A Pima County man serving 20 years in prison for child abuse was granted a new trial by the Arizona Court of Appeals on Friday, in what could be the third time a jury is asked to determine whether Peter John Schmidtfranz caused a toddler’s permanent brain injury in 2015.
The Feb. 26 unanimous appellate decision authored by Presiding Judge Karl Eppich overturns Schmidtfranz’s conviction and sentence after a review in which the three-judge panel considered the facts “in the light most favorable to sustaining the jury’s verdict.”
Schmidtfranz, 43, was convicted in 2018 of felony child abuse after his girlfriend’s two-year-old son was found unresponsive in his bed on Nov. 29, 2015. He must now wait to see whether the Arizona Attorney General’s Office asks the Arizona Supreme Court to review the new trial order.
Court records show Schmidtfranz and the boy’s mother were the only other people in the home when the boy was injured. The two had been dating only a few weeks and Schmidtfranz was staying in the home.
The decision notes the mother testified Schmidtfranz was alone in a room with the boy at bedtime when she heard a loud noise, similar to a door slamming, and heard her son crying. She also testified Schmidtfranz did not want her in the room, but when she later went in to give the boy a bottle she found him unresponsive. She then called 911.
Schmidtfranz left the residence before emergency personnel arrived but he returned later. His first trial ended in a mistrial. He went on trial again in the summer of 2018, and one of his defenses was that the mother could have caused the boy’s injuries, which according to the Pima County Attorney’s Office left the boy with only 60 percent of normal functioning.
During the second trial jurors the prosecutor with the Pima County Attorney’s Office showed jurors a video of the mother interacting with her son one week before his injury. The video was presented as evidence that the mother was a loving parent and therefore should not be considered a possible suspect as Schmidtfranz suggested.
The prosecutor also commented to the jury about the mother’s character, stating “she loved that little boy and she would never do anything to hurt him.” The jury convicted Schmidtfranz of one count of child abuse which led to a 20-year prison term with no possibility of early release.
Jurors saw the video over the objection of Schmidtfranz’s defense counsel, who argued it was inadmissible under court rules. The appellate decision agrees, finding the trial judge erred in allowing the video to be admitted as circumstantial evidence that the mother could not have been culpable for the brain injury because she acted appropriately with the boy a week earlier.
“Having concluded the trial court erred in admitting the video evidence, we next consider whether the error was harmless,” the appellate decision states. “The state has the burden of proving harmless error, id., and it has not sustained its burden here.”
The decision also notes the trial judge erred by not properly vetting allegations the jury heard that suggested Schmidtfranz committed other abuse against the boy for which he was not prosecuted. This included a daycare worker’s report to Arizona Child Protective Services (now the Department of Child Services) earlier in November 2015 that the boy had bruises on his thigh and under his chin, as well as a black eye and a split lip.
Schmidtfranz’s attorney had pointed out the mother’s statements to investigators were inconsistent and changed when she learned welfare officials were concerned about the boy’s care. For instance, she initially did not mention hearing a “thump” noise while Schmidtfranz was in the room with the boy. She also initially failed to tell police she had asked Schmidtfranz to leave so he could remove marijuana from the house before emergency responders arrived.
If the new trial ruling stands, then Schmidtfranz is expected back in court this summer to schedule the third trial. For now he remains at the Arizona State Prison Complex – Eyman in Florence where he has been assigned porter duties and has worked in the bakery.