Legal Blog

Court of Appeals Overrules Defendant’s Demurrer to Indictment

June 17, 2014

In Wyatt v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of the defendant's special demurrers on four of seven charges related to the death of a two year-old child.

The Court held that the trial court erred in ruling that a lack of detail in the indictment left the defendant without adequate notice of the charges he had to defend against at trial.

The record shows that the defendant was babysitting the two year-old girl and her two brothers, ages four and six. When the children’s mother got home, the girl was unresponsive. Her mother took her to the hospital, and she died days later. The defendant voluntarily went to the police department. At first, he told the officers that the child had banged her head against the toilet while he was trying to change her diaper, but after being told that this was inconsistent with her injuries, he said that she had been sliding down the stairs on her back. He then admitted that he hit her with an open hand. The defendant was then read his Miranda rights and questioned further. He was subsequently arrested.

The defendant was indicted for felony murder, two counts of aggravated battery, aggravated assault and cruelty to children in the first degree. Counts 1 and 2 alleged that the defendant had committed aggravated battery by depriving the child of “a member of her body, to wit: her brain, by striking her head against a hard object.” Count 3 alleged that the defendant had “seriously disfigure[ed] a member of [the child’s] body, to wit: her back and thighs with bruises, by striking her against a hard object.” Count 4 alleged that he willfully deprived the child of necessary sustenance by failing to seek medical attention in a timely manner.

The defendant filed special demurrers to the charges related to the aggravated battery and aggravated assault counts. He argued that he could not effectively prepare for trial due to the indictment’s failure to particularly describe the object used or the manner in which it was allegedly used. The State argued that the indictment was sufficient, and that it was permissible to allege that the object with which the defendant hit the child was unknown because she could have hit her head on “the toilet or the tub or the defendant’s own hand.”

O.C.G.A. § 17-7-54 provides that an indictment must “state[] the offense in the terms and language of this Code or so plainly that the nature of the offense charged may easily be understood by the jury” in order to be sufficient. An indictment should be “couched in the language of the statute alleged to have been violated.” Because the counts in this indictment tracked the language of the statute, the Court of Appeals held that they were not subject to a general demurrer.

In order to withstand a special demurrer, an indictment must “contain[] the elements of the offense intended to be charged, and sufficiently apprise the defendant of what he must be prepared to meet.” The Court also stated that the purpose of an indictment was to inform the accused of the charges against him and to protect him against another prosecution for the same offense.

The Court held that while an indictment must allege that aggravated assault was committed with a deadly weapon, it is not necessary to identify the exact weapon or object used if the circumstances of the case make such identification impossible. The Court has previously held indictments to be sufficiently definite when they alleged that the object used to commit the assault was unknown. In this case, the Court likewise held that the indictment gave the defendant sufficient notice of what the State claimed to know and what they intended to prove at trial.

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