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United States v. Chavez Spotted Horse

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

February 20, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
Chavez Spotted Horse Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: December 14, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Aberdeen

          Before LOKEN and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges, and MAGNUSON, [1] District Judge.

          ERICKSON, Circuit Judge.

         In October 2017, a jury found Chavez Spotted Horse guilty of three counts of Child Abuse, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1153 and SDCL § 26-10-1, as well as three counts of Assault with a Dangerous Weapon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1153 and 113(a)(3). Spotted Horse appeals, asserting that the district court[2] erred in four ways: (1) by defining "dangerous weapon" too broadly in its jury instructions; (2) in refusing to instruct the jury on reasonable use of disciplinary force by a guardian, which is a defense to child abuse under South Dakota law; (3) by excluding evidence of his reason for disciplining his niece P.M.; and (4) by denying his subsequent motion for a mistrial. We affirm.

         I. Background

         Between October 2014 and December 2016, P.M. and her older brother C.S.H. lived with their uncle Spotted Horse in Little Eagle, South Dakota. Little Eagle is located on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The children had volunteered to live with Spotted Horse because their grandmother and legal guardian could no longer handle the number of grandchildren living in her house.

         On December 1, 2016, the staff at Little Eagle Day School reported to the Bureau of Indian Affairs that they had noticed facial bruises and scratches consistent with child abuse on P.M., a fifth grader at the school. Special Agent Sheri Salazar responded. Agent Salazar interviewed the girl and examined her injuries. The agent also observed "several abrasions and contusions to her back in different stages of healing," and bruises on her arms, hands, shoulders, and legs.

         Agent Salazar then took P.M. to Indian Health Services in Fort Yates, North Dakota, where P.M. was examined by a pediatrician, Dr. Sara Jumping Eagle. Dr. Jumping Eagle observed that P.M. had "numerous bruises [and] contusions" at "various stages of healing throughout her entire body"-specifically mentioning injures to P.M.'s left ear, both sides of her face, one of her hands, and her back, thighs, and upper arms. Suspecting abuse, Dr. Jumping Eagle referred P.M. to Sanford Hospital in Fargo, North Dakota, to see another pediatrician and have additional tests done to rule out a possible brain injury. Dr. Jumping Eagle also recommended that P.M. be monitored because "as the bruising healed it could also go into her bloodstream and affect her kidneys." Finally, Dr. Jumping Eagle recommended a follow-up appointment because of a finding on one of P.M.'s X-rays.

         P.M. told investigators that Spotted Horse hit her with four different objects on three separate days during the past week. On November 27, 2016, Spotted Horse confronted P.M., accusing her of improper behavior with boys at school. When P.M. refused to answer his questions, Spotted Horse beat her with a plastic spoon. The next day, Spotted Horse resumed his interrogation of P.M. about her conduct with boys. This time he beat her across the back with a wooden back scratcher until it broke. Spotted Horse then commanded C.S.H. to find something else that he could use to discipline P.M. C.S.H. delayed, hoping that Spotted Horse would relent, but when commanded again, C.S.H. reluctantly returned with a plastic blind wand. Spotted Horse struck P.M. numerous times across the back with the blind wand as she screamed, cried, and begged him to stop. Unsatisfied with P.M.'s answers, the questioning resumed two days later, on November 30. When P.M. once again refused to provide answers that Spotted Horse deemed appropriate, he became enraged, grabbed a plastic hanger, and beat her across the back until the hanger broke.

         On January 19, 2017, Spotted Horse was indicted on three counts of child abuse and three counts of assault with a dangerous weapon for striking P.M. with the spoon, blind wand, and hanger.[3] Prior to trial, Spotted Horse filed a notice of his intent to introduce evidence of his motive for administering the discipline to P.M. because he believed that the motive "was a basis for Defendant to reasonably believe it was necessary to discipline her in that manner." Spotted Horse noted that the case was not a case covered by Federal Rule of Evidence 412 but that he was giving notice pursuant to the rule to avoid any later claims by the United States. The specific evidence that Spotted Horse sought to introduce was testimony "that he was informed that P.M. was kissing an older boy and letting [the boy] touch her inappropriately or sexually . . . to explain why [Spotted Horse] disciplined her." He also filed a supplemental Rule 412 notice seeking to introduce testimony that "P.M. told [him] that she was sexually abused while in a foster home in Missouri before she moved to South Dakota."

         The district court took up the notices in the final pretrial conference on October 16, 2017, and after a brief discussion ruled the testimony mentioned in the supplemental notice inadmissible. The government sought clarification of the court's ruling especially related to the original Rule 412 notice. The court advised that some of the conduct described in the original notice was admissible, noting: "[T]he fact that he thought that she was hanging around with too many boys or something of that nature or kissing a boy or something, that would be [properly] subject to discipline, perhaps."

         The case came on for trial the next day. At the conclusion of C.S.H.'s testimony, the court held a bench conference about testimony related to P.M.'s behavior with boys at school. The prosecution and defense each indicated their "impression that we were going to be allowed to get into the fact that the defendant believed that she may have been kissing or inappropriately contacting older boys." During the bench conference, the court clarified its ruling, directing, "But when you get into the question of whether or not this child allowed some boys to sexually touch her, to molest her, to commit a crime, that's barred by Rule 412, in my opinion, unless, of course, its exclusion would violate the constitutional rights of the defendant." Defense counsel moved for a mistrial "because this is a ruling, middle of trial, contrary to what the ruling was yesterday. And that . . . now affects how I can present my defense." The court denied the motion for a mistrial and reiterated, "I'm telling you that you're not going to ask her whether she was sexually - whether she has been sexually touched by anybody. . . . If she is kissing boys under the bleachers, that's fine." Defense counsel renewed the motion during a chambers conference at the end of the day, and the court again denied the motion.

         Spotted Horse elected to testify on his own behalf. In that testimony, he admitted to hitting P.M. with the objects but explained that he believed the discipline was necessary. Specifically Spotted Horse testified that he was merely disciplining P.M. for misbehaving and that he resorted to physical discipline only as a last resort after lesser forms of discipline, such as verbal correction, grounding, and extra chores, proved ineffective. Spotted Horse testified that he was concerned about P.M. bothering and kissing boys at school and that he was trying to stop her behavior from escalating into something more ...

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