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People v. Harris

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Fifth Division

May 7, 2015

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
LaShawn Lynn Harris, Defendant-Appellant

          Arapahoe County District Court No. 05CR3691. Honorable John L. Wheeler, Judge.

         Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General, Katherine A. Hansen, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

         Douglas K. Wilson, Colorado State Public Defender, Ellen K. Eggleston, Deputy State Public Defender, Dayna Vise, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant.

         Terry and Nieto[*], JJ., concur.

          OPINION

         ASHBY, JUDGE.

         [¶1] Defendant, LaShawn Lynn Harris, appeals the judgment of conviction entered on jury verdicts finding her guilty of child abuse -- resulting in death and reckless endangerment. We conclude that the trial court erred by admitting other act evidence, and that this error was not harmless. We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial.

         I. Background

         [¶2] In 2005, Harris lived with her two children, L.L. (four years old) and O.W. (six years old), and her husband and his son, S.H. (four years old). On July 25, S.H. accidentally fell down the stairs at home and hit his head. Harris called 911, S.H. was taken to the hospital, and he was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma on the right side of his brain. S.H. was discharged from the hospital on July 28.

         [¶3] As a result of the fall and resulting subdural hematoma, S.H. began to experience seizures. On August 4, S.H. suffered a seizure at home, and was readmitted to the hospital. Doctors placed S.H. on anti-seizure medication and discharged him the following day, August 5. Within several days of his discharge, S.H. began to suffer multiple seizures per day. Harris and her husband understood that they were not to call 911 or take S.H. to the hospital unless he had a seizure that lasted more than ten minutes.

         [¶4] On the morning of August 22, Harris's husband was at school and Harris was at home with L.L., O.W., and S.H. While Harris was getting the children ready to leave the house, something happened to S.H. that rendered him unconscious and made it appear that he was sleeping. When Harris brought S.H. out of the house and put him in the car with the other children, he did not appear to be awake and was having difficulty breathing. Harris then drove the three children to her mother's house.

         [¶5] After arriving at her mother's house, Harris and her mother decided to take S.H. to the hospital. Instead of calling an ambulance, they drove S.H. to the hospital in the family car. Just before arriving at the hospital, it appeared that S.H. had stopped breathing. Harris's mother took S.H. into the emergency room and Harris left to take L.L. and O.W. to school. Harris then went to her own doctor appointment before returning to the hospital.

         [¶6] Upon arrival in the emergency room, S.H. was not breathing, but doctors successfully resuscitated him. Doctors conducted a CT scan of S.H.'s brain around ten o'clock that morning, and again at around three o'clock that afternoon. They diagnosed him with a subdural hematoma on the left side of his brain. This left-sided hematoma never resolved and S.H. died from it on September 2.

         [¶7] The prosecution charged Harris, and she was ultimately tried for first degree murder, child abuse -- resulting in death, and reckless endangerment. L.L. and O.W. testified at trial, and the court admitted their respective forensic interviews, as well as testimony from people to whom L.L. and O.W. made statements about what happened to S.H. on the morning of August 22. Statements from both L.L. and O.W. indicated that Harris was upset with S.H. while they were getting ready to leave the house that morning, and L.L. stated in one of her forensic interviews and to several other people who testified at trial that Harris threw S.H. down the stairs and was " whooping" him that morning. Harris did not testify.

         [¶8] Numerous medical experts opined about what could have caused the injuries that S.H. presented with at the hospital on August 22. Prosecution experts testified that injuries like those suffered by S.H. are typically caused by high impact, blunt force trauma. Several prosecution experts also testified that, based on the lack of such an event in the history that Harris provided to doctors at the hospital, the injuries were likely caused by nonaccidental trauma.

         [¶9] In contrast, the defense's medical expert testified that nothing in S.H.'s medical record indicated that his injury was the result of non-accidental trauma. He further opined that, based on the differences between the morning and afternoon CT scans on August 22, the left-sided hematoma that killed S.H. was caused by a small accidental fall that occurred within forty-eight hours before the morning of August 22 and was exacerbated by a seizure that morning.

         [¶10] Additionally, on the prosecution's motion, the court admitted evidence of prior acts pursuant to CRE 404(b). This evidence included an incident that occurred in 2003 (the car-chase incident).

         [¶11] L.L.'s father (not Harris's husband) and his fiancé e testified that in 2003, when they went with their infant child to pick L.L. up from Harris's mother's house, Harris got into an argument with the fiancé e. While the fiancé e was in the driver's seat of her car with the infant in the back seat, Harris approached the driver's side door on foot and began yelling at the fiancé e. When the fiancé e tried to drive away with her infant and L.L. in the car, Harris got into her own car and intentionally rammed it into the back of the fiancé e's car. L.L.'s father and L.L. hopped out of the car, the fiancé e drove away, and Harris drove after her. After a brief chase, the fiancé e stopped, and Harris intentionally drove her car into the fiancé e's car a second time while the fiancé e was standing beside it and the infant was still inside. The ...


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