In State v. Lewis, decided May 15, 2013, the S.C. Court of Appeals reversed the defendant’s conviction for aiding and abetting homicide by child abuse, holding that a directed verdict should have been granted and that there was no evidence of aiding and abetting. His girlfriend was convicted of homicide by child abuse for the death of her infant child, Lewis was present in the home but not in the room where it happened.
Even if Lewis knew that the girlfriend was likely to be abusive to the child based on her conduct prior to the incident, Lewis did not “aid or abet” her abuse that resulted in the child’s death. The fact that he ran from police a few days later is not sufficient evidence to send the case to a jury, nor is his subsequent suicide attempt. Mere presence at the scene of a crime is never enough to convict a person, and an overt act is required for aiding and abetting.
This case highlights the dangers of being prosecuted for any crime where a child is involved. Assuming the facts given in the written opinion, an ethical prosecutor should not have prosecuted Lewis. Without more evidence, the police should not have charged Lewis. The trial judge should not have allowed the charge of homicide by child abuse or the charge of aiding and abetting to go to a jury. The jury should not have convicted him of either charge in the absence of any substantial evidence.
Detectives, prosecutors, victims advocates, counselors – at each stage of the process there are professionals assigned to investigate and prosecute crimes against children, professionals who often only work these types of cases. Some are “true believers” who are on a holy mission to protect the children and punish those who hurt them, who assume the guilt of any person close to the incident, and who do not mind bending the rules as they go. Prosecutors fear negative publicity if they dismiss or even act reasonable in any case that involves a child victim. Judges fear negative publicity if they rule in favor of a person charged with a crime against a child.
Jurors do not want to take any chance of releasing a person who would hurt a child – after all, why would they be here on trial unless the police, the prosecutor, and the judge already knew that the person was guilty? Ordinarily, on appeal, there is a second set of rules for cases that involve child victims – the rules that ordinarily apply to protect citizens accused of crimes do not always apply in child victim cases, or they apply differently.
There are monsters out there who hurt children. There are also terrified, ordinary people who get caught in this net of victim advocacy, who are put in jail, who are sometimes convicted, who are subject to registration requirements and monitoring requirements, who are demonized and punished and for whom the system is broken. Although Lewis found his first break in the Court of Appeals, he has probably already been incarcerated for years and will suffer the stigma of this prosecution for the rest of his life. And there is always the possibility that the S.C. Supreme Court will find a way to reinstate his conviction.