Jury verdict overturned
Published 10:11 pm Thursday, June 4, 2015
The Court of Appeals of Virginia has overturned a jury’s guilty verdict from February 2014 in the case of a mother whose 2-year-old daughter died after accidentally ingesting a medication.
Lakesha Lanika Artis, now 34, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and child abuse and neglect. Her daughter, Destiney Riddick, died on July 17, 2011, after ingesting suboxone, a medication used to combat opiate dependence, that she found the day before in a Mentos bottle in a relative’s bedroom.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals overturned Artis’ conviction of involuntary manslaughter after reviewing the evidence, according to the court’s decision.
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“A fact finder simply could not find the appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of involuntary manslaughter,” Judge Randolph A. Beales wrote in the panel’s decision.
On July 16, 2011, Destiney was found to have ingested the pills in the home of her stepfather’s mother on Truman Road. Her step-grandmother’s boyfriend noticed the Mentos bottle he had been keeping his suboxone in was empty, and the children in the home were asked who “ate the candy.” Another child pointed to Destiney.
She was immediately taken to Sentara Obici Hospital, and her mother rushed there after being called at work.
During her stay in the emergency room, Destiney’s respiratory rate decreased markedly — from 22 breaths per minute at 6:21 p.m. to only 13 breaths per minute at 7 p.m. her oxygenation rate decreased from 96 to 92 percent in the same 39-minute period. Both latter readings are below the normal rate for an otherwise healthy child.
Medical records also show that Destiney’s pupils were “very minimally reactive” and that she was sluggish, sleepy and lethargic.
Dr. Richard Hamilton, who testified at trial for the defense, said Destiney was showing the signs of suboxone overdose and should have been admitted to the hospital.
The hospital, however, decided to discharge the child at 9 p.m. and gave her mother a set of generic discharge instructions for a “nontoxic” ingestion. The instructions said the ingestion “is not likely to cause serious medical problems.” Hospital records also showed Artis had been “reassured.”
Back at home, Destiney became hot to the touch, was seeing flies that were not actually in the room, was telling her mother that Chuck E. Cheese was going to get her, and was losing her balance. Artis attempted to get her daughter to go to sleep, made her a roast beef sandwich and gave her a fever reducer.
Artis and her husband left the home briefly that evening to get dinner at McDonald’s — an act prosecutors said at trial showed “callous disregard” for Destiney’s life — but she was in the care of her step-grandmother for that short period of time.
Destiney finally fell asleep about 4 a.m. after Artis lay down beside her daughter, rubbed her hair and back, and gave her a kiss.
About four and a half hours later, Artis called out to her daughter to see if she needed to use the bathroom. When she didn’t respond, Artis went into the room and found her daughter cold to the touch. Her husband did CPR until the arrival of paramedics, who transported her to the emergency room. Destiney was pronounced dead at the hospital at 10:39 a.m.
“Appellant’s decision not to take Destiney back to the hospital during the next few hours that elapsed during the night after the hospital had just released her at 9 p.m. — which, according to the Commonwealth, properly forms the sole basis for appellant’s conviction — simply did not amount to criminal negligence,” the appeals court wrote.
“The evidence does not show that appellant could have known that failure to take Destiney back to the hospital so soon after her discharge would pose a danger to Destiney’s life. The discharge instructions that appellant received were entitled ‘Nontoxic Ingestion.’ Moreover, the discharge instructions stated that ‘your exam shows your ingestion is not likely to cause serious medical problems. Further treatment is not needed at this time.’”
According to the appeals court, Artis was “entitled to rely on these assurances.”
“It strains credulity to say that appellant’s decision not to seek additional medical care for Destiney — but to instead care for her at home over the few hours since the hospital discharged her — constitutes a callous disregard for human life,” the court’s opinion reads.
The appeals court did not consider Artis’ conviction on child abuse and neglect. That charge stemmed from a curved scar the medical examiner found on Destiney’s back, and a relative’s testimony at trial that Artis had beat the child with a coat hanger.
Artis was given a two-year sentence on that charge and has less than 10 months of it left. She will no longer face the six-month sentence on the involuntary manslaughter charge.
Her defense attorney, Drew Page, said they were forced to drop a civil lawsuit against the hospital and the emergency room doctor because “we were constrained by certain civil deadlines we couldn’t deal with.”
The girl’s step-grandmother and her boyfriend, Steven Wade Bullock and Kimberly Denise Artis, were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and other charges for leaving the drugs where Destiny could find them. The appeals court’s decision in Artis’ case did not affect their cases.