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September 15, 2017

How Rhode Island changed its child abuse law after Lima

Though our casebook mentions how New York amended its drug statutes after Ryan, I think it also notable how the Rhode Island legislature responded to the Lima case.  Here is the story via a subsequent Rhode Island ruling, State v. Sivo, 925 A.2d 901 (R.I. 2007):

In Lima, the defendant was convicted of first-degree child abuse for lowering a small child into a bathtub of scalding water, causing him to suffer permanent disfigurement or disability.  The child abuse statute implicated in Lima, § 11-9-5.3(a), provided, in pertinent part, that "[w]henever any * * * [caretaker] * * * abuses [a] child by inflicting upon said child a physical injury, to the extent the child is permanently disfigured or disabled, he or she shall be guilty of child abuse in the first degree * * *." General Laws 1956 (1981 Reenactment) § 11-9-5.3, as amended by P.L.1983, ch. 179, § 1.   Evidence introduced at trial showed that the defendant told the child's father that she had intentionally put the child in the bathtub to wash him, but had not first checked the water temperature, which, unbeknownst to the defendant, was far too hot.  Lima, 546 A.2d at 771.  The trial justice instructed the jury on the elements of the child abuse statute, but did not instruct the jury that intent was a necessary element of the crime charged. Id.   The defendant appealed, alleging that the trial justice committed error when he refused to instruct the jury that an intentional act was required. Id. This Court held that the trial justice's refusal to so instruct the jury constituted reversible error. Id. at 772.  Because the child abuse statute in place at the time was entirely devoid of words of intent, we adopted a standard similar to that set forth in the Model Penal Code (MPC), requiring that "[w]hen the culpability sufficient to establish a material element of an offense is not prescribed by law, such element is established if a person acts purposely, knowingly or recklessly with respect thereto." Lima, 546 A.2d at 772 (quoting Model Penal Code, § 2.02(3) at 226 (A.L.I.1985)).  Pursuant to this standard, we directed the trial justice on remand to instruct the jury accordingly, to "protect [][the] defendant from a conviction predicated upon an act devoid of mens rea while at the same time protecting a class of defenseless victims from physical abuse." Id. 

In the years after Lima, the General Assembly enacted numerous amendments to the first-degree child abuse statute.  What is most significant to the instant litigation is that, in 1995, the General Assembly added words of intent, prescribing punishment only for those individuals who “knowingly or intentionally” inflict a serious bodily injury upon a child.  These statutory words of intent effectively superseded the MPC-inspired words of intent we adopted in Lima..... [where] our concern was the possibility that the jury convicted the defendant without finding that she had acted with a mens rea.

September 15, 2017 in Class reflections, Notable real cases | Permalink

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