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State v. Hagar

Supreme Court of Maine

June 18, 2019


          Argued: May 14, 2019

          Verne E. Paradie, Jr., Esq. (orally), Paradie & Rabasco, Lewiston, for appellant Burton B. Hagar

          Aaron M. Frey, Attorney General, and Lara M. Nomani, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee State of Maine

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, and JABAR, JJ.

          GORMAN, J.

         [¶1] Corpus delicti, which means "body of the crime," describes the legal concept that the occurrence of a crime must be established before a person can be convicted of committing that crime. Corpus delicti, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (quotation marks omitted). In this case, Burton B. Hagar relies on that principle in his appeal from a judgment of conviction for manslaughter, 17-A M.R.S.A. §203(1)(A) (Supp. 1978), [1] entered by the trial court (Cumberland County, Warren, /.) after a conditional guilty plea. Hagar argues that the State failed to provide sufficient evidence, independent of his multiple confessions, to establish corpus delicti for the alleged homicide of his infant son. Moreover, Hagar asks us to depart from our well-established corpus delicti doctrine and to adopt the federal "trustworthiness" standard.[2]We decline to do so and affirm the trial court's judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] On April 7, 2017, a Cumberland County grand jury indicted Hagar for the 1979 intentional or knowing murder, 17-A M.R.S.A. § 201(1)(A) (Supp. 1978), [3] of his infant son. Hagar pleaded not guilty to the charge. On July 24, 2017, Hagar filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the State could not establish corpus delicti for the homicide.

         [¶3] By agreement of the parties, the trial court held an evidentiary hearing on April 10, 2018, solely on the corpus delicti issue. Pursuant to the agreement, the State offered Hagar a conditional plea deal, allowing him to plead guilty to manslaughter for a fifteen-year sentence in the event that the trial court determined that the State had established corpus delicti.[4] M.R.U. Crim. P. 11(a)(2); see State v. Reed, 676 A.2d 479, 479-80 (Me. 1996).

         [¶4] At the corpus delicti hearing, the parties submitted several exhibits in evidence, including the "Report of Investigation" and the autopsy records relating to the baby's death; a report from the forensic pathologist retained by the State to review those records; Hagar's medical records relating to his mental health; and documents, audio recordings, and video recordings containing various confessions and admissions by Hagar over the span of several years. The court also heard testimony from four witnesses: the baby's mother, who was also Hagar's wife at the time of the baby's death; a retired Brunswick police officer who, in 1979, responded to the 9-1-1 call reporting the baby's death; a Maine State Police detective; and the forensic pathologist retained by the State for this case.

         [¶5] By order dated July 10, 2018, the court denied Hagar's motion to dismiss. In doing so, the court made the following factual findings, which are supported by competent evidence in the record. See State v. Greenleaf, 2004 ME 149, ¶ 13, 863 A.2d 877; Reed, 676 A.2d at 482.

         [¶6] The baby was born on January 4, 1979; he was delivered several weeks early by C-section but did not have any unusual illnesses or medical conditions. In the months following the baby's birth, the relationship between his parents had deteriorated to some extent. The mother described Hagar as someone who needed a lot of attention and who occasionally displayed a violent temper, including throwing a dog against a wall in a rage.

         [¶7] The mother was the baby's primary caretaker. She rarely left the baby alone with Hagar, in part because Hagar became uncomfortable when the baby cried. In caring for the baby, the mother followed what was then standard medical advice: she always placed the baby on his stomach when she put him in his crib and did not place any pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, or toys in the crib. At approximately four months of age, the baby was not yet able to roll over.

         [¶8] On the day of his death-May 9, 1979-the baby experienced diarrhea and vomiting in the morning. During the day, the mother cooled the baby with a damp washcloth after noticing that he was sweating.[5] By the end of the day, however, the baby did not appear to be sick.

         [¶9] At approximately 9:00 p.m. on May 9, the mother left the family's Brunswick apartment for twenty to twenty-five minutes to run an errand. When she left, Hagar was in the living room watching television and the baby was awake and also in the living room. When the mother returned, the baby was no longer in the living room, and Hagar told her that he had put the baby to bed; the mother did not check on the baby at that time.

         [¶10] Shortly after the mother returned home, Hagar went into the bedroom and then screamed. The mother rushed into the bedroom to find the baby lying face up in his crib, not breathing, his face gray; Hagar was standing next to the crib, distraught. The mother or a neighbor called the police and then the mother attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Paramedics soon ...

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