s death resulted from oxygen deprivation, which led to irreversible brain damage and cardiac arrest. However, opinions varied regarding the precise cause of P.R.'s death.

         The appellant filed several pre-trial motions seeking a bill of particulars requiring the Commonwealth to specify what cause or causes of death it sought to prove. The trial court denied the motions. The Commonwealth's initial theory of the case, which the prosecutor conveyed to the appellant verbally prior to trial, was that the appellant drowned P.R. for the insurance money. The appellant contended that P.R. died from a febrile seizure or some other noncriminal cause. During trial, the prosecution altered its theory to contend that in addition to drowning, the death could have resulted from suffocation.

         C. The Trial Court's Ruling

         After considering the evidence, the court convicted the appellant of capital murder and sentenced him to life in prison without possibility of parole.[4] The court also ordered him to pay a fine of $100, 000. In the course of finding the appellant guilty, the court made extensive factual findings, many of which are outlined below.

         1. Natural Causes of Death and the Appellant's Credibility

         The trial judge rejected the theory that P.R. died from a febrile seizure. In doing so, he relied in large part on the testimony of Dr. Shlomo Shinnar, a professor and pediatric neurologist. The judge, in finding Dr. Shinnar to be the "most experienced, most knowledgeable, and most credible on the issue of febrile seizures and other neurology issues," noted that even one of the appellant's experts recognized Dr. Shinnar as "the 'febrile seizure king.'" Shinnar opined to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that given P.R.'s "strong family history of [such] seizures, he [fell] into" a particular category of inherited febrile seizures and that children in this category are "at high risk for frequent febrile seizures but not at increased risk of mortality."[5] The judge accepted Shinnar's specific testimony that children do not die from febrile seizures and that "[i]t is 'beyond any shadow of a doubt' that a febrile seizure was not a contributor in [P.R.]'s death." The judge also noted numerous other expert witnesses who confirmed Dr. Shinnar's opinion that febrile seizures do not lead to cardiac arrest or death.

         The judge next recounted the evidence surrounding the events of October 20, 2012. He noted that the only evidence tending to indicate that P.R. had a seizure that day came from the appellant, and he concluded that the appellant was lying. The judge based this finding on evidence contradicting the appellant's stated observations about P.R. The appellant reported that he had observed P.R. having a seizure just before another member of the household called 911 at 2:20 p.m. The judge additionally noted that during the call, at approximately 2:21 p.m., the appellant stated that P.R. was "really hot." When emergency medical personnel arrived "at the patient's side" at 2:27 p.m., they found the child in cardiac arrest and attempted to resuscitate him. However, in contrast to the appellant's report that P.R. was "really hot," the emergency responder who was "the first person to put hands on" the child upon arriving six minutes later testified that P.R. was "cold" and "pale" and "had bluish lips." Another first responder, who carried P.R. to the ambulance before it departed minutes later, noted that when he picked the child up, "he was very cold to the touch." Finally, when P.R.'s temperature was taken at the hospital at 2:44 p.m., it was 91.2 degrees, which was "hypothermic." At 3:00 p.m., hospital personnel resuscitated P.R., but he was later declared brain dead and was removed from life support the following day.

         The judge found, based on evidence that P.R. was cold to the touch at 2:27 p.m. and had a hypothermic temperature of 91.2 degrees at the hospital seventeen minutes later, that P.R. could not have been "really hot" at 2:21 p.m. as the appellant had claimed. He noted expert testimony that it would take "a couple of hours," not a mere twenty-three minutes, for the child's body to cool from 98 to 91 degrees and that a "child should still feel hot" or "warm to the touch even [if] splashed with cold water," as P.R. had been. Dr. Shinnar also opined that it was "not medically plausible that the child was actively convulsing . . . in the way the [appellant] ha[d] stated" and "a few minutes later was dead and cold." The judge recognized that other witnesses testified that the reported drop in temperature was "understandable and credible," but he "was not persuaded by these witnesses." Further, the judge concluded from the seizure and breathing activity that the appellant reported, as well as his claim regarding the child's temperature, that the appellant did not simply misperceive the immediate aftermath of cardiac arrest for a febrile seizure. The judge specifically found that the appellant "was lying" about P.R.'s temperature to support his bigger "false claim" that he had witnessed the child having a febrile seizure that turned fatal.

         Finally, the judge found nothing in P.R.'s medical records to indicate that he died of some other natural cause or accident. The judge discussed and rejected theories of "natural" death including sudden unexplained death in epilepsy, sudden unexplained death in childhood, cardiac arrhythmia, and "some combination of a seizure and an obstructed airway in the crib." He also concluded that the statements of the appellant that he found to be false, made during the course of the emergency, proved that "the cause of [P.R.'s] death [was] not . . . accidental." The judge reasoned that if the occurrence had been accidental, the appellant would have had no reason to "have told these elaborate lies[] and placed [P.R.] in the bathtub . . . to cool him off."

         2. Corpus Delicti: Unnatural Death and Criminal Agency

         The judge then turned to the issue of the corpus delicti. He pointed to established case law providing that a court considering the cause of a death is not limited to evidence regarding the body itself and may also consider the surrounding circumstances. He noted further that the Commonwealth was not required to prove the precise cause of death as long as the trier of fact found beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim's death was caused by the criminal agency of another rather than by suicide, accident, or some noncriminal natural cause.

         The judge specifically found that "[P.R.'s] oxygen supply was cut off," causing cardiac arrest and "irreversible brain damage." He further found that the oxygen deprivation resulted from drowning or suffocation and that these were not natural causes on the facts of this case. The judge instead concluded from the evidence that P.R.'s death resulted from the criminal agency of another. He noted that the appellant told several lies to emergency medical personnel and that these showed guilty knowledge and criminal intent. Finally, the judge held that the appellant was the only person who had motive, opportunity, and means to commit the murder.

         a. Motive

         Regarding motive, the judge found that the appellant was "in desperate financial straits" at the time of P.R.'s death and "st[ood] to benefit financially" from it. He noted that the appellant's finances were "on a downward spiral" from 2009 to 2012. The appellant initially received financial help from his girlfriend, P.R.'s mother, but within a few weeks of P.R.'s birth on July 1, 2011, she moved out of the appellant's residence with P.R. and stopped paying the mortgage. The appellant then began renting out his home in order to pay the mortgage, while he and his teenaged son S.R. lived with his friends Harold and Sue Jestice.

         In September of 2011, the appellant filed for custody of P.R. and began purchasing insurance on P.R.'s life. Between September and November 2011, the appellant obtained three insurance policies totaling almost $525, 000, which was about $6, 000 more than the outstanding mortgage balance on the appellant's home.

         In July 2012, the appellant was granted unsupervised visitation with P.R. On September 8, 2012, P.R. had a febrile seizure during a visit with the appellant. On September 21, 2012, the appellant's visitation was cancelled "due to [P.R.'s] seizure and sickness." Consequently, the appellant knew by that time that P.R. had experienced at least two febrile seizures. The very next day, September 22, 2012, despite the fact that the appellant's financial situation remained "bleak" and the bank had referred his home mortgage for foreclosure, the appellant texted his realtor that he was "thinking of moving back home." Then, less than a month later, the appellant again texted his realtor and confirmed that she should take the house off the market because he would be "moving . . . back [in]to [it]," buying new appliances, having the house repainted, and maybe even "doing the deck or pool." The judge found "nothing" in the appellant's "financial life" at that time that would cause him to believe that he could pay the mortgage arrearages and the new monthly mortgage payments, as well as buy new appliances ...

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