State v. Charlo-Whitworth

State v. Charlo-Whitworth, 2016 MT 157 (June 28, 2016) (McGrath, C.J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in not giving the defendant’s proposed jury instruction on accomplice liability.

Short Answer: No.

Affirmed 

Facts: Riley Charlo-Whitworth and Alexis Paul lived together with Paul’s 2-year-old child, MP. One evening in January 2013, Whitworth drove Paul to work around 7 pm, then returned home with MP. He put MP to bed around 8:30 pm, but the child awoke crying around 10 pm. Whitworth grew frustrated and shoved the child into a wall, spanked him and hit him. Because MP was bleeding, Whitworth gave him a bath.

Around midnight, Whitworth took MP to Paul’s aunt and uncle before going to pick up Paul from work. They noticed MP’s injuries, and that MP was in pain and unresponsive. Whitworth told them MP had fallen down the stairs. When Whitworth returned with Paul 20 minutes later, the aunt and uncle suggested to Paul that MP had been abused and she should take him to the hospital.

Instead, Paul and Whitworth went home with MP. Eventually she realized her son was seriously injured and Whitworth drove them to the hospital around 2:50 am. The doctor determined MP had suffered severe trauma to his pancreas and several blows to his body and genitals, as well as a serious tear in his mouth. MP was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

The state charged Whitworth with several counts, including aggravated assault, criminal endangerment and assault on a minor. Whitworth’s defense theory was that Paul injured MP, not him.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Whitworth proposed an instruction directing the jury to view the aunt and uncle’s testimony with distrust, pursuant to § 26-1-303(4), providing that the testimony of a person legally accountable for the acts of the accused should be view with distrust. The district court refused the instruction. Whitworth was convicted of three felony counts and sentenced to 35 years in the Montana State Prison. Whitworth appeals and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: The accomplice liability instruction allows the jury to view an alleged accomplice’s testimony with disfavor. But the propriety of the instruction presupposes the existence of an accomplice. In the absence of any evidence that a testifying witness is an accomplice, the instruction should not be given.

Whitworth claims that the aunt and uncle were responsible for MP’s welfare after seeing his injuries, and that their testimony was an effort to shift blame from Paul onto him. As such, he claims they were accomplices to the crime of criminal endangerment. But the statute limits the instruction to cases where the witness is suggested to be an accomplice for the defendant’s acts, not Paul’s. To qualify for the instruction, Whitworth had to show that the aunt and uncle were involved in the physical abuse of MP. Neither the aunt nor the uncle were charged with criminal endangerment, and no evidence supports them having committed that offense. The district court did not abuse its discretion in declining the instruction.