CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. —A Chambersburg woman’s text messages to her husband about his son’s deteriorating medical condition can be used as evidence at her trial on child abuse charges, an appellate court ruled recently.
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion Jan. 15 in the case of Michele Renae Hunter, who is charged with aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of children, simple assault and conspiracy. Her trial is on hold as the text messages issue is appealed.
Hunter, 28, allegedly sent more than 50 texts to her husband while he was at work on March 15 and 16, 2011. Those messages allegedly chronicled William Hunter’s 4-year-old son’s condition before he went into cardiac arrest, court documents state.
Michele Hunter’s stepson suffered a severe brain injury and bruising, court documents state. He is now in foster care, and his foster mother testified in November 2011 he cannot walk, talk, swallow food or communicate.
Michele Hunter allegedly told authorities a few different stories about what happened to the boy to cause the injuries, according to court documents.
Waynesboro, Pa., defense attorney Stephen Kulla appealed Court of Common Pleas Judge Richard J. Walsh’s decision that the texts between Michele Hunter and her husband, William, could be used as evidence. He argued the messages should remain confidential under spousal privilege.
Superior Court Judge Anne E. Lazarus wrote that spousal privilege was designed to preserve marital harmony by allowing spouses to confide in each other freely. However, she wrote Hunter “could not have reasonably expected her texts to remain confidential” because they had already been the subject of a Children & Youth Services hearing.
“We find no rational basis for not having a child abuse exception under (spousal privilege) as well. The lack of an exception (in that law) not only trivializes the import of child abuse, but fails to recognize that the effect of admitting these communications outweighs any benefit in upholding the sanctity of the spousal privilege,” the opinion states.
“Miss Hunter is aware of the decision and is contemplating her options,” Kulla said in an email when asked about the possibility of an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Lazarus writes about the court’s opinion having potentially far-reaching effects.
“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. Finally, creating a child abuse exception (to spousal privilege) will promote more effective prosecution of such cases, which also serves important public policies,” the opinion states.
William Hunter is charged with endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy. William Hunter’s trial is scheduled for March 11.