Charles Murdock v. State of Arkansas

Annotate this Case








CACR 03-920

MAY 19, 2004



DIVISION, [NO. CR2001-4343]




John B. Robbins, Judge

Appellant Charles Murdock was convicted in a jury trial of first-degree murder pursuant to Ark. Code Ann. § 5-10-102(a)(3) (Repl. 1997), which provides that a person commits murder in the first degree if "[h]e knowingly causes the death of a person fourteen (14) years of age or younger at the time the murder was committed." The victim in this case was Maya Harris, who was the twenty-two-month-old daughter of Mr. Murdock's girlfriend. Mr. Murdock now appeals, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction because he did not possess the requisite culpable mental state.

The test for determining the sufficiency of the evidence is whether the verdict is supported by substantial evidence, direct or circumstantial. Bohannon v. State, 72 Ark. App. 422, 38 S.W.3d 902 (2001). Substantial evidence is evidence forceful enough to compel a conclusion with reasonable certainty, without resort to conjecture. Id. Circumstantial evidence may constitute substantial evidence, but it must exclude every other reasonable hypothesis consistent with innocence. Ford v. State, 75 Ark. App. 126, 55 S.W.3d 315 (2001). Whether the evidence excludes every hypothesis is left to the jury to determine. Id. On appeal, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the appellee and consider only the evidence that supports the verdict. Barr v. State, 336 Ark. 220, 984 S.W.2d 792 (1991). We make no distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence when reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence. Ford v. State, supra. Neither do we pass on the credibility of the witnesses, as that duty is left to the trier of fact. Cobb v. State, 340 Ark. 240, 12 S.W.3d 195 (2000).

Dr. Frank Peretti, a forensic pathologist for the Arkansas State Crime Lab, performed an autopsy on the victim. According to Dr. Peretti, the cause of death was a lacerated heart superior vena cava. Dr. Peretti also documented a lacerated diaphragm, contusion to the left lung, and multiple head injuries consisting of contusions. Dr. Peretti opined that Maya's injuries occurred within a short time before she died.

Dr. Peretti testified that the injuries Maya sustained were consistent with a blunt force trauma, such as a very forceful punch to the chest, or an adult male squeezing the chest with all his might. Dr. Peretti indicated that it is highly unlikely that the injuries Maya sustained would occur from a person attempting to perform a chest compression for CPR. He stated that he has only once seen this type of injury with a child, and that it occurred when a 29-gallon aquarium fell on top of a three-year-old. Dr. Peretti testified that he typically sees these type of injuries in victims of car accidents or falls from great heights. He stated that Maya's injuries were not consistent with being tossed in the air and hit by a bed post, falling to the floor, getting elbowed, or being struck by a box fan. Due to the nature and severity of her injuries, Dr. Peretti ruled Maya's death a homicide.

Maya's mother, Jeanna Elliott, testified next. She stated that she and Mr. Murdock had been dating for about a year and lived in the same apartment at the time of Maya's death on November 15, 2001. On that morning, Ms. Elliott left for work and left Maya in Mr. Murdock's care. Ms. Elliott testified that she usually drove Maya to Maya's grandmother's house, but that she was low on gas that day. According to Ms. Elliott, Mr. Murdock had taken care of Maya on only a couple of occasions. Ms. Elliott stated that when she left for work that morning, Maya was fine.

At about noon that day, Ms. Elliott received a call from Mr. Murdock, and he told her that Maya was having trouble breathing, and that she needed to come home. When she arrived, Ms. Elliott went with Maya in an ambulance to Children's Hospital. Ms. Elliott testified that she had never seen Mr. Murdock do anything that would cause her to worry about him being around Maya.

Latrice Salley was the manager of the apartment complex where Mr. Murdock and Ms. Elliott lived. She testified that at around midday of November 15, 2001, she was outside in front of the office when Mr. Murdock approached and asked to use the telephone. Mr. Murdock then called for emergency help, and an assistant manager told Ms. Salley that the baby has asthma and might be having an attack. Ms. Salley then ran to the apartment and found Maya lying on the bed. Maya's pulse was weak and she was breathing very slowly, and Ms. Salley picked her up and brought her outside, where an ambulance was approaching.

Tonja Jones is an emergency medical technician and was part of the emergency team that arrived in the ambulance. While a paramedic tended to the baby, Ms. Jones had a conversation with Mr. Murdock. According to Ms. Jones, Mr. Murdock spoke in a normal tone of voice, and told her that the child has asthma and had been sleeping, and that he could not wake her up.

Theresa Ballew, the nurse coordinator for the Arkansas State Hospital, testified next. She stated that Mr. Murdock was hired by the hospital in April 2001, and that he completed a CPR training course that certified him through October 18, 2002. Bob Hall taught the course, and explained the proper method for giving CPR to a small child. Mr. Hall testified that there can be bruising or cracked ribs, but that he has never heard of having a lacerated heart because of incorrectly-applied CPR.

Detective Moore of the Little Rock Police Department testified that he interviewed Mr. Murdock at the hospital on the afternoon of Maya's death. During this conversation, Mr. Murdock stated that he was cooking breakfast at about 11:00 a.m. and that when he went to wake Maya up, she was not responding and then gasping for air. Mr. Murdock stated that he attempted CPR, that it was not working, and that he left the apartment to call for help. Detective Moore asked, "She didn't fall out of bed or anything like that this morning?," and Mr. Murdock responded, "no."

On the following day, Detective Moore was advised by the medical examiners that the cause of death was being ruled a homicide, and that Maya had sustained internal injuries and head trauma. After receiving this report, he conducted another interview with Mr. Murdock, after advising him of his Miranda rights at the police station. During the interview, Detective Moore had a baby doll and asked Mr. Murdock to demonstrate how he performed CPR on Maya. Mr. Murdock placed both hands in the chest area and pushed, but according to Detective Moore he did not use an incredible amount of force.

Special Agent Paulette Ward assisted in the homicide investigation, and she took a subsequent statement from Mr. Murdock on November 16, 2001. According to Agent Ward, Mr. Murdock initially denied causing any injuries, and then gave several different explanations. Mr. Murdock's first explanation was that he and Maya were lying in bed, and he rolled over and elbowed her in the chest area. When Agent Ward indicated that this could not have caused the extent of Maya's injuries, Mr. Murdock stated that he was playing with Maya and tossing her in the air, when he accidently missed her and she fell on the floor, and then a box fan that sits beside the bed fell on her. Mr. Murdock then changed his story again, and explained that he was tossing Maya in the air, and that when he missed her she fell and hit her chest on the foot rail of the bed, and then fell to the floor. When Agent Ward asked how Maya could have hit her chest if she was facing him, Mr. Murdock said, "Okay, I'm going to tell you the truth." He then stated that when he tossed Maya in the air she did a 180-degree spin before striking the foot rail. Upon further contemplation, Mr. Murdock stated that Maya did not spin, but that when he was tossing her up her back was facing him. After the interrogation by Agent Ward, Mr. Murdock wrote a statement where he explained that he tossed Maya in the air, she hit the bed rail, and fell to the floor. Mr. Murdock stated that he tried to administer CPR, and that he did not intend to kill her.

Mr. Murdock now argues that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for first-degree murder because the State failed to prove that he knowingly caused Maya's death. Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-2-202(2) (Repl. 1997) defines "knowingly," and provides:

A person acts knowingly with respect to his conduct or the attendant circumstances when he is aware that his conduct is of that nature or that such circumstances exist. A person acts knowingly with respect to a result of his conduct when he is aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause such a result[.]

Mr. Murdock contends that speculation or conjecture is required in order to conclude that he acted knowingly. He notes that only he and Maya were in the apartment at the time she sustained her injuries, and asserts that one cannot be certain that his actions, whatever they were, were done with the "practical certainty" that Maya would die. Mr. Murdock cites Midgett v. State, 292 Ark. 278, 729 S.W.2d 410 (1987), for the proposition that caution and appellate scrutiny must be exercised in child-abuse cases, because horrendous facts may compel an unjust result in the heat of trial. Because there was no substantial evidence that he acted knowingly in causing the victim's death, Mr. Murdock asserts that his conviction must be reversed.

A criminal defendant's intent or state of mind is seldom capable of proof by direct evidence and must usually be inferred from the circumstances of the crime. Robinson v. State, 353 Ark. 372, 108 S.W.3d 622 (2003). Thus, the supreme court has recognized that the intent necessary to sustain a conviction for first-degree murder may be inferred from the nature, extent, and location of the wounds. See id. Moreover, a defendant's false and improbable explanation of incriminating circumstances is admissible as proof of guilt. Still v. State, 294 Ark. 117, 740 S.W.2d 926 (1987).

We hold that there was substantial evidence to support Mr. Murdock's conviction. The evidence showed that Maya was in good condition when her mother left for work, and that Mr. Murdock was the only person with her when her injuries were sustained. Dr. Peretti ruled Maya's death a homicide, and thought her injuries could not have been caused in any of the manners described by Mr. Murdock. Dr. Peretti stated that he had never seen a case where CPR caused a ruptured heart, and that such an injury is caused by severe trauma or intense squeezing. After he initially denied any knowledge as to how Maya's injuries occurred, Mr. Murdock changed his account of the events several times, and the jury obviously did not believe any of his explanations. The jury was free to consider Mr. Murdock's repeated lies and changing stories as evidence of his guilt. See Robinson v.State, supra. We affirm the jury's findings that Mr. Murdock acted knowingly because he was aware that it was practically certain that his conduct would cause Maya's death, and that every reasonable hypothesis consistent with his innocence was excluded.

Finally, we note that our supreme court's opinion in Midgett v. State, supra, cited by appellant, does not support his argument on appeal. In that case, Mr. Midgett was convicted of first-degree murder in connection with the death of his eight-year-old son. Notwithstanding the severity of the child's brutal injuries, the supreme court reduced Mr. Midgett's conviction to second-degree murder on the basis that the State failed to prove premeditation and deliberation. However, the first-degree murder statute in effect at the time required the "premeditated and deliberated purpose of causing the death of another person." See Ark. Stat. Ann. § 41-1502(1)(b) (Repl. 1977). The legislature has since changed the first-degree murder statute and it no longer requires proof of premeditation and deliberation. Under Ark. Code Ann. § 5-10-102(a)(3) (Repl. 1997), the State in the instant case was required to prove that Mr. Murdock knowingly caused Maya's death, but did not have to prove premeditation or deliberation. Because there was substantial evidence that Mr. Murdock knowingly caused Maya's death, his first-degree murder conviction is affirmed.


Stroud, C.J., and Gladwin, J., agree.