Mother's murder conviction reversed

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.com, bestep@herald-leader.comSeptember 11, 2009 

Charlotte Hall's 13-year-old son died of an overdose after she took him along for a hard night of partying with methadone pills.

Hall gave the boy, Dylan McIntosh, a $50 bill to roll into a straw and watched as he carried a "line" of the crushed-up synthetic narcotic into another room to snort it.

And when Dylan told his mother that another adult at the party had given him a bunch of methadone pills, Hall did not take the pills away.

Did those actions justify Hall's 2007 conviction for wanton murder? The Kentucky State Supreme Court said no in a recent opinion that reverses Hall's murder conviction in Wolfe County and leaves open the question of whether she will be retried.

The Aug. 27 opinion could play a role in future cases.

Mark Stanziano, a Somerset lawyer, said the reasoning for overturning the conviction could be cited in similar cases.

Stanziano represents Bryan Daniels, who was charged with murder after his 20-month-old son, Kayden Branham, died in Wayne County in May after drinking liquid drain cleaner that was allegedly being used to manufacture methamphetamine.

But some prosecutors said they didn't think the opinion would change how they evaluate cases involving the deaths of children exposed to drugs.

"We're going to continue to charge murder when children are endangered in this way," said Dana Todd, assistant commonwealth's attorney in Franklin County, who read the opinion Thursday.

Todd prosecuted Jaime Jockers and Michael McIntyre, whose 5-month-old daughter, Brooklyn, died in March 2006 from secondhand exposure to crack cocaine that the two were smoking in their Frankfort apartment. McIntyre and Jockers were charged with murder.

Both pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter. Jockers was sentenced to 12 years and McIntyre to 25 years for his daughter's death and other charges.

Snorting methadone

In Hall's case, the Supreme Court opinion provided details about the night of May 5, 2005, when Hall took Dylan with her to spend the night at the home of a family friend.

At the friend's house, she and another adult gave him two tranquilizers because Hall ran out of the medicine Dylan took for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Then Hall handed her son the $50 bill, which he used to snort one-fourth of a methadone pill.

When Dylan told her that one of the adults they were visiting gave him a "bunch" of methadone pills, she didn't take them away.

The next morning, Dylan was dead from acute methadone intoxication. In 2007, Hall was convicted of wanton murder and sentenced to 30 years and one day in prison.

The Supreme Court opinion said that at Hall's trial in Wolfe Circuit Court, prosecutors failed to provide evidence that supported a finding of wanton murder.

Such a conviction required proof that Hall knew of, but consciously disregarded the risk "under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life," the opinion said.

Shannon Dupree, the public defender who represented Hall in her appeal to the Supreme Court, said that the only evidence that prosecutors presented to support the wanton murder charge was in a statement Hall gave police. In it, she admitted watching as her son carried one-fourth of a crushed methadone pill, given to him by another adult, into another room.

The Supreme Court opinion said that Hall could only be retried on the lesser charge of reckless homicide, which carries a one- to five-year prison sentence.

"It was a horrible tragedy what happened to Dylan," Dupree said, but she added that Hall did not give her son the methadone that caused his death. Dupree also said the tranquilizer Hall gave her son did not figure in his death, only the methadone.

"It was a bad atmosphere to have a child in, but she was not sitting there feeding her child drugs," Dupree said.

It is unclear whether Wolfe County Commonwealth's Attorney Darrell Herald will retry the case. He did not return telephone messages Wednesday.

Two other adults in the house when Dylan died were prosecuted in the case. The outcomes of those cases could not be immediately determined.

Six of seven Supreme Court justices concurred on the opinion. Only Justice Will T. Scott dissented, saying that the wanton murder conviction was not unreasonable.

"Not only did Hall disregard the risks that drugs pose to children, but she approved of her son's use," Scott said in his dissenting opinion.

The Attorney General's Office has until Sept. 16 to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision, said Dupree. After that date, the opinion is considered final.

At that point, Dupree said, Hall could be transferred from Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Peewee Valley to a local jail to await a determination of her case.

Dupree said Hall had served about four years of her sentence.

'No homicide'

Stanziano said he plans to raise the issue of whether murder, or any homicide charge, is appropriate in Daniels' case. That's because of the facts, not because of the Supreme Court decision, he said.

In the Wayne County case, for example, no one gave Kayden the chemical to drink, he said.

"In my opinion, there's no homicide here at all," Stanziano said of the Daniels case.

Matthew Leveridge, the commonwealth's attorney for Wayne and Russell counties who is prosecuting Daniels, said the grand jury considered the evidence carefully and returned an appropriate charge against Daniels.

The state Supreme Court specified that the decision in Hall's case not be published.

That means it can't be cited as legal authority in other cases, but attorneys can cite it in arguments, Leveridge said.

Whether the opinion plays a role in other cases depends on a number of factors.

"The facts of every case are different," Leveridge said.

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397.

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