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State v. Coleman

Supreme Court of Maine

December 23, 2019


          Argued: October 8, 2019

          Rory A. McNamara, Esq. (orally), Drake Law, LLC, Berwick, for appellant Brandon J. Coleman

          Jennifer Ackerman, Dep. Dist. Atty. (orally), Cumberland County District Attorney's Office, Portland, for appellee State of Maine


          HJELM, J.

         [¶1] On a summer evening in 2017, a seven-week-old child, while alone with her father at their residence, lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital. The infant's treating physicians determined that she had suffered subdural hematomas, retinal hemorrhages, and external bruising-a constellation of injuries caused, in this case, by traumatic child abuse. The child's father, Brandon J. Coleman, was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and one count of assaulting a child younger than six years old.

         [¶2] Coleman proceeded to trial (Cumberland County, Cashman, J.), where a jury found him guilty of all charges. Coleman appeals from the judgment of conviction ultimately entered by the court, asserting that the State engaged in prosecutorial misconduct during the trial, that the court's instructions to the jury on the elements of the aggravated assault charges were erroneous, and that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction for one of the aggravated assault charges. We affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶3] We draw the following account of the case from the procedural record and from the evidence as viewed in the light most favorable to the State. See State v. Adams, 2019 ME 132, ¶ 2, 214 A.3d 496.

         [¶4] In July of 2017, Coleman and his girlfriend lived in an apartment in Portland with their infant daughter. In the weeks after the child's birth, she had no known health problems. During the evening hours of July 1, 2017, the child's mother was at work, and Coleman was caring for the child by himself. Earlier that day when the mother was caring for the child, the child was experiencing no sign of distress and was, according to her mother, "her normal self." Coleman later reported to the child's treating physicians and an investigator that over the course of the evening, the child began to cry and then "went limp in his arms as if she had died." Coleman eventually called 9-1-1. Medical first responders brought the child to the hospital, where she was found to have subdural hematomas, retinal hemorrhages, and external bruising.

         [¶5] Several months later, in September of 2017, Coleman was indicted for one count of Class A aggravated assault, 17-A M.R.S. § 208(1)(A-1) (2018), [1] one count of Class B aggravated assault, 17-A M.R.S. § 208(1)(A) (2018), [2] and one count of Class C assault on a person younger than six years of age, 17-A M.R.S. § 207(1)(B) (2018).[3] He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

         [¶6] In November of 2018, the court conducted a four-day jury trial. In support of the allegation that the child's injuries resulted from abuse inflicted by Coleman, the State presented the testimony of Dr. Lawrence Ricci, a board-certified child-abuse pediatrician. Dr. Ricci concluded that, given the nature and extent of the child's injuries and the absence of evidence that she was injured accidentally, the child had sustained abusive head trauma-a formal medical diagnosis, which he stated was "clear-cut" in this case. Dr. Ricci explained that the injury resulted from acceleration/deceleration of the child's head due to shaking or blunt trauma or both. The State also offered testimony from the child's neurologist and radiologist that the injuries were caused by trauma and were not attributable to natural causes. The neurologist concluded that, due to the child's extensive injuries, she would continue to suffer severe neurological delays and faced the possibility of cerebral palsy, epilepsy, intellectual disabilities, and impaired verbal communication and vision.

         [¶7] Coleman contended that the child was not assaulted but rather that her condition resulted from a nontraumatic medical emergency. To support that theory, Coleman presented testimony from Dr. Joseph Scheller, a board-certified pediatric neurologist, who told the jury that the child had suffered a venous stroke and was not the victim of trauma. Dr. Scheller stated that the child possibly had thrombophilia, a potentially deadly vascular condition that causes an abnormal amount of clotting. The following exchange occurred during the State's cross-examination of Dr. Scheller:

Q. Now, at what point, Dr. Scheller, did you reach out to any one of these doctors and say [the child] potentially has this life-threatening disease?
A. I haven't done it.
Q. Is it not your obligation as a doctor if you believe a child has a deadly disease that has gone undiagnosed to reach out and to alert them to that?
A. Well, I did so in the letter. I don't know who the letter was shared with and I'm not her treating physician, I'm a physician who is consulted by her lawyer so I am playing a completely different role.
Q. And you've taken a medical ethics class, have you, sir?
A. Sure.

         [¶8] At this point, Coleman objected, stating, "I think he talked about his role in this case as being a consultant, not a treater and I don't think we're talking about rules of ethics here, I think we are going too far afield." The court overruled the objection, and the State continued its cross-examination:

Q. So I asked you about your medical ethics class. You took that, that's a standard class you take in ...

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