Pennsylvania Superior Court upholds sentence of Fayette mother Rhodes in shaken-baby case
A state Superior Court panel has upheld the six-year sentence given to a Fayette County mother who was convicted this year of multiple charges of shaking her toddler so violently in 2012 that he suffered permanent brain damage.
Jessica Rhodes, 21, formerly of Smithfield, had asked the court to throw out her sentence, contending that Fayette President Judge John Wagner Jr. should have suppressed two statements she gave to state police in Uniontown on Dec. 1 and Dec. 5, 2012, at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Rhodes contends she was not given a Miranda warning advising her of her rights to stay silent and hire an attorney.
Rhodes’ son, who was 14 months old when he was injured, was airlifted to the hospital.
The state appellate court panel noted that testimony showed Rhodes initially took her son to Uniontown Hospital on Dec. 1 and told the emergency room staff “that the child fell and struck his head on a hard floor, rendering him unresponsive.”
The child was transferred to Children’s after doctors determined he had “intracranial bleeding.”
Doctors at Children’s notified Fayette Children’s and Youth Services officials, who in turn notified state police, that the injuries did not correlate with Rhodes’ explanation and that they suspected the child was abused.
Rhodes argued in her appeal and at trial that both statements should be suppressed.
“During the second interview (Dec. 5), Rhodes admitted to the troopers that after her child fell, she shook him twice to stop him from crying. As a result of this statement, Appellant was arrested and charged,” the appellate court stated.
Rhodes admitted that she was read her rights in the middle of her second statement to troopers. But she believes that statement is “defective” because she did not receive a Miranda warning at the outset.
However, the judges noted that Rhodes voluntarily agreed to give statements to Troopers Daniel Boyd and John Krause on both occasions.
“As before (on Dec. 1), the door was closed but not locked, and neither trooper blocked Rhodes’ ability to leave the room,” the judges said.
Under Pennsylvania law, the judges wrote, “volunteered or spontaneous utterances by an individual are admissible even without Miranda warnings.”
“Based on these findings, … (Wagner) concluded that, under the totality of the circumstances, Miranda warnings were unnecessary prior to when they were actually given. We agree and find Appellant’s argument to the contrary unavailing,” the judges said.
In addition, the judges said Rhodes knew her actions could seriously harm her child.
“Moreover, we hold that the evidence was sufficient to prove that Appellant acted recklessly with a conscious disregard of a known risk of death or great bodily harm to the child. Likewise, the evidence supports a finding that Appellant should have been aware that the child could be injured by her actions and knowingly disregarded this possibility,” Senior Judge Eugene B. Strassburger III wrote in a 17-page opinion.
Judges Kate Ford Elliott and David N. Wecht concurred with the ruling.
Rhodes is incarcerated at SCI Muncy in Lycoming County.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or [email protected].