The Arkansas Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld Victoria Pedraza’s 20-year prison sentence and order requiring her to register as a sex offender for permitting the abuse that led to her two-year-old daughter’s death.
Though Pedraza did not commit a crime that was sexual in nature, Arkansas law defines the crime to which she pleaded guilty (permitting abuse of a minor) as a sex offense.
The 24-year-old Drew County woman and her husband, Daniel, were charged with capital murder and permitting abuse in 2012 after Pedraza’s daughter Aubriana Coke died of multiple blunt force injuries. Pedraza later pleaded guilty to permitting the abuse and agreed to testify against her husband.
At Pedraza’s sentencing trial, there was some discussion about whether she was required to register as a sex offender or whether the Circuit Court Judge Bynum Gibson had discretion in the matter. Gibson instructed the attorneys to file briefs on the issue. The prosecution filed a brief explaining that Arkansas law defines the crime to which Pedraza pleaded guilty (permitting abuse of a minor) as a sex offense and state law says the judge “shall” order the offender to register as a sex offender.
Gibson agreed with the prosecution and concluded that he lacked the discretion to decide whether Pedraza should be registered as a sex offender.
Pedraza subsequently filed a motion to prevent the judgment from requiring her registration as a sex offender. She argued that the law was vague and overbroad because it doesn’t specify that only those who commit crimes involving sex need to register. She further argued that because all crimes under the statute trigger the requirement to register as a sex offender, the sex-offender registration statute was over-inclusive, improper, and violated her constitutional rights.
Gibson denied Pedraza’s motion, explaining that the law is “explicit” that permitting abuse of a minor is a sex offense and that sex-offender registration is mandatory.
Pedraza appealed the decision to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, arguing that the Sex Offender Registration Act is ambiguous because it was intended to protect the public from sex abuse and should not apply to her.
Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Brandon J. Harrison agreed that Gibson had no choice but require Pedraza to register as a sex offender. He noted that while the law at issue is commonly referred to as the “Sex Offender Registration Act”, it was intended to establish a system of registration for sexually violent predators, sex offenders and child offenders. “So Pedraza is incorrect that the statute was intended to protect the public only from sex offenders,” Harrison said.
Harrison said the issue raised by Pedraza was previously addressed by a Supreme Court justice, but the Arkansas Legislature has not amended the statute. “The legislature is presumed to be familiar with the appellate courts’ interpretation of its statutes, and it can amend a statute if it disagrees with those interpretations; absent such an amendment, the interpretation of the statute remains the law,” Harrison wrote.
Pedraza also contended that Gibson engaged in inappropriate conduct during her sentencing trial by
conducting his own investigation, questioning witnesses, making objections, and commenting on the evidence throughout the trial. She further claimed that Gibson was biased against her and the jury was influenced by his bias.
She also claimed that the Gibson based his evidentiary rulings on his own investigation as well as evidence from her husband’s murder trial.
“Having reviewed the lengthy record, we note that most of the judge’s remarks that Pedraza complains about were made out of the hearing of the jury, and none of the comments were so egregious as to warrant reversal,” Harrison wrote. “It is accurate to state that (Gibson) took an active superintending role in this child-death case. But in the context of the entire case, we are not persuaded that the court committed reversible error.”
Harrison also pointed out that Pedraza failed to mention in her appeal that Gibson gave the following curative instruction as part of the jury instructions: “I’ve not intended by anything I’ve said or done, or by any questions that I may have asked to intimate or suggest what you should find to be the facts, or that I believe or disbelieve any witness who testified. If anything I have done or said has seemed to so indicate, you will disregard it.”
That instruction, Harrison said, “cuts against any argument that Pedraza was prejudiced by the court’s actions. Therefore, we hold that Pedraza has demonstrated no reversible error on this point.”
Pedraza further argued that Gibson should have recused because he was biased against her. She said Gibson’s “attitude, facial expressions and comments” contributed to her receiving the maximum 20-year sentence.
The State argued that Pedraza failed to preserve that issue for appeal because she did not file a motion for Gibson to recuse during the trial. The State also contended that the instances of alleged bias Pedraza points to do not establish that the court’s conduct “impugned the weight of the evidence or the credibility of the witnesses.” Even if Pedraza had preserved the judicial-bias issue, she did not show that Gibson’s remarks demanded a recusal.
The Arkansas Court of Appeals agreed. “Pedraza did not move the court to recuse based on its actions during the sentencing trial, of which she was certainly aware,” Harrison wrote.
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Jury selection for Pedraza trial starts Thursday (pretrial feature with photos)