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GA Supreme Court Affirms Habeas Relief in Child Cruelty Case

October 18, 2016

In Kennedy v. Primack, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the grant of habeas corpus relief to the defendant finding that, when she entered a non-negotiated guilty plea to cruelty to children, she did not understand the meaning of “criminal negligence.”

The Court held that, as a result, she did not knowingly or voluntarily enter the plea.

The defendant entered a guilty plea to second degree cruelty to children for failing to seek medical treatment for her 4-year-old daughter, whose leg was broken by the defendant’s boyfriend. The defendant was given the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. She then filed a petition for habeas corpus relief alleging that her guilty plea was not knowingly and voluntarily entered.

During the plea colloquy, the defendant asked for the meaning of “criminal negligence” as it applied to her charge of second degree cruelty to children. In response, the trial court gave her a “law school answer,” that criminal negligence was more than gross or simple negligence. No one asked the defendant whether she understood the answer. At the habeas hearing, the defendant testified that she did not understand the explanation given by the trial court.

The Supreme Court affirmed the habeas court’s grant of relief and held that the trial court did not give a straightforward definition that was readily discernable to the defendant who had asked for clarification. The Court noted that a guilty plea cannot be voluntary unless the defendant understands the law in relation to the facts.

The Court found that the defendant was not adequately informed that her failure to seek medical care for her child had to rise to a level of “willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for the safety” of her daughter in order to constitute the “criminal negligence” required for a conviction under the statute. Therefore, the Court concluded that the habeas court had a proper basis for finding that the defendant lacked understanding of the law and that her plea was not voluntarily entered.

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