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Bynum v. State

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division III

March 14, 2018



          John Wesley Hall, Sarah M. Pourhosseini, Daniel N. Arshack, pro hac vice, Nancy Rosenbloom, pro hac vice, and Amber Fayerberg, pro hac vice, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: David R. Raupp, Sr. Ass't Att'y Gen., and Ashley N. Louks, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          DAVID M. GLOVER, Judge.

         Anne O'Hara Bynum was charged in Drew County Circuit Court with the offenses of concealing birth and abuse of a corpse. The circuit court granted Bynum's motion for directed verdict as to the offense of abuse of a corpse.[1] A jury, after deliberating for only four minutes, convicted Bynum of concealing birth, a Class D felony, and sentenced her to the maximum sentence of six years in prison. Bynum appeals, arguing the circuit court (1) erred in denying her motion to dismiss, timely renewed as a motion for directed verdict, both as a matter of statutory construction and constitutional law; (2) abused its discretion in allowing discussion of abortion, evidence of her abortion history, and evidence she ingested medication before giving birth; and (3) erred in allowing evidence of her purported admission during a pretrial competency exam when competency was not an issue at trial. We find merit in Bynum's argument that the circuit court abused its discretion in allowing the discussion of prior abortions, evidence of her abortion history, and evidence that she ingested medication prior to giving birth; therefore, we reverse and remand.

         Factual Summary

         There are no factual disputes. In early 2015, Bynum, a 37-year-old divorced woman living with her mother, stepfather, brother, and four-year-old son, T.B., outside of Monticello, discovered she was pregnant. She believed her mother would not allow her and T.B. to continue living in her home if her mother learned Bynum was pregnant; therefore, Bynum did not tell her mother about the pregnancy. However, Bynum told friends, her attorneys, and her priest about the pregnancy and of her intent to put the child up for adoption when it was born.

         On March 27, 2015, when Bynum was more than thirty weeks pregnant, she traveled to a hotel in Little Rock and met her friends, Andrea Hicks and Karen Collins (the person whom she wanted to adopt her baby), the next day. Driving to Little Rock, Bynum ingested 44 casings from the drug Arthrotec, which contained the drug Misoprostol; she believed the Misoprostol would induce labor. Bynum's reasoning was it was becoming more difficult to lie all the time, she was getting larger, she was becoming attached to the baby, and she was concerned she would not be able to give the baby up if she carried it much longer. She claimed she was not trying to hurt the baby but was just trying to safely deliver it. Her plan was for Collins to take the baby to Children's Hospital after delivery; however, Bynum did not go into labor while in Little Rock. She returned home to Monticello, where she ingested eight more Arthrotec casings. Then, on March 31, 2015, she learned from her attorneys, Sara Hartness and Sandra Bradshaw, that Collins would not be able to adopt her child due to domestic-abuse issues concerning her own children and her ex-husband; that information did not dissuade Bynum from pursuing other adoption alternatives with another family.

         Bynum went into labor in the middle of the night on April 1, 2015, at her mother's mobile home. By herself, she delivered the fetus, which was still in its intact amniotic sac, in the bathroom after 3:00 a.m.[2] She said although she called for her brother, who was sleeping in the living room, he did not answer, and she did not awaken any other person in the house. According to Bynum, the baby did not move or cry, and she concluded the baby was deceased. In her third interview with Deputy Tim Nichols of the Drew County Sheriff's Department, Bynum stated she placed the baby in plastic sacks, put the bundle on a towel, cleaned up the bathroom, and took the baby to her vehicle, where she placed it on the front seat. She admitted she took those actions to keep her mother from finding out about the birth. Bynum stated she would have left the fetal remains in the bathroom if she had "felt like getting kicked out of the house immediately"; further, she placed the baby in the front seat of her vehicle because her vehicle was parked in front of the house and her mother always went out the back door.

         Bynum's recall of events was that she became lightheaded after placing the baby in her vehicle, and she knew she could not drive; so she went back inside and went back to bed. Her mother awakened her a little after 6:00 a.m. Bynum got T.B. dressed, and her mother took him to school. Bynum ate a bowl of cereal and texted Hartness, who advised her to go see a doctor. Bynum had to wait until 8:00 a.m., when the doctor's office opened, to make an appointment; she attempted to see two doctors, but was unable to secure an appointment for that day with either of them. In the meantime, Hartness called a funeral home and was advised to have Bynum take the fetal remains to the hospital. Bynum arrived at Drew Memorial Hospital at approximately 10:40 a.m. on April 1. The fetal remains were subsequently examined by a medical examiner at the Arkansas State Crime Lab, where it was determined that the fetus was stillborn.

         Sufficiency of the Evidence

         On appeal, a motion for directed verdict is treated as a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. Stearns v. State, 2017 Ark.App. 472, 529 S.W.3d 654. Our court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the State and affirms if there is substantial evidence to support the verdict; only evidence supporting the verdict will be considered. Id. Substantial evidence is evidence forceful enough to compel a conclusion one way or the other beyond suspicion or conjecture. Kauffeld v. State, 2017 Ark.App. 440, 528 S.W.3d 302. Our court does not weigh the evidence presented at trial or assess the credibility of the witnesses, as those are matters for the fact-finder. Id. The trier of fact is free to believe all or part of any witness's testimony and may resolve questions of conflicting testimony and inconsistent evidence. Mercouri v. State, 2016 Ark. 37, 480 S.W.3d 864. When reviewing a sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenge, appellate courts consider evidence both properly and improperly admitted. Means v. State, 2015 Ark.App. 643, 476 S.W.3d 168.

         Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-26-203(a) (Repl. 2013) provides that a person commits the offense of concealing birth "if he or she hides the corpse of a newborn child with purpose to conceal the fact of the child's birth or to prevent a determination of whether the child was born alive."

         Bynum argues Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-26-203(a) cannot apply to the facts of this case because the statute "does not criminalize a woman's choice to withhold the fact of pregnancy or a stillbirth from her own mother, " and the State "presented no proof of hiding or prevention of the determination of whether there was a live birth." Bynum argues she did not conceal the delivery of her stillborn child, as she disclosed the fact she had delivered the child by contacting her attorney via text, seeking medical assistance, and taking the fetal remains to the hospital within hours after the delivery, thereby facilitating the determination that it was a stillbirth. Bynum contends this statute seeks to punish people who seek to permanently conceal a birth, not those who do not immediately tell their mothers about a stillbirth. She alleges that section 5-26-203(a) does not include a requirement to report a stillbirth, much less prescribe a time limit for doing so.

         We hold that sufficient evidence supports Bynum's conviction under the statute. To support a conviction under this statute, the State must prove that a person hid a newborn's corpse with purpose (1) to conceal the fact of the child's birth; or (2) to prevent a determination of whether the child was born alive.[3] One's intent or purpose at the time of an offense, being a state of mind, can seldom be positively known by others. Turner v. State, 2018 Ark.App. 5, ___ S.W.3d ___. Since intent cannot ordinarily be proved by direct evidence, jurors are allowed to draw on their common knowledge and experience to infer intent from the circumstances. Id. Because of the difficulty in ascertaining a person's intent, a presumption exists that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of his or her acts. Id.

         Here, Bynum admitted she hid her stillborn child from her mother when she wrapped the child in plastic sacks, laid the bundle on a towel, placed it in the front seat of her vehicle, and locked the car. Bynum testified she knew her mother would not see the stillborn child because her mother left the house through the back door, not the front door, and Bynum's vehicle was parked in front of the house. The statute does not specify how long a newborn's corpse must be concealed to be found guilty of this offense, nor does it provide for the prospect that a person can conceal a birth by hiding the corpse temporarily but then can be exempt from the statute's dictates if he or she reveals the birth to a person a few hours later.

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, as we must, we hold that the jury, as the finder of fact and the assessor of witness credibility, could, on the evidence presented, determine that Bynum purposely concealed the fact of the child's birth when she hid the corpse of her stillborn child in her vehicle, thus committing the offense of concealing birth. Therefore, we affirm on this point.

         Constitutional Arguments ...

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