Defendant appeals as of right his jury trial convictions of involuntary manslaughter, MCL 750.321, second-degree child abuse, MCL 750.136b(3), felon in possession of a firearm, MCL 750.224f, possession of a short-barreled shotgun, MCL 750.224b, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony (felony-firearm), MCL 750.227b. Defendant was sentenced as a fourth-offense habitual offender, MCL 769.12, to 25 to 50 years' imprisonment for the involuntary-manslaughter
This case arises out of the fatal shooting of defendant's nine-year-old son, DH, by defendant's 10-year-old daughter, TH, on November 9, 2015, in defendant's home. The involuntary-manslaughter charge against defendant was premised on his gross negligence in storing a loaded, short-barreled shotgun in a readily accessible location in his home where he allowed his children to play while unsupervised by an adult.
I. SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE
Defendant first argues that there was insufficient evidence to support his convictions of involuntary manslaughter and second-degree child abuse. We disagree.
To determine whether there was sufficient evidence to support a conviction, this Court reviews the evidence de novo, in the light most favorable to the prosecutor, to determine whether a rational trier of fact could have found that the essential elements of the offense were proved beyond a reasonable doubt. People v. Odom, 276 Mich.App. 407, 418, 740 N.W.2d 557 (2007). "This Court will not interfere with the trier of fact's role of determining the weight of the evidence or the credibility of witnesses." People v. Kanaan, 278 Mich.App. 594, 619, 751 N.W.2d 57 (2008). "All conflicts in the evidence must be resolved in favor of the prosecution." Id. "Circumstantial evidence and reasonable inferences arising therefrom may constitute proof of the elements of the crime." People v. Bennett, 290 Mich.App. 465, 472, 802 N.W.2d 627 (2010).
"Manslaughter is murder without malice." People v. Mendoza, 468 Mich. 527, 534, 664 N.W.2d 685 (2003). "The common law recognizes two forms of manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary." Id. at 535, 664 N.W.2d 685. Involuntary manslaughter is a catch-all crime that encompasses all homicides that do not constitute murder, voluntary manslaughter, or a justified or excused homicide. People v. Holtschlag, 471 Mich. 1, 7, 684 N.W.2d 730 (2004). The requisite mental state for the type of involuntary manslaughter charged in this case is gross negligence. See id. at 16-17, 684 N.W.2d 730. Gross negligence means wantonness and disregard of the consequences that may ensue. People v. Feezel, 486 Mich. 184, 195, 783 N.W.2d 67 (2010). Wantonness exists when the defendant is aware of the risks but indifferent to the results; it constitutes a higher degree of culpability than recklessness. Id. at 196, 783 N.W.2d 67. To prove gross negligence, a prosecutor must show:
Causation is an element of involuntary manslaughter. People v. Tims, 449 Mich. 83, 94, 534 N.W.2d 675 (1995). Causation in the criminal context requires proof of factual causation and proximate causation. Feezel, 486 Mich. at 194, 783 N.W.2d 67. "Factual causation exists if a finder of fact determines that `but for'
Defendant argues that there was insufficient evidence of gross negligence in connection with his involuntary-manslaughter conviction. We disagree. The evidence demonstrates that defendant kept an illegal, loaded, short-barreled shotgun in an unlocked closet in his bedroom. He allowed his children to spend time in that bedroom while unsupervised. In particular, defendant allowed his nine-year-old son, DH, to play a violent video game in that bedroom while unsupervised. Defendant's 10-year-old daughter, TH, likewise had unsupervised access to defendant's bedroom and entered that bedroom while DH was playing the video game. TH then suggested that she and DH act out the video game. She retrieved the loaded shotgun from the closet and accidentally fired the gun, which led to DH's death. A rational trier of fact could find that defendant acted with gross negligence in allowing his children to have unsupervised access to a loaded shotgun. Defendant knew the situation required the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury. It goes without saying that a loaded shotgun poses a danger to young children who are not being monitored by an adult. Defendant had the ability to avoid the harm by exercising ordinary care and diligence. Setting aside the fact that it was illegal for him to possess the weapon, as he was a convicted felon, and the fact that the weapon itself was an illegal short-barreled shotgun, defendant could have taken other actions — short of giving up his illegal possession of the gun — to avoid the harm, such as removing the ammunition from the weapon or placing it in a secure location where his children would not have had access to it. By allowing his young children to play unsupervised in a room where he kept a loaded, readily accessible shotgun, defendant failed to use the requisite care and diligence; he failed to avert a threatened danger where the result was likely to prove disastrous to his children. Therefore, we conclude that there was sufficient evidence of gross negligence.
Defendant's challenge to the causation element is equally devoid of merit. It is beyond question that factual causation exists. But for defendant keeping a loaded shotgun in an unlocked closet of the bedroom where the children were playing without supervision, TH could not have obtained the weapon and accidentally shot DH. Proximate causation likewise exists. The result of defendant's conduct was not remote or unnatural. A child dying from an accidental gunshot is exactly the type of harm that is to be expected from defendant's conduct of keeping a loaded weapon readily accessible in a room where young children were playing. Nor does TH's action of obtaining the weapon and accidentally firing it constitute an intervening cause that superseded defendant's conduct. Rather, TH's actions were reasonably foreseeable. Given that young children fail to appreciate the risks posed by loaded firearms in the same way that adults should, it is foreseeable that a child could accidentally fire a loaded weapon that was readily
There also was sufficient evidence of second-degree child abuse. Under MCL 750.136b(3), a person is guilty of second-degree child abuse if any of the following apply:
This Court has recently explained:
Defendant does not challenge the first and fourth elements, i.e., it is undisputed that defendant was DH's father and that DH was under 18 years old. The second element is satisfied because there was evidence that defendant committed a reckless act. "[I]n order to constitute a `reckless act' under the statute, the defendant must do something and do it recklessly. Simply failing to take an action does not constitute an act." Id. at 361. Defendant committed reckless acts by storing a loaded, short-barreled shotgun in his unlocked bedroom closet and then allowing his children to play in the room while unsupervised. Contrary to defendant's argument, the present case is nothing like Murphy, in which this Court held that the prosecutor presented no evidence of an affirmative act by the defendant that led to the child's death but instead presented evidence only of the defendant's inaction, i.e., failing to clean her house to ensure that morphine pills were not in reach of the child. Id. The key evidence here consisted not only of defendant's inaction but of his affirmative acts of storing a loaded shotgun in an unlocked closet of defendant's bedroom and allowing his children to play in that bedroom while unsupervised. Moreover, defendant knowingly and intentionally committed an act that was likely to cause serious physical harm to a child because defendant stored a loaded, illegal, short-barreled shotgun in a readily accessible location where he allowed his young children to play while unsupervised. Finally, the third element is satisfied because DH died from a gunshot wound to the head, and causation was established for the reasons discussed earlier with respect to the involuntary-manslaughter charge.
II. JURY INSTRUCTIONS
Defendant next argues that the trial court's jury instruction on involuntary manslaughter was erroneous. However,
Even assuming the instructional issue was not waived, defendant's argument would still lack merit. The issue is unpreserved because defendant did not object to the jury instruction. See People v. Sabin (On Second Remand), 242 Mich.App. 656, 657, 620 N.W.2d 19 (2000). Unpreserved issues are reviewed for plain error affecting a defendant's substantial rights. Kowalski, 489 Mich. at 505, 803 N.W.2d 200, citing People v. Carines, 460 Mich. 750, 764, 597 N.W.2d 130 (1999).
"A criminal defendant has the right to have a properly instructed jury consider the evidence against him." People v. Rodriguez, 463 Mich. 466, 472, 620 N.W.2d 13 (2000) (quotation marks and citation omitted). "Jury instructions must clearly present the case and the applicable law to the jury. The instructions must include all elements of the charged offenses and any material issues, defenses, and theories if supported by the evidence." People v. McGhee, 268 Mich.App. 600, 606, 709 N.W.2d 595 (2005) (citation omitted). "[A]n imperfect instruction is not grounds for setting aside a conviction if the instruction fairly presented the issues to be tried and adequately protected the defendant's rights." Kowalski, 489 Mich. at 501-502, 803 N.W.2d 200.
Defendant contends that the trial court essentially directed the jury to enter a verdict of guilty when the court stated or implied that defendant was the cause of DH's death. Defendant is mistaken. At the beginning of its instruction on involuntary manslaughter, the trial court explicitly stated that the prosecutor was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the elements that the trial court then stated. In listing the causation element, the trial court followed M Crim JI 16.10 by reciting the alleged acts that the prosecutor had charged caused DH's death. The instruction did not in any manner direct a verdict on the issue of causation; the trial court did not state or imply that defendant's act had caused the death. On the contrary, the trial court plainly stated at the outset that the prosecutor was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the elements that the trial court then listed, including the element of causation.
Moreover, at trial, neither of the parties took the instructions to mean what defendant now argues they meant — that the prosecution was thereby relieved of the burden of proving causation for DH's death. Defendant's attorney argued during closing arguments, after the involuntary-manslaughter instruction was read to the jury, that the evidence showed that DH died as a result of a "terrible accident," which defendant did not cause. On the other side, the prosecutor argued that the evidence proved that defendant caused DH's death; the prosecutor did not mention or imply that the jury could simply assume causation or that the instruction relieved him of the burden of proving causation. Thus, defendant's contention that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on involuntary manslaughter is devoid of merit.
Defendant's related claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is likewise meritless. Defendant failed to preserve this issue by moving in the trial court for a new trial or an evidentiary hearing. See People v. Heft, 299 Mich.App. 69, 80, 829 N.W.2d 266 (2012). This Court's review of the issue is therefore limited to mistakes that are apparent from the record. Id.
"To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance, a defendant must, at a minimum, show that (1) counsel's performance was below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) a reasonable probability [exists] that the outcome of the proceeding would have been different but for trial counsel's errors." People v. Ackerman, 257 Mich.App. 434, 455, 669 N.W.2d 818 (2003). "[E]ffective assistance of counsel is presumed, and the defendant bears a heavy burden of proving otherwise." People v. Schrauben, 314 Mich.App. 181, 190, 886 N.W.2d 173 (2016). "Counsel is not ineffective for failing to advance a meritless position or make a futile motion." People v. Henry (After Remand), 305 Mich.App. 127, 141, 854 N.W.2d 114 (2014). Defendant claims that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the involuntary-manslaughter instruction. As discussed, however, the involuntary-manslaughter instruction was not erroneous. Hence, defense counsel was not ineffective for failing to make a meritless or futile objection. Id.
III. ADMISSION OF PHOTOGRAPHS
Defendant next argues that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting gruesome photographs. We disagree. "A decision whether to admit photographs is within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion." People v. Gayheart, 285 Mich.App. 202, 227, 776 N.W.2d 330 (2009).
Relevant evidence is generally admissible. MRE 402. "`Relevant evidence' means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." MRE 401. MRE 403 provides:
At trial, defendant objected to the admission of the photographs on the basis of MRE 403. The trial court overruled the objection, stating that although the evidence may be prejudicial, the prejudicial nature of the evidence did not substantially outweigh its relevancy, i.e., its probative value.
"In reviewing the trial court's decision for an abuse of discretion, the appellate court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to its proponent, giving `the evidence its maximum reasonable probative force and its minimum reasonable prejudicial value.'" United States v. Moore, 917 F.2d 215, 233 (C.A. 6, 1990) (citation omitted).
"`Photographs may ... be used to corroborate a witness'[s] testimony,' and `[g]ruesomeness alone need not cause exclusion.'" Unger, 278 Mich. App. at 257, 749 N.W.2d 272, quoting Mills, 450 Mich. at 76, 537 N.W.2d 909 (second alteration in original). Photographs depicting the nature and extent of a victim's injuries may be probative of the defendant's mental state. Gayheart, 285 Mich. App. at 227, 776 N.W.2d 330. Photographs also may be admitted to explain or corroborate testimony about the cause of the victim's death. Id.
As in Gayheart, the photographs admitted in this case corroborated testimony regarding the cause of the victim's death and the nature and extent of his fatal injuries. See id. In addition, the photographs were helpful in establishing the mental state that the prosecutor was required to prove for some of the offenses. The nature and extent of DH's injuries revealed the powerful nature of the short-barreled shotgun and were thus probative of defendant's gross negligence and recklessness in storing this loaded, deadly weapon in a place that was readily accessible to his unsupervised children. Although some of the pictures may appear gruesome, their admission into evidence was useful in establishing the mental state that the prosecutor was required to prove, and gruesomeness alone does not require exclusion. Unger, 278 Mich. App. at 257, 749 N.W.2d 272. In addition, the jury acquitted defendant of the charge of second-degree murder, the most serious charge, so it does not appear that the jury made its decision on the basis of an unfair emotional response. Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the photographs into evidence.
IV. HABITUAL OFFENDER NOTICE
Finally, defendant contends that he is entitled to resentencing because the prosecutor failed to file a proof of service of the fourth-offense habitual offender notice; defendant also suggests that he was not properly served with the notice. We disagree. This issue is reviewed de novo as a question of law because it involves the interpretation and application of statutory provisions and court rules. See People v. Comer, 500 Mich. 278, 287, 901 N.W.2d 553 (2017); People v. Hornsby, 251 Mich.App. 462, 469, 650 N.W.2d 700 (2002). Unambiguous language in a statute or court rule is enforced as written. Comer, 500 Mich. at 287, 901 N.W.2d 553.
MCL 769.13 provides, in relevant part:
Likewise, MCR 6.112(F) provides:
The purpose of the notice requirement "`is to provide the accused with notice, at an early stage in the proceedings, of the potential consequences should the accused be convicted of the underlying offense.'" People v. Morales, 240 Mich.App. 571, 582, 618 N.W.2d 10 (2000) (citation omitted). The failure to file a proof of service of the notice of intent to enhance the defendant's sentence may be harmless if the defendant received the notice of the prosecutor's intent to seek an enhanced sentence and the defendant was not prejudiced in his ability to respond to the habitual offender notification. People v. Walker, 234 Mich.App. 299, 314-315, 593 N.W.2d 673 (1999).
In this case, defendant is correct that the prosecutor failed to file a proof of service of the notice of intent to enhance defendant's sentence. However, the error is harmless because defendant had actual notice of the prosecutor's intent to seek an enhanced sentence and defendant was not prejudiced in his ability to respond to the habitual offender notification.
In particular, the charging documents in the lower court file all apprised defendant of his fourth-offense habitual offender status. Although defendant vaguely asserts that the habitual offender notice was not properly "served" on defendant or defense counsel, defendant does not specify what he means by this. Defendant does not claim that he and defense counsel never received a copy of the charging documents. Moreover, defendant received actual notice on the record at the preliminary examination that he was being charged as a fourth-offense habitual offender. At the arraignment on the information, defendant waived a formal reading of the information, as permitted by MCR 6.113(B). There was no indication at the arraignment hearing that defendant or his attorney had not received a copy of the felony information. Indeed, MCR 6.113(B) required the prosecutor to give defendant a copy of the felony information, which in this case included the habitual offender notice. Defendant does not assert that the prosecutor failed to comply with that provision. Because defendant had access to the charging documents, he had notice of the charges against him, including the habitual offender enhancement, and he also was informed of the habitual offender enhancement at the preliminary examination.
The conclusion that defendant was not prejudiced and that he received actual notice
Defendant notes that the original felony information in the lower court file was unsigned. However, the complaint, which also contained the fourth-offense habitual offender enhancement notice and which is in the lower court file, was signed, and an amended felony information containing the fourth-offense habitual offender enhancement notice that was filed shortly before trial was signed. Although a prosecutor must sign the felony information, see MCR 6.112(D), the court rule does not state that the prosecutor must sign the habitual offender notice, see MCR 6.112(F). Moreover, defendant does not explain how he was prejudiced by the prosecutor's failure to sign the original felony information. He has thus failed to establish entitlement to resentencing on this basis.
Defendant also asserts that the habitual offender notice did not indicate that defendant would be subject to a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence.
GLEICHER, P.J., and BOONSTRA and TUKEL, JJ., concurred.