State Court of Appeals weighs the power of constitutional protection against double jeopardy
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals published a pair of opinions Tuesday holding that two people can be charged with murder for brutalizing a child 25 years ago — even though they had already been convicted of child abuse for the same act of violence in the late ‘90s.
David Tripp, Jr. was dating Robin Noffsinger on April 12, 1997 when David Cody Rhinehart, Noffsinger’s 15-month-old son, was taken to Columbia Brunswick Hospital. The baby’s skull, spine, limbs and ribs were fractured; he had second- and third-degree burns on his buttocks and genitals. He was missing hair; and he had multiple cuts, bruises and punctures all over his body.
A pediatrician at the hospital said Rhinehart suffered from “Battered Child Syndrome” and would never be able to function on his own, since “the entire part of his brain that involves learning, thinking, maturing [and] developing normally had[d] been destroyed.”
Rhinehart survived for another 21 years, living in a long-term care home for children before being adopted. He died on March 6, 2018. The cause of death, according to the medical examiner: “complications of remote trauma, including blunt force and thermal injuries stemming from child abuse which occurred in April of 1997.”
Tripp and Noffsinger each did time in prison for abusing Rhinehart. Tripp spent a decade behind bars after taking an Alford Plea; a jury convicted Noffsinger of three counts of felony child abuse, giving her three consecutive sentences of 31 to 47 months in prison.
Both Tripp and Noffsinger have served their sentences for abusing Rhinehart.
Then two months after Rhinehart’s death, Tripp and Noffsinger were indicted for first-degree murder after the boy succumbed to the injuries inflicted on him in 1997.
Both defendants sought to have the charges dismissed, arguing in separate cases that indicting them violates their protections against due process and double jeopardy.
Double jeopardy constitutionally protects a person from being punished multiple times for the same offense, or from being prosecuted for the same crime after they’ve already been acquitted or convicted of that offense.
State courts have taken up this issue before. A 2018 state Supreme Court decision allowed prosecution to proceed for a man whose victim died after the defendant had pled guilty to assault, allowing the state to seek prosecution for murder.
The three Court of Appeals judges — Judges April Wood, Toby Hampson and Jefferson Griffin — were similarly unmoved in the unanimous rulings issued Tuesday. In each case the judges determined that the child’s death in 2018 meant that the murder charge is a separate offense from felony child abuse, and therefore does not violate Tripp or Noffsinger’s federal or state double jeopardy protections.
“While the State was able to prosecute Defendant for felony child abuse in 1997, it was precluded from prosecuting her for felony murder until her son’s death,” Judge Jefferson Griffin wrote in the Noffsinger ruling.
Citing prior court rulings, Griffin said there’s a balancing act in cases of delayed prosecution between the state’s decision to defer criminal charges against the defendant’s constitutional due process rights.
“Defendant alleges that the twenty-one-year delay in initiating prosecution for first-degree murder caused actual prejudice to her defense because the ‘two other adults who were in the household in which the baby was abused have since passed away,’” Griffin wrote. “Even assuming that this allegation is true, the State’s inability to prosecute Defendant for first-degree murder until the victim’s death, along with its significant interest in prosecuting individuals who may be guilty of first-degree murder, outweighs any prejudice to Defendant.”
Griffin and Wood, who wrote the opinion in the Tripp case, both referenced a U.S. Supreme Court case, Blockburger v. United States. The Blockburger opinion lays out a test to determine if someone’s double jeopardy protections are being violated: two offenses for the same actions are considered the same offense unless each of those criminal offenses contains a unique element. Given that test, Tripp’s conviction for felony child abuse can be considered a lesser-included offense of felony murder, Wood wrote.
But there’s an exception stemming from another U.S. Supreme Court case, Diaz v. United States: A defendant can be prosecuted for a separate offense if an essential aspect of that offense — such as death, in the case of murder — wasn’t part of the offense charged in the defendant’s previous prosecution.
“Here, the State could not have prosecuted Defendant for murder in 1998 because the abused child, David, had not yet died,” Wood wrote. “It was not until David died in 2018, allegedly from his injuries, that the missing element necessary to pursue a murder indictment manifested.”
Wood notes that Tripp claims his “right to due process would be violated if he is forced to pay his debt to society twice.” However, Wood said, the state isn’t seeking to convict him of felony child abuse again.
“Today, it seeks his prosecution for the crime of first-degree murder,” Wood wrote. “Perhaps Defendant’s ‘debt’ for felony child abuse has been paid, but we look to whether a potential ‘debt’ for murder is due.
The ruling allows the trial court murder prosecutions to proceed. It’s unclear whether the defendants will seek to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.