Court overturns wanton murder conviction in child's death; points to change in homicide law

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Pointing to a change in Kentucky's homicide statutes, the state Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a wanton murder conviction for a Louisville woman sentenced to 35 years after leaving her 2-year-old son inside a car for about 12 hours.

In its unanimous ruling, the court said state lawmakers in 2000 amended homicide statutes to create a new type of second-degree manslaughter to apply when young children die after being left in vehicles. As a result, the court said such conduct does not support a conviction for wanton murder.

The justices sent the case of Mollie Shouse back to Jefferson County Circuit Court for a new trial.

"This case does not raise the question of whether Shouse deserves to face a murder charge under the facts, but rather a question of what charge the law allows," Justice Mary Noble said in writing for the court. "By creating a new form of second-degree manslaughter applicable to the aggravatedly wanton deaths of children left in cars, the legislature has dictated the maximum appropriate charge.

"When those circumstances arise, and the death is the result of aggravatedly wanton conduct, the highest possible charge is second-degree manslaughter," she added.

In May 2011, Shouse's young son was found dead while strapped in his car seat after being left overnight until the following afternoon. At trial, prosecutors said Shouse stopped by an apartment for a drug fix, and that a combination of marijuana and Xanax knocked her out.

Around 3 a.m., Shouse drove to a convenience store and bought doughnuts and a drink and then went home, the court's ruling said. She got several items out of the car, went inside and fell asleep, leaving her son in the car, it said.

Several people tried to contact Shouse until about 3 p.m., when her mother went to the apartment to check on her and the child, the court said. Shouse did not know where her son was, it said. The grandmother ran to the car and found her grandson, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

The jury at trial was instructed on wanton murder and, as a lesser included offense, second-degree manslaughter. The jury convicted Shouse of wanton murder, criminal abuse, wanton endangerment and possession of a controlled substance.

Noble said the jury should never have been instructed on the wanton murder charge due to the change in the homicide statute.

While Shouse's wanton murder conviction was vacated, she may still be retried for second-degree manslaughter, Noble said. The Supreme Court also reversed her conviction for first-degree wanton endangerment but upheld her conviction for second-degree criminal abuse.

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