Stepmother Acquitted on Appeal for Appendicitis-related Death of Stepdaughter

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Having a sick child can be a scary thing. Especially when you can’t figure out why they are sick. In this case, neither the school nurse nor the stepmother could figure out why the child was complaining. Read what happened.

In Britain v. State, the complainant, eight-year-old Sarah Brasse, went to her school nurse’s office complaining of a stomachache.  During her first visit, the nurse had her lie down for a little while and then sent her back to class.  Sarah returned two more times to the nurse’s office, visibly uncomfortable and crying.  After conducting a physical exam, which showed no abnormalities, the nurse decided to send her home.

The appellant, Sarah’s stepmother, picked her up. Later that evening, Sarah began vomiting and developed diarrhea.  Around six p.m. the next day, the appellant found Sarah dead.  Rigor had already set in by the time paramedics arrived, but appellant reported having checked on her only fifteen or twenty minutes before.  The emergency-room doctor estimated that the time of death was around three p.m.  Acute appendicitis was the cause of death.

A jury convicted appellant of manslaughter and injury to a child for recklessly causing the death of her stepdaughter.  The Court of Appeals held there was insufficient evidence that the appellant was “aware of but consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk” as required to prove recklessness.  The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and acquitted appellant on both counts.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the State’s petition for discretionary review to answer one question: Should the Court of Appeals have reformed the verdict to the lesser-included offense of criminally negligent homicide rather than rendering a verdict of acquittal?

The CCA affirmed the Court of Appeal’s rendering. To prove that the appellant acted negligently, the State would have had to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the appellant ought to have been aware of the substantial and unjustifiable risk posed by not taking Sarah to a doctor and that such a failure was a gross deviation from the standard of care than any ordinary person would have exercised.  The State failed to meet this burden.  Because there was no evidence concerning the standard of care an ordinary person should be held to or that showed the appellant should have been aware of the risk to Sarah, the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the appellant acted with negligence.  Therefore, the Court of Appeals did not err in rendering a judgment of acquittal.

While many parents would have probably taken the child to the doctor, the Court of Appeals simply could not hold that the stepmother committed a crime by not doing so.