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State v. Coburn

Supreme Court of Montana

October 9, 2018

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
COLETON CHRISTOS COBURN, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: May 30, 2018

          District Court of the First Judicial District, In and For the County of Lewis and Clark, Cause No. ADC 2015-271 Honorable Mike Menahan, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, Kristina L. Neal, Assistant Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Tammy A. Hinderman, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Leo J. Gallagher, Lewis and Clark County Attorney, Melissa Broch, Deputy County Attorney, Helena, Montana


          James Jeremiah Shea, Justice.

         ¶1 Defendant Coleton Christos Coburn appeals the sentence of the First Judicial District, Lewis and Clark County, sentencing him to the Montana State Prison (MSP) instead of committing him into the custody of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS).

         ¶2 We address the following issue on appeal:

Whether the District Court erred when it sentenced Coburn to prison and did not find that Coburn suffered from a mental disease, defect, or developmental disability that rendered him unable to appreciate the criminality of his behavior or to conform his behavior to the requirements of law.

We affirm.


         ¶3 On July 12, 2015, two-year-old P.N. was in the care of Coburn while her mother, Coburn's girlfriend, worked. When she left for work, P.N.'s mother observed P.N. was "not injured and was behaving normally." Coburn's roommate, Marla George, also observed P.N. prior to leaving the house and testified P.N. appeared physically fine, though P.N.'s eyes were puffy and red, as if she had been crying.

         ¶4 At 7:19 p.m., Coburn called P.N.'s mother to tell her that P.N. had a seizure. P.N. was transported to St. Peter's Hospital and then life-flighted to Spokane, where she died the next day. Medical personnel identified seventy discrete injuries on P.N.'s body, including skull fractures, bruising, abdominal injuries, and injuries to the genitals. An autopsy was performed, and the medical examiner concluded the cause of P.N.'s death was non-accidental blunt force head trauma.

         ¶5 When questioned about what happened, Coburn repeatedly changed his story. He initially stated P.N. had a seizure; then he later told authorities P.N. had fallen while climbing on a pile of boxes; later still, Coburn said he blacked out and fell down stairs while holding P.N. A search of Coburn's home revealed physical evidence that P.N.'s injuries were consistent with the medical examiner's conclusions and inconsistent with any of Coburn's versions of events.

         ¶6 Coburn's behavior at the hospital was also erratic. When confronted by a doctor who questioned Coburn's story as inconsistent with P.N.'s injuries, Coburn threatened to assault the doctor. While medical personnel attempted to revive P.N., Coburn stood nearby and placed a phone call. Coburn began yelling obscenities and was asked to leave. When he refused, a police officer forcibly escorted Coburn out and restrained him in a patrol car. When confronted by the fact that P.N. would likely not survive her injuries, Coburn told P.N.'s inconsolable mother not to be so upset because she would have another baby in a few months. Coburn admitted to drinking, smoking marijuana, and taking hydrocodone the day of P.N.'s death. Coburn's toxicology report showed a blood alcohol level of 0.06 and the presence of THC in his system.

         ¶7 On August 11, 2015, the State charged Coburn with Deliberate Homicide for causing P.N.'s death, Criminal Possession of Dangerous Drugs (marijuana), Criminal Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, and Obstructing a Peace Officer or Other Public Servant. On October 22, 2015, the State amended the Information to add the charge of Criminal Possession of Dangerous Drugs (methamphetamine). On December 18, 2015, Coburn entered an Alford[1] plea to the charge of Deliberate Homicide.[2] Pursuant to the plea agreement, both the State and Coburn recommended a life sentence. Coburn argued that he should be sentenced to DPHHS custody, pursuant to § 46-14-311, MCA, rather than to MSP. Coburn retained Natalie Brown, Ph.D. to determine whether he suffered from a mental disorder at the time of his offense that prevented him from conforming his conduct to the law. After Coburn provided the State with a copy of Dr. Brown's report, the State moved, pursuant to § 46-14-311(2), MCA, for a pre-sentence investigation and mental health evaluation to be performed by DPHHS. The District Court granted the State's motion, and the State transported Coburn to the Montana State Hospital (MSH), where he was housed, observed, and evaluated for a ninety-day period.

         ¶8 Following the ninety-day observation, the District Court held sentencing hearings on June 23, 2016, and July 14, 2016. On June 23, 2016, Montana State Hospital Staff Psychiatrist. Virginia Hill, M.D., testified at Coburn's sentencing hearing. Dr. Hill testified that Coburn suffered from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)[3] but opined that his FASD did not make him unable to conform to the law. Dr. Hill testified that, "[c]ertainly the etiology for some of Mr. Coburn's impulsive problems-the executive functioning problems-are related to his exposure to alcohol, cocaine, [and] cigarettes during utero."[4] Following observation of Coburn for ninety days at MSH, Dr. Hill, and the other medical personnel, confirmed additional diagnoses of ADHD, a number of substance abuse disorders, and antisocial personality disorder. However, Dr. Hill also concluded that Coburn is very high functioning. Dr. Hill testified that while Coburn's FASD contributed to the offense, she did "not think it was the primary factor in the tragedy that occurred. . . . If there had not been drugs and alcohol on board, I don't think this would have happened. . . . [b]ecause . . . that kind of behavior is not [Coburn's] usual daily response to stressors and crises." Dr. Hill concluded:

[B]ased on my interviews with Mr. Coburn, my reading of several other evaluators' assessment of type of crime behaviors, the court reports, I do not believe that the alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorder, or ADHD, symptoms were primarily responsible for what happened on that tragic night. . . . I instead attribute the . . . severe tragedy . . . primarily to the alcohol and drug use.

         ¶9 Dr. Hill credited being clean and sober, as well as a successful pharmacological regimen, with Coburn's progress and good behavior at the time he was transferred from MSH to court custody. Dr. Hill concluded that, because Coburn is very high functioning, he does not require the inpatient level of care ...

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