Criminal Justice

Use of incriminating text messages between spouses as evidence is upheld by state appeals court

A Pennsylvania appeals court has upheld a lower court’s ruling that incriminating text messages between a husband and wife may be used as evidence in the woman’s child abuse trial.

The court, in a unanimous three-judge opinion, said that because the texts are being used in ongoing child abuse proceedings involving the woman and the child, the woman could not have had a reasonable expectation that her communications would remain confidential, the Legal Intelligencer reports.

“This holding not only modernizes the antiquated notion of preserving marital harmony above all else, but reinforces the significant purpose of protecting children from abuse and promoting the reporting of such abuse,” Judge Anne E. Lazarus wrote (PDF) for the court.

The defendant, Michele Renae Hunter, is accused of brutally beating her 4-year-old stepson, Billy. Hunter and her husband, William, who is charged with endangering the welfare of a child, allegedly exchanged 119 text messages over a two-day period before Billy saw a doctor, Public Opinion reported. Many of the messages dealt with the boy’s worsening medical condition.

Billy suffered a severe brain injury that led to cardiopulmonary arrest, and is likely to suffer lasting brain damage, the court wrote.

A Franklin County judge ruled last year that the spousal communications privilege does not apply in criminal child abuse cases. He said Michele Hunter had no expectation of privacy in the texts because they would have been admissible in hearings before state child welfare officials.

Michele Hunter’s lawyer, Stephen D. Kulla, said his client is “contemplating” her options, including a possible appeal to the state supreme court.

Prosecutors did not respond to a call seeking comment.

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