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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Limits Liability for Defendants Charged with Reckless Endangerment of a Child Involving Multiple Injuries

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled that when a defendant causes multiple injuries to a child on a single occasion, the defendant can be convicted of only one count of wantonly or recklessly permitting injury to a child.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Traylor.

The defendant and his fiancee had a baby boy in May of 2007.  For the first two months after his birth, the baby lived with the defendant and his fiancee at the defendant’s parents’ house.  He then moved to a home in Woburn where many members of his mother’s family lived.  The defendant continued to see the baby regularly.  In August of 2007, the baby visited the doctor for routine medical appointments and did not appear to be suffering from any injuries.  Shortly thereafter, the defendant began caring for the baby more often as the defendant’s fiancee returned to work.  In September, after the baby began showing signs of discomfort, the defendant and his fiancee took him to a local hospital where an X-ray was taken.  The radiologist observed numerous fractures, some of which had occurred within the previous seven days and others that were older.  The baby was transported to a Boston hospital where medical staff, a social worker, and police officers observed bruises all over his body.

The defendant told the police that the baby had been involved in two recent accidents that may have caused the injuries.  However, a pediatrician who testified as an expert for the Commonwealth claimed that the baby’s injuries could not have resulted from an accident or clumsy handling.  The baby had 17 rib fractures of various ages and the pediatrician testified they would have been caused by violent squeezing or crushing injuries such as stepping or sitting on the infant.  The baby also had a leg fracture, a pelvis bone fracture, and an arm fracture.  He suffered from lacerations to his liver and spleen and the doctor offered his opinion that the injuries had resulted from violent force.  Several members of the defendant’s family who all had contact with the baby testified.  They said the baby did not appear to be in distress and they did not witness injuries that caused them concern.

The defendant was convicted in seven separate indictments of wantonly or recklessly permitting the baby to suffer injuries or with allowing another person to commit an assault and battery on the baby causing him to suffer bodily injury.  The defendant appealed and argued that his multiple convictions for the baby’s injuries violated the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed his convictions, and on further appellate review, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed.

The double jeopardy clause prohibits, among other things, multiple punishments for the same offense.  The SJC reviewed the language of the statute to conclude that the Legislature did not intend to authorize multiple convictions and punishments for defendants who committed a single criminal act against a single victim, even when the act resulted in numerous injuries to the victim.  Accordingly, the Court allowed one of the seven convictions to stand and reversed the other six as duplicative.

Cases that allege small children are injured by their caretakers are complicated to prosecute because the injured child often cannot yet speak.  Therefore, the government relies heavily on medical evidence and circumstantial evidence to establish that the defendant was the only person who was capable of causing the injury.  If you are being investigated for this type of crime, it is crucial that you do not speak to anyone, including police officers, Department of Children and Families employees, or medical staff members, until you have consulted with a criminal defense attorney.

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