A man serving a life sentence for the murder of his four-year-old stepson will remain in prison after the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in a case of first impression that he had starved the boy to death, regardless of whether he completely deprived the boy of food and drink.
After a bench trial in 2017, a Gaston County judge found Thomas Allen Cheeks guilty of first-degree murder by starving and negligent child abuse in the death of his stepson, Malachi Golden.
Cheeks raised several arguments on appeal: that he had no legal duty to feed Malachi, that there was no proof the boy died of starvation, and that he could not be convicted of starving Malachi to death since he had provided the boy with at least some food and water.
But Judge Donna Stroud, writing for a unanimous Court of Appeals panel in an Oct. 1 opinion, rejected each of those arguments.
“Charges of murder by starvation are rare; this is an unusual case, and the trial court handled it carefully,” Stroud wrote.
Stroud said that if Cheeks’ argument that there must be a “legal duty” to feed to support a conviction of murder by starvation were correct, then a defendant who shuts his victim into a locked room with no food or water or way to escape must first have an independent “legal duty” to provide food to the victim before he could be convicted of murder by starving.
“This is not the law,” Stroud wrote, and, moreover, the evidence showed that Cheeks took care of Malachi about 80 percent of the time.
“As a four-year old child with developmental delays, Malachi depended entirely upon defendant and his mother for all of his needs, including food and water, and, by their own testimony, both were fully aware of his dependency upon them,” Stroud wrote. “That fact that Malachi was wasting away would have been obvious, and [Cheeks] conceded that he was Malachi’s primary caretaker for the last months of his life. But he took no action to seek medical assistance or to provide more sustenance to him.”
Cheeks also argued that there was no evidence that Malachi starved to death, citing other factors, such as his genetic abnormalities, seizures, and other abuse by Cheek himself. He claimed that a medical examiner “unequivocally testified that the cause of Malachi’s death was asphyxia due to strangulation,” not starvation.
But that testimony was based solely upon Cheeks’ statements to police that he had strangled the child, Stroud wrote. An autopsy revealed that Malachi had died from malnutrition and dehydration.
Cheeks also contended that since he did feed the boy at least some food, his conviction should be overturned.
The judge who presided over Cheeks’ trial had relied on a 1987 North Carolina Supreme Court decision, State v. Evangelista to provide a legal definition of “starvation.” In that case, the defendant was convicted of murder after he held his young nephew hostage in a train car, where the boy died of dehydration. Even though Evangelista was not convicted under a theory of starvation, the Supreme Court held that death from the deprivation of liquids or food “necessary in the nourishment of the human body” may amount to starvation.
“We have been unable to find any support in the law for defendant’s argument that murder by starvation requires the complete denial of all food or water (or both) for a certain period of time,” Stroud wrote. “We conclude that the state need not prove a complete deprivation of food; rather, starving can mean death from the deprivation of liquids or food necessary in the nourishment of the human body.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice could not be reached for comment. Assistant Appellate Defender Daniel Shaatz represented Cheeks. He could not be reached for comment.
The 52-page opinion is State v. Cheeks (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-261-19.) The text of the full opinion can be found at nclawyersweekly.com.
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