Appeals court upholds conviction of Roy childcare worker found guilty to killing infant in 2014

SALT LAKE CITY — A state appeals court has struck down the appeal of a former Roy childcare provider convicted of killing an infant in 2014.

The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction of Tisha Lynn Morley, 38, whom a jury found guilty of child abuse homicide after a weeks-long trial in 2017.

Photo Supplied, Weber County Jail

Morley was convicted of killing 8-month-old Lincoln Penland after the child died from multiple injuries at a Roy day care facility where Morley worked. Prosecutors argued that Morley violently shook the child and slammed his head on a changing table with enough force to cause the table to crack.

Jurors had the ability to convict Morley of a lesser crime, negligent homicide, but instead chose to convict her of child abuse homicide, a first-degree felony. Morley was sentenced to a term of five years to life in a Utah state prison.

According to the court’s opinion, which was made public Thursday, Morley appealed the conviction on the basis that she received ineffective assistance of counsel.

She argued that her attorneys failed to object to the testimony of an expert witness called by prosecutors and a video of a child trying to pick up a CPR doll. She asked the appeals court to either direct the Ogden district court to reduce her conviction to a negligent homicide charge or award her a brand new trial. The appeals court did neither.

On Feb. 19, 2014, the infant was dropped off at Morley’s in-home daycare and “was his normal self, smiling, happy, playful,” according to Penland’s mother.

Morley testified that she left the child on a mat near a handful of children under the age of four, including Penland’s older brother, while she went to another room of the home to disinfect toys. She claimed that the children were unsupervised for around 20 minutes, and when she came back Penland was crying uncontrollably and would not take a nap, according to the court’s opinion.

When the father of the two picked up the children around 5 p.m., Lincoln Penland was unresponsive and cold to the touch. After being rushed to the hospital, a CAT scan found that the infant had a severe skull fracture and other injuries. Lincoln Penland died three days later.

An autopsy of the child revealed significant bruising throughout the child’s body and bleeding in both eyes. The medical examiner later concluded that the child’s injuries were consistent with child abuse and abusive head trauma.

Police began to investigate, and spoke to a child, who was not interviewed initially, who claimed that Penland’s brother had “picked up Victim with one hand, threw him down, kicked him, slammed his head in a door, and jumped on him,” according to the court’s opinion.

Police later tired to corroborate the child’s claim, investigators took a CPR doll and stuffed it full of weights to equal what Penland weighed at the time of his death. Investigators then made a video of Penland’s brother trying to pick up the doll. Because the child could only pick up the doll a few inches off the ground, investigators concluded that the child would not have been able to inflict the fatal injuries.

Morley’s defense counsel focused much of their case on the theory that Penland’s brother had inflicted the injuries rather than Morley.

The video of the child and the CPR doll was one of the points of contention raised in the appeal. Morley argued that her attorneys should have objected to the use of the video, and claimed “these exhibits were irrelevant or, alternatively, substantially more prejudicial than probative.”

The other argument raised in Morley’s appeal was in regards to a biomechanical engineer who testified in regards to the force necessary to cause the injuries inflicted upon the child. During the trial, the engineer testified that the child’s brain hematomas were likely caused by “one event.” Prosecutors said this testimony supported their story that Morley slammed the child against a changing table, causing an injury to the child’s brain.

During a cross-examination, Morley’s attorneys emphasized that the engineer had no medical experience nor had the engineer examined the cracked changing table where prosecutors said Morley inflicted the fatal blow to the child. Her attorneys also pointed out that the engineer had never been involved with a child abuse homicide case prior to the trial.

Morley argued in her appeal that her attorneys were negligent when they did not object to the engineer’s testimony.

In both arguments made alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, the court concluded that Morley had not established that her attorneys acted with prejudice, which is the burden of proof needed to prove ineffective counsel.

Thus, her conviction was affirmed.