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Dysus v. State

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

September 18, 2019



          Mark Alan Jesse, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Chris R. Warthen, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.


         Victoria Ann Dycus appeals her conviction for first-degree murder in the death of her four-year-old daughter, Skylar Shellstrom. On appeal, she argues that there was no substantial evidence that she either struck the child herself or that she was liable as an accomplice to her boyfriend, James Hagen Glenn. After having previously ordered rebriefing, we now reach the merits of the case and affirm appellant's conviction.

         Skylar was brought to the emergency room on the evening of November 19, 2016, where she died shortly after arriving. The emergency room doctor notified law enforcement that he suspected she died from internal bleeding as the result of trauma and that she had a significant amount of bruising consistent with child abuse. The autopsy revealed that Skylar died from blunt-force abdominal injuries that resulted in peritonitis due to duodenal rupture. Dr. Stephen Erickson, the deputy chief medical examiner at the state crime lab, testified that Skylar had been struck in the stomach and that her duodenum was nearly transected in half.[1] He testified that she had been struck hours, not days, before she died and noted that she would have thrown up any food or drink ingested after the blow. In addition to this fatal blow, Dr. Erickson said that there was evidence of scarring and other signs of the body's healing response that showed Skylar had been struck in the stomach before. He said that the blow may have been a punch, a kick, an elbow, or a knee to the stomach.

         Dr. Erickson testified that Skylar had been the victim of chronic child abuse as evidenced by a multitude of aging bruises as well as burns, puncture wounds, and other injuries. He said that the number, location, and severity of the bruises indicated child abuse; they were not bruises a child might normally sustain. These included linear deep bruises across Skylar's buttocks and multiple bruises on the back of her legs and her elbows. She had bruises on both ears indicating that she had been struck or grabbed as well as bruises on her scalp, on her forehead, around her eyes, on her forearm, and on her labia. The tops of Skylar's feet had significant bruises, and the bottoms of her feet had multiple puncture wounds-twenty on one foot and ten on the other. Dr. Erickson said that some of the puncture wounds were older than others and that a sharp object had been pushed into her skin enough to cause some bleeding. He said that the force used to cause her injuries would have caused pain and likely crying from a four-year-old child. Skylar also had burn marks on her nose that Dr. Erickson said would have left a disfiguring scar. He said that she would have reacted and should have been seen by a doctor for the burns. Skylar also had a serious injury to her mouth that Dr. Erickson said was characteristic of what happens when someone punches a child in the mouth or shoves something into a child's mouth. This strike resulted in a large laceration of the upper part of Skylar's lip and had destroyed the frenulum. Dr. Erickson said that her lip would have bled a lot and been bruised and that any reasonable person would have understood she was injured and needed attention.

         Investigator Dennis Simons interviewed appellant on the night Skylar died. Appellant told him that Skylar had been sick off and on for the past week and had been throwing up, which she thought was caused from drinking too much soda. She denied that anyone had hurt Skylar and claimed that Skylar had been hitting herself hard enough to leave bruises on her belly and legs. Appellant told Simons that the burns on Skylar's nose were caused when Glenn was blow drying her hair, and Skylar got mad and jerked the blow dryer down onto her nose. Appellant said that she did not witness this happen but Glenn told her about it. Glenn had also told her that a bruise on Skylar's head was caused by the shower curtain falling on her.

         Simons interviewed appellant again when she was arrested in December 2016, and appellant still denied that anyone had hurt Skylar. Glenn was charged with first-degree murder at the same time. A week later, appellant requested to speak with Simons again. She told Simons that Skylar had initially really liked Glenn, but for the last week or two before her death she did not want anything to do with him. Appellant said that while Skylar was taking a bath one day, she told appellant that Glenn had hit her four times, but Skylar later recanted when Glenn questioned her. Appellant said that she did not see Skylar's injuries because Glenn did everything for Skylar.

         Appellant testified that on November 19, Glenn left their home at 6:30 a.m. to go hunting. He came back around 9:00 a.m. and watched Skylar while appellant took a shower. Glenn left again, leaving appellant home alone with Skylar, until he returned briefly around 2:30 and then again around 5:30. Appellant said that Skylar watched movies all day and had oatmeal, juice, and chips but threw up the juice. Appellant said that when Glenn returned home that evening, Skylar told him that she was feeling better, but shortly thereafter she slid out of a chair onto the floor and was unresponsive.

         Appellant claimed that she was unaware of most of the bruises and marks on Skylar because Glenn took care of her and Skylar usually bathed and dressed herself. She said that Skylar never complained about being hurt, she never saw Skylar bleeding, and she never saw Glenn strike her. Appellant said that on November 9, Skylar went to the store with Glenn and defecated in her pants. Appellant then gave her a bath, and Skylar told her that Glenn had hit her "really hard" four times in the stomach. When appellant told Glenn, he asked Skylar when this happened and she said it happened that day. Appellant testified that he questioned her again after her bath, however, and she said it did not happen. Appellant said that the blow-dryer incident also occurred on November 9 and that she was in the bedroom while Glenn and Skylar were in the bathroom. She said that Skylar did not scream, but she heard Glenn tell Skylar to "go show your mom." Appellant said that on November 13, Glenn told her that Skylar had pulled the shower curtain down on herself and pointed out the bruise near her eye. She claimed that on November 16, Skylar told her that Glenn had said he was going to kill Skylar and appellant; appellant asked Glenn and he denied it. Appellant said that Skylar had started biting Glenn and not letting him pick her up and had started hitting herself and defecating in her pants. They gave her cold showers to deal with this, but appellant said that she last bathed Skylar on November 13. Appellant testified that she now believed Glenn had been abusing Skylar.

         Appellant's sister, Brandie Lee, testified that she last saw Skylar on November 11. Appellant told her that the bruise above Skylar's eye was caused by her pulling the shower curtain down on herself and that the burn marks on her nose were caused by the blow dryer. Lee testified that she did not believe the blow-dryer story because it did not make sense that a small child would pull something hot down on her face multiple times and hold it there; however, Lee did not suspect that appellant was abusing Skylar. Appellant also told Lee on this date that Skylar had been hitting herself, throwing herself down, and biting Glenn.

         Appellant was charged with first-degree murder as defined as knowingly causing the death of a person fourteen years of age or younger. Ark. Code Ann. § 5-10-102(a)(3) (Supp. 2017). The jury was instructed that

the State does not contend that Victoria A. Dycus acted alone in the commission of the offense of murder in the first degree. A person is criminally responsible for the conduct of another person when he is an accomplice in the commission of an offense. An accomplice is one who directly participates in the commission of an offense or who with the purpose of promoting or facilitating the commission of an offense: solicits, advises, encourages or coerces the other person to commit the offense; or aids, agrees to aid, or attempts to aid the other person in ...

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