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The State of New Hampshire v. Nicole Belonga

March 16, 2012

THE STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
v.
NICOLE BELONGA



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Duggan, J

a.m. on the morning of their release. The direct address of the court's home page is: http://www.courts.state.nh.us/supreme.

Argued: October 13, 2011

DUGGAN, J, retired, specially assigned under RSA 490:3. The defendant, Nicole Belonga, appeals her conviction for manslaughter, see RSA 630:2, I(b) (2007), in the death of her infant child. On appeal, she argues that the Superior Court (Hampsey, J.) erred in denying her motion to suppress, as involuntary, her statements to police. She also argues that the Superior Court (Groff, J.) erred in admitting certain evidence at trial. We affirm.

I

The main issue on appeal is whether the defendant's statements to police during an interview were voluntary. A portion of the interview was videotaped. We take the following facts from the record and, when indicated, from that videotape.

On Wednesday January 4, 2006, the defendant left work at approximately 2 p.m. to take Rylea Belonga, her twenty-one-month-old daughter, to the doctor because she had not been well. The doctor diagnosed Rylea with acute gastroenteritis and gave the defendant instructions on how to care for her. The following day, Thursday January 5, the defendant stayed home from work to watch Rylea because she was still not well. The defendant's father was at the house periodically during the day, but otherwise the defendant was the only person at home with Rylea. That night, the defendant left Rylea in her mother's care for approximately two hours while the defendant attended a class at a local college.

At approximately 7:50 a.m. the next day, Friday January 6, the defendant left Rylea at Angie Baldwin's house, because Baldwin had agreed to baby-sit Rylea while the defendant was at work. At approximately 8:20 a.m., Baldwin left her home for a few minutes to buy cigarettes at a nearby store. She left Rylea with her boyfriend, David Kaley, who was living with her at the time. Upon returning from the store, Baldwin discovered Rylea unconscious on the living room floor, with Kaley next to her yelling her name. He told Baldwin that Rylea had vomited, "started shaking," and then collapsed. Baldwin immediately called both the defendant and 911. A few minutes later, police, firefighters and paramedics arrived. The defendant arrived shortly thereafter.

Paramedic Roy Olsen examined Rylea at the scene. He checked her airways, breathing and circulation. He discovered a bruise on Rylea's forehead that extended into her hairline. He determined that Rylea needed immediate medical treatment and transported her in an ambulance, accompanied by the defendant, to Southern New Hampshire Medical Center (SNHMC).

At the hospital, Doctor Miller treated Rylea in the emergency room. He noticed a bruise on her forehead, and that her body was exhibiting signs of a seizure. He ordered a CT scan and, from the results, discovered that her brain was seriously injured - it was bleeding, it had shifted to the right and it was under "excess pressure." Due to the severity of her brain injuries, and the fact that SNHMC does not have a pediatric intensive care unit, Rylea was airlifted to New England Medical Center in Boston at approximately 10:30 a.m.

While Rylea was in the emergency room, the defendant was in the hospital waiting room. At approximately 10:00 a.m., Detectives Douglas Dunham and Andy Karlis of the Nashua Police Department arrived at the hospital. After gathering some basic information from the defendant, Detective Karlis asked her if she would be willing to go to the Nashua Police Station to give a statement. The defendant responded that she could not go to the station because she had to go to Boston to be with her daughter. Karlis, however, persisted, telling her that the police had to talk to her immediately to determine what had happened and assuring her that the questioning would not take long.

After the third request, the defendant agreed to go. Because her car was at Baldwin's house, Officer Gerard Healy transported her to the police station in a police cruiser. The police testified that, at this time, the defendant was not the main suspect. The defendant testified that, during the ride to the station, Officer Healy told her that Kaley, who was with Rylea when she collapsed, was probably going to be arrested. The record also indicates that, even though the police officers at the hospital were insistent, they were polite and the defendant was "very cooperative."

The defendant arrived at the police station at approximately 11 a.m. Healy signed her in as a guest. He did not pat her down, place her in handcuffs, or take any of her belongings. Healy brought her upstairs to wait for her interview. Healy did not tell her that she was free to leave, nor did he tell her how long the interview would last.

Approximately thirty minutes after the defendant arrived, Detective

Patrick Goodridge met with her in a windowless, eight by ten foot interrogation room that contained a table and three chairs. Although the door was closed, it was not locked. This portion of the interview was not recorded.

Goodridge testified that he first had the defendant fill out a victim- witness background sheet, and then asked her some background questions about Rylea, including questions about her medical history and prior medical problems. Goodridge offered the defendant coffee, which she accepted. He testified that at this point in the interview she was pleasant and cordial. After approximately thirty minutes, Goodridge left the interview room to take a break, leaving the defendant alone in the room for approximately twenty minutes. The defendant testified that when Goodridge returned she told him she wanted to go to Boston to see Rylea, but Goodridge said they were not finished.

During this segment of the interview, Goodridge asked the defendant to describe what had happened on the days leading up to Rylea's collapse. According to Goodridge, the defendant said that Rylea had visited a two and one-half year old child who hugs Rylea "really hard" and "would head-butt Rylea," causing her to bruise. Goodridge testified that these statements concerned him because he has children and had never seen such a young child "cause bruising by hugging or banging a head."

Shortly thereafter, Goodridge took another break, during which he discussed his concerns with another detective. At that point, it was determined that Detective Jeffery Maher would accompany Goodridge and the two of them would continue interviewing the defendant. They resumed the interview at approximately 1:15 p.m.

Goodridge first repeated some of his previous questions, so as to inform Maher of what had already been covered. The defendant testified that she again asked if she could leave and that the detectives either ignored her requests or told her that she could leave after a few more questions. The detectives, however, testified that at this point in the interview she did not ask or try to leave. She was also permitted to use the restroom twice.

Maher proceeded to ask the defendant whether she had ever hit Rylea. According to Maher, "[s]he emphatically stated that she never, ever hit Rylea." He told the defendant that they would be interviewing a number of people and he hoped nobody would say that she had hit Rylea. According to Maher, the defendant then described three separate instances in which she used physical force against Rylea. First, she said that in October or November of 2005 she struck Rylea after Rylea had bitten her. Second, she said that, on the day before Rylea's collapse, Rylea was squirming when she was changing her diaper so she held Rylea down by her chest and her hand may have slipped to Rylea's "neck area." Third, she said that, on the same day, she disciplined Rylea because Rylea had slapped her in the face several times. She explained that she told Rylea to go to "time-out" but that Rylea refused. She then "grabbed" Rylea, placed her on the floor standing, and "pushed her from the back of the neck" towards the corner of the room, where Rylea hit her head on a bookshelf.

After this exchange, at about 3:30 p.m., Maher left the interview room to consult with other detectives. He informed them of what the defendant had said, and was instructed to read the defendant her Miranda rights, see Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and to videotape the remainder of the interview. Fifteen minutes later, he returned to the interview room and the detectives began videotaping the interview.

At the outset, Maher had the defendant confirm both that she knew she was being recorded and that she had come to the police station voluntarily. As instructed, he also read the defendant her Miranda rights; she indicated she understood them and signed a Miranda waiver. Then, the detectives again questioned her about the days leading up to Rylea's collapse. She said that: while changing Rylea's diaper she "would push her back down on the floor;" she "had to keep pushing her down on the floor;" and she "had to keep like turning her and getting her to lay back down . . . cause she was trying real hard to get up." She also said her hand "was on . . . her chest . . . [u]nder her neck [on the collarbone area]." When asked if her hand may have "slipped up a little bit higher [than her collarbone]," she said, "It might have." Additionally, when asked if she may have used "too much force" to push Rylea back down, she said, "I might have."

The defendant also described the incident on the day prior to Rylea's collapse in which she disciplined Rylea for slapping her. She said, "[S]he was sitting on my lap . . . . I took her by her arms and I put her on the floor [standing] and she wanted to come back towards me and I turned her around and I pushed her towards the corner and I was like, no go timeout." Additionally, she said, "[Rylea] was really mad about having to go to timeout so when she walked in timeout, she hit her head on the bookcase." A few minutes later, when asked by the detectives whether she used "a little too much force," she said, "It's quite possible that I put her on the floor a little too hard." In addition, when asked if she may have grabbed the back of Rylea's neck and if she may have used too much force in doing so, she said, "It's possible." The defendant also described the fall 2005 incident in which she "smacked [Rylea] in the mouth" after Rylea had bitten her. Finally, the defendant added that she sometimes has a problem controlling her anger.

Throughout the videotaped portion of the interview the defendant expressed a desire to see her daughter in Boston. In response to this, the detectives told her that they were questioning her in order to help her daughter. Maher said, "[T]he reason we ask these detailed questions is because . . . [w]e went [sic] to help your daughter," and that "the questions that we ask are just to help your daughter . . .[a]nd to help her . . . try to get the care that she needs . . . down in Boston." Goodridge said, "Rylea's condition is critical. . . . It's really hit or miss right now. And that is why it's critical you let us know what occurred."

The detectives did make clear, though, that the defendant was at the police station voluntarily. Near the middle of the interview, Goodridge said, "You know you're here voluntarily" and the defendant responded, "Yes."

The detectives also assured the defendant that they were not threatening to take Rylea from her. At one point the defendant said, "You guys are going to take my kid." In response, Maher asked her whether they had ever threatened to take Rylea, and asked, "Is there anything that we've said, that says, that's it, we're taking the kid?" The defendant answered no to both questions.

Eventually, near the end of the interview, the defendant broke down.

The detectives told her that Rylea might die as a result of her injuries, and that she might be arrested. She accused the detectives of lying to her and said, "You told me you were a human and I wasn't [going to] get arrested and now you're going to try to get me arrested when I should be in Boston with my daughter." Finally, at 5:15 p.m., after six and one-half hours, the defendant left the police station.

In a pre-trial motion, the defendant argued that her statements to the detectives were involuntary and, thus, that the admission of those statements at trial would violate her constitutional rights. After a hearing, the court denied her motion. Her statements were ...


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