The Montana Supreme Court has reversed the aggravated assault conviction of Jasmine Eskew regarding the death of her infant daughter in Great Falls in September of 2012.
Eskew was sentenced by Judge Dirk Sandefur in 2014 to five years with the Montana Department of Corrections; she is currently in the pre-release center in Billings.
The Montana Supreme Court said on Tuesday that Eskew’s confession and admissions made to Great Falls police detectives were coerced and not made voluntarily and therefore should not have been admitted as evidence in the 2014 jury trial in Cascade County District Court.
Eskew was acquitted of deliberate homicide, and convicted on the lesser included offense of assault on a minor.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled 4-2 that Eskew's confession and other admissions to Great Falls police detectives were coerced.
The two dissenting Justices argued that officers did act appropriately in obtaining the confession.
Deputy Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki says his office has not yet decided whether they will retry Eskew on the assault charge.
She has served nearly two and a half years of the sentence and was given credit for 613 days already served when her sentence was handed down.
We will update you as we get more information.
Here is a summary of the court's ruling:
During a long interrogation the officers repeatedly told Eskew that proper answers to their questions were essential to ensure proper medical care for her daughter. They also told her that upon conclusion of the interrogation she would be reunited with her daughter. Eskew repeatedly denied shaking her baby or inflicting any other injury upon her, but after repeatedly being told that her answers were jeopardizing her daughter’s medical care, she told officers that she had shaken her daughter.
The District Court judge determined that the detectives had misrepresented to Eskew that the purpose of the interview was to facilitate medical care for the child, when in reality the purpose of the interview was to facilitate a criminal investigation. However, the District Court concluded that the interview was not unduly coercive.
A majority of the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that there is every indication that Eskew underwent the interrogation believing she would be reunited with her daughter at the hospital. The Supreme Court reversed the District Court, holding that the fundamental misunderstanding of what was happening was based upon lies that precluded Eskew from understanding the situation and the significance of her answers to the police. The Supreme Court ruled that the involuntary statements that Eskew made during the interrogation should not have been used in the trial, reversed her conviction, and sent the case back for a new trial.
Justice McKinnon and District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht, sitting for Justice Patricia Cotter, dissented. The dissent maintained the trial record supported the District Court’s determination that: (1) Eskew was given adequate Miranda warnings; (2) she understood the warnings; and (3) there were no representations by law enforcement that were untrue, contradicted the Miranda warnings, or rendered Eskew’s statements involuntary. Further, the dissent recognized that it was the dual responsibility of law enforcement to obtain a history for medical providers regarding the mechanism of injury, particularly when a nonverbal infant has been critically injured, and to conduct a criminal investigation.
The officers’ demeanor was polite and soft-spoken, although the officers were persistent in their belief that Eskew was being untruthful. Finally, the dissent maintained that the Supreme Court substituted its judgment for that of the trial judge.
Absent a clearly erroneous factual finding, the determination of whether a confession is voluntary is committed to the discretion of the trial court pursuant to this Court’s standard of review. The dissent would affirm the trial court’s decision to allow the jury to decide the ultimate question of voluntariness and the weight to be attributed to Eskew’s statements, if any.