Emily S. Wilbanks, The Murder Rule that Just Won’t Die: The Abolished Year-And-A-Day Rule Continues to Haunt the Florida Courts

60 Fla. L. Rev. 735 (2008) | | | |

INTRODUCTION :: On October 21, 1986, a two-month-old baby girl was admitted to a hospital in Pasco County, Florida. Baby Christina Ann Wells was unresponsive, was suffering from seizures, and needed assistance to breathe. Doctors observed large bruises on Christina’s head, including thumbprints on her tiny face. She had broken ribs, and the soft spot on her skull was noticeably bulging. Doctors likened some of Christina’s injuries to those commonly seen in drowning victims. However, Christina had not drowned; doctors determined that Christina’s bruises and the swelling on her brain were caused either by being shaken or by having her oxygen supply blocked. The injuries left baby Christina permanently blind, deaf, and brain damaged.

Christina’s parents admitted later that they spanked, slapped, and shook the baby when she would not stop crying. Christina’s mother, Tina Marie Wells, admitted to placing her hand over her daughter’s mouth, and Christina’s father, Christopher Michael Wells, admitted to slapping and juggling the baby and to clasping his hand over her mouth to stop the crying. Tina, only eighteen years old at the time of the offense, was charged with one count of aggravated child abuse and one count of negligent treatment of a child. Christopher, nineteen years old at the time of the offense, was charged with two counts of aggravated child abuse and one count of negligent treatment of a child. Christopher was also charged with attempted murder, but that charge was dropped when the couple accepted a plea bargain and agreed to plead no contest to the abuse charges. Tina was sentenced to three years in prison and Christopher to five.

After serving their sentences, Tina and Christopher Wells returned home to New Port Richey, Florida, and successfully petitioned the courts to regain custody of their three other children. In May 2005, Tina and Christopher went to Christina’s adoptive home to visit her for the first time in nineteen years, perhaps in an effort to seek forgiveness for their acts of so long ago. On March 15, 2006, Christina died nearly twenty years after she was shaken as a two- month-old infant. The medical examiner deemed the cause of death “homicide due to complications of blunt force trauma.” The injuries sustained in 1986 were, according to the medical examiner, the trauma that eventually caused Christina’s death. In late October 2006, shock waves rippled through the Tampa Bay area when Christopher Wells was indicted for Christina’s murder.

Christopher’s defense attorneys responded with what one local newspaper called “an eyebrow-raising answer to the indictment.” The defense argued that Christina’s death was not a crime. Relying on a common-law doctrine known as the year-and-a-day rule, the defense asserted that the rule precludes a murder charge when the victim does not die within a year and a day after the infliction of a fatal injury. The wrinkle, however, is that the Florida legislature abolished the year-and-a-day rule in 1988, before Christina’s death but after the injury was inflicted. The question now looms: Does the year-and-a-day rule apply in a situation like this?

The dilemma faced by the Florida court in addressing the question raised in the Wells case was inevitable. The same advances in medical technology that rendered the year-and-a-day rule obsolete in the first place have made it possible for victims suffering from injuries inflicted prior to 1988 to live well beyond the common-law limitation and into an age where the year-and-a-day rule no longer applies. Should a defendant like Wells be allowed to invoke a defense to murder that was eliminated before the death occurred but after the injury was inflicted? In determining whether to allow Wells and others in his situation to use the year-and-a- day rule, Florida courts will likely examine the statutory language abrogating the year-and-a-day rule and will be required to address ex post facto concerns related to retroactively applying the rule’s abolition. The outcome will lay the foundation for future application of the year-and-a-day rule in Florida and will perhaps provide some guidance to other jurisdictions that will undoubtedly face this dilemma.

This Note examines the strange history of the year-and-a-day rule from the rule’s birth to its death and then to its unexpected resurrection. In the process, this Note discusses the approach that other courts have taken to problems similar to those arising in the Wells case and sheds light on the course that the Florida courts may take on this bizarre issue.

This Note presents the Wells case only as an illustration of the legal issues entwined with the abolition of the year-and-a-day rule. Specifically, the Wells case shows how, once abolished, the rule managed to find its way back into the Florida courts on an ex post facto argument. It seems certain that the year-and-a-day rule will not go down without a fight in Florida, and the rule will remain at the center of litigation in many other jurisdictions.

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