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People v. Archer.

2022 COA 71. No. 19CA1364.  Child Abuse Resulting in Death—Sufficiency of Evidence—Expert Scientific Evidence—Co-Conspirator Statements.

July 7, 2022

Defendant was part of an itinerant religious group comprising five adults and four children traveling in two vehicles. Ceus and defendant are the biological parents of two of the children. The other two children (the victims) were the daughters of another group member. Ceus was the group’s spiritual head, but she made decisions collectively with defendant. The group met Blair, who owned undeveloped land and invited the group to stay there. The victims were banished to a vehicle in an isolated part of the property to work on their spiritual development and died after being deprived of food, water, or other assistance. After they died, defendant and Blair covered the car with a tarp to hide the bodies. By the time authorities learned what had happened, the victims’ bodies were so badly decomposed that the medical examiner was unable to determine the cause of death. However, the medical examiner testified that the deaths were likely due to starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, or some combination of these factors. Defendant was convicted of two counts of child abuse resulting in death and one count of accessory to a crime.

On appeal, defendant argued that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to sustain his convictions for child abuse resulting in death because (1) he did not take actions that injured the victims and (2) he had no special relationship with the victims requiring him to act to save them. A child abuse conviction requires that the defendant knowingly or recklessly caused serious bodily injury to a child. Here, there was sufficient evidence that defendant engaged in affirmative acts of mistreatment, including that the victims’ banishment and deprivation resulted from a collective decision in which defendant participated. Therefore, his relationship with the victims was irrelevant. Further, the prosecution presented sufficient evidence to establish that defendant’s actions were knowing or reckless because he was aware that the victims were confined to a car during the summer and then abandoned there without food or water, but he did nothing to help them. Accordingly, the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support the convictions.

Defendant also argued that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting, and then declining to strike, expert scientific evidence on hair follicle analysis. CRE 702 favors admissibility of scientific evidence if it is reliable and relevant. Here, the trial court held a two-day hearing pursuant to People v. Shreck, 22 P.3d 68, 77, 79 (Colo. 2001), on the admissibility of the hair follicle analysis, which purported to show that the victims died of starvation. The trial court’s decision was well within its broad discretion. Defendant’s further argument that the expert testimony should have been excluded under CRE 403 because it was unreliable and therefore prejudicial was similarly rejected because the trial court’s reliability determination was not an abuse of its broad discretion.

Lastly, defendant contended that the trial court erred in relying on CRE 801(d)(2)(E) to admit out of court statements made by Ceus as a co-conspirator. However, the trial evidence and the prosecutor’s offer of proof supported the trial court’s finding of a conspiracy, and even if the rulings were incorrect, defendant did not challenge the court’s alternative grounds for admitting each statement. Accordingly, the court did not err.

The judgment of conviction was affirmed.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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