State v. Greene, SC Supreme Court, Filed May 23, 2018: Involuntary Manslaughter Conviction Reversed but Homicide by Child Abuse Conviction Affirmed

Stephanie Greene began taking prescription medication after she was in a car wreck in 1998 – in an all-too-familiar story, she became addicted to pain meds and continued to use them over the years.

When she became pregnant, according to testimony at her trial, she continued to use morphine and other depressants and then continued to use them as she was breastfeeding… without telling her doctors.

The child died, and Greene was convicted and sentenced to 20 years for homicide by child abuse, five years concurrent for involuntary manslaughter, and five years concurrent for unlawful conduct towards a child.

On direct appeal, the SC Supreme Court reversed the involuntary manslaughter chargebut affirmed the other two charges.

Greene challenged the trial court’s refusal to direct a verdict, alleging that the State did not present any evidence to prove that the morphine found in the baby’s system came from Greene’s breast milk.

Although the standard is not “any evidence,” but rather “sufficient evidence,” the Court found that that there was sufficient evidence presented – in the form of extensive expert testimony.

The state’s experts testified as to the dangers of drug use while pregnant, the likelihood of drugs passing to an infant through breastfeeding, an infant’s inability to metabolize drugs like morphine, and the warnings on the medications that the patient should tell their doctor if they are pregnant or nursing and that the medications could pass to an infant through breastfeeding.

Extreme Indifference is an Element that Must be Proven

Anyone who is or has been addicted to drugs will understand that the haze and confusion of addiction can easily result in tragedies like what happened in Greene’s case – without any criminal intent.

The law does not care.

Greene alleged on appeal that the State did not prove that she acted with extreme indifference, the required intent for homicide by child abuse, but the Supreme Court disagreed.

Although the Court has previously “previously defined ‘extreme indifference’ as ‘a mental state akin to intent characterized by a deliberate actculminating in death,’” they found that her actions qualified, including:

  • Being addicted;
  • Knowing that she should use caution with morphine while pregnant or breastfeeding; and
  • Taking morphine without a doctor’s supervision.

All of which probably sounds reasonable to someone who does not understand addiction and its effect on a person’s decision-making process…

One Homicide, One Homicide Punishment

The Court did reverse Greene’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter – citing “the overwhelmingly prevailing view that the homicide of one person by one defendant is limited to one homicide punishment—one homicide, one homicide punishment.”

The Court overruled the 1997 case State v. Easler, and held that, although the State can charge multiple homicide offenses, a defendant can only be punished for the same homicide one time– to allow multiple punishments would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause.

The unlawful conduct towards a child conviction was affirmed, because it alleged conduct that occurred before the child’s death. Involuntary manslaughter and homicide by child abuse, on the other hand, both charge and punish the defendant for the same homicide.

Why Did the Court Choose to Let the Homicide by Child Abuse Conviction Stand?

Greene was sentenced to 20 years on the homicide by child abuse charge, and a concurrent five years for the involuntary manslaughter charge (the maximum penalty is five years).

The elements of homicide by child abuse and involuntary manslaughter are not consistent – each charge requires different proof. So, why did the Court choose to affirm the homicide by child abuse conviction instead of the involuntary manslaughter conviction?

If the trial court should have allowed conviction on only one charge, why not affirm the conviction that carries the lesser sentence?

What is Greene’s Next Step?

The direct appeal can only correct errors of law that were made by the judge during the defendant’s trial. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case does nothing to help Greene – the five-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter was a concurrent sentence anyway, which means that she will serve the same amount of time even after the reversal.

Mistakes that were made by her trial counsel or appellate counsel will be raised separately in her PCR petition – did her trial lawyer recognize that a verdict of guilty for homicide by child abuse was inconsistent with a guilty verdict for involuntary manslaughter, and did the trial lawyer argue that only the manslaughter conviction should stand, based on the evidence that was presented? Did her appellate attorney raise this issue on appeal and argue that only the manslaughter conviction should stand?

What other mistakes were made by trial or appellate counsel that the Court could not consider on a direct appeal?

Greene’s PCR counsel will be able to present to the PCR court errors that Green’s trial or appellate counsel made at trial, on appeal, or during their independent investigation of her case, and, if she can demonstrate both ineffective assistance of counsel and prejudice to her case, all or part of the remaining convictions may still be vacated…