The California Supreme Court on Monday reinstated a conviction of assault causing a child’s death in the case of an Oakland man who accidentally killed his 1-year-old son while playing with him roughly in what the father described as an effort to “toughen him up.” The decision by the high court in San Francisco also restores a sentence of 25 years to life for Reginald Wyatt Sr., 37, for the assault crime, which is sometimes known as child-abuse homicide.
The child, Reginald Wyatt Jr., was one year and two months old when he died of shock and hemorrhage resulting from blunt force trauma on May 18, 2003. In an interview with police, the 170-pound father said that while “play wrestling,” he punched the 26-pound child in the chest 10 times with his fists, chopped him on the back with both hands, hit him with his knee, elbow and forearm, repeatedly flipped him over, and accidentally fell on top of him while trying to jump to a position next to him on a bed.
Wyatt told the police his aim was to “toughen him up” because a child cannot be “soft” to grow up in Oakland. Wyatt was convicted of assault on a child causing death and sentenced to 25 years to life in an Alameda County Superior Court trial in 2006. He was also found guilty of a second charge of involuntary manslaughter and given a suspended three-year sentence for that charge, but he appealed only the child-abuse homicide conviction.
In Monday’s ruling, the high court unanimously upheld that conviction. It reversed a decision in which a state appeals court overturned the conviction on the ground that the trial jurors should been told they had the option of convicting on a lesser included offense of simple assault. Justice Marvin Baxter wrote that California law requires judges to instruct juries on lesser included offenses only when there is substantial evidence that the smaller offense but not the greater crime occurred.
Baxter, writing for the unanimous court, said the instruction was not required in Wyatt’s case because “it would be speculative at best to construe the trial evidence in this case as supporting a verdict of simple assault.” The decision was the second time the case came before the state Supreme Court. In an earlier ruling in 2010, the panel rejected an appeal claim that there was insufficient evidence that Wyatt knew that his actions in hitting and punching the child would seriously harm him.
The court said in the 2010 decision that the standard should be whether a reasonable person would know of the likely harm. It said such a person would realize that the force Wyatt used was likely to result in great bodily injury.
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