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State v. Hagar

Superior Court of Maine, Cumberland

July 10, 2018



          Thomas D. Warren Justice

         Before the court is a pretrial motion to dismiss the indictment against defendant Burton Hagar based on what the defense contends is the State's inability to establish the corpus delicti of a crime of homicide.

         While ordinarily a corpus delicti issue would not be the subject of a pretrial motion, the unusual procedure employed in this case results from a contingent plea agreement between counsel for the State and Hagar, under which the parties have agreed to resolve the case with a manslaughter plea and a specified sentence in the event that Hagar does not prevail on his corpus delicti argument either before this court or on appeal.[1] Pursuant to the terms of the contingent plea agreement, Hagar has reserved his ability to pursue his corpus delicti challenge and the State has allowed the issue to be litigated at a pretrial hearing and, if the trial court's ruling is adverse to Hagar, to be appealed after a conditional plea. This is a similar procedure to the one employed, also with the State's agreement, in State v. Reed, 676 A.2d 479 (Me. 1996).

         A hearing on the corpus delicti issue was held on April 10, 2018. The parties thereafter filed memoranda of law, and the court has now reviewed the arguments of the parties and the evidence submitted at the healing.

         Corpus Delicti

         The corpus delicti doctrine requires the State to present evidence, independent of incriminating statements made by an accused, sufficient to create a substantial belief that the crime alleged was committed by somebody. State v. Poulin, 2016 ME 40 ¶ 8, 134 A.3d 886. The purpose of the rule is to prevent convictions based solely on inculpatory statements and convictions when no crime has actually occurred. Id

         The Law Court has stated that the quantum of evidence that the State must present to meet the corpus delicti standard is "low," Poulin, 2016 ME 40 ¶ 12, quoting State v. Fundalewicz, 2012 ME 107 ¶ 9, 49 A.3d 1277. Specifically, the corpus delicti standard is akin to the probable cause standard and can be satisfied by "less than a preponderance of the evidence." Poulin, 2016 ME 40 ¶ 12; Fundalewicz, 2012 ME 107 ¶ 9; State v. Snow, 438 A.2d 485, 487 (Me. 1981) (quotations omitted). A finding that the corpus delicti standard has been met can be based on circumstantial evidence and reasonable inference. Fundalewicz, 2012 ME 107 ¶ 11. Moreover, corpus delicti findings are preliminary determinations that do not necessarily need to be based on admissible evidence. M.R.Evid. 101(b)(1), 104(a); Poulin, 2016 ME 40 ¶ 10; Snow, 438 A.2d at 487.

         The corpus delicti rule has been criticized as inadequate (because it does not protect against false confessions to crimes that can be proven to have taken place), as unnecessary (in light of other protections against false confessions), and because it has a potential to obstruct justice in cases involving very young victims - where children are too young to testify or where causes of injury or death cannot be determined. See, e.g., People v. LaRosa, 2012 CO 2 ¶¶ 25-27, 293 P.3d 567 (Colo. 2013); State v. Mauchley, 2003 UT 10 ¶¶ 21- 46, 67 P.3d 477 (Utah 2003).

         Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal courts do not follow the traditional corpus delicti rule but instead examine whether there is sufficient evidence that an accused's confessions or other inculpatory statements are "trustworthy." United States v. Smith, 348 U.S. 147, 156 (1954); Opper v. United States, 348 U.S. 84, 93 (1954).[2] It appears that more than 15 states have abandoned the traditional corpus delicti rule and have adopted the federal trustworthiness rule, at least in certain cases. See State v. Dern, 362 P.3d 566, 580 (Kan. 2015). By way of example, Kansas has adopted the trustworthiness rule with respect to "crimes that do not naturally and obviously produce a tangible injury easily susceptible to physical proof." State v. Dern, 362 P.3d at 583.

         In this case, as discussed below, whether a crime was committed cannot be resolved by medical evidence - whether on May 9, 1979 four-month old Nathan Hagar died of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) or was smothered. This case therefore is in the category of an alleged crime that does not naturally and obviously produce a tangible injury susceptible to physical proof. However, the State is not arguing that it cannot meet the corpus delicti standard unless the federal trustworthiness standard is substituted in its place. Rather the State contends that there is sufficient evidence in this case - apart from Burton Hagar's numerous confessions beginning approximately 10 years after Nathan's death- to defeat Hagar's motion to dismiss.

         Facts Relating to Nathan's Death Independent of Burton Hagar's Confessions

         Nathan Hagar was born on January 4, 1979 to 23-year old Burton Hagar and 17-year old Venus Hagar (now Venus Nappi). Nathan was several weeks early and was delivered by C-section due to fetal distress. He initially had low Apgar scores but after several months he was reported as smiling and cooing and "gaining well." There is no evidence that he had any unusual medical issues. In an interview on May 16, 1979 Venus Hagar stated that Nathan had not experienced any illnesses since his birth.

         During the time after Nathan's birth the relationship between Venus and Burton (referred to by Venus as "Ben") had deteriorated to some extent. In her May 16, 1979 interview Venus described Burton as someone who needed a lot attention and someone who occasionally displayed a violent temper. He had once thrown a dog against the wall in a rage, resulting in broken bones, and had threatened to kill himself a few times, which Venus ascribed in part to his need for attention. However, he had never once struck Venus or the baby, and Venus thought he was happy with the baby.

         Venus was the baby's primary caregiver. Nathan was still nursing, and Venus rarely left him alone with Ben, in part because Ben was not comfortable when the baby cried.

         Medical records, probably based on statements of Venus Hagar, and a report written by Brunswick police officer Mark Phillips indicate that prior to May 9 Nathan had experienced diarrhea for several days and had vomited early that morning. At some point during the day Nathan had begun sweating, and Venus cooled him down with a damp washcloth. However, the reports also state that Nathan "was not really sick today - laughed & played etc.," and appeared to be fine by the end of the day.[3] Nathan was not yet able to roll over although Venus thought he was almost at that stage.

         Venus described May 9 as a typical day. Ben came home in the evening, had a beer, and watched TV. Around 9 pm Venus left the apartment for approximately 20-25 minutes to get some Kool-Aid from a friend who lived nearby. When she left, Nathan was awake and in the living room. When she returned, Nathan was no longer in the living room, and Ben said he had put Nathan to bed. There was one bedroom in the apartment which contained both ...

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