Appeals from the District Court of Laramie County The
Honorable Steven K. Sharpe, Judge
Appellant Dennis Larkins in Case Nos. S-17-0132, S-17-0133,
of the Public Defender: Diane M. Lozano, State Public
Defender; Kirk A. Morgan, Chief Appellate Counsel;
Christopher G. Humphrey, Assistant Appellate Counsel.
Argument by Mr. Humphrey.
Appellant Emily Larkins in Case Nos. S-17-0134,
of the Public Defender: Diane M. Lozano, State Public
Defender; Kirk A. Morgan, Chief Appellate Counsel. Argument
by Mr. Morgan.
Appellee State of Wyoming:
K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; Christyne M. Martens,
Deputy Attorney General; Caitlin F. Harper, Senior Assistant
Attorney General; Samuel L. Williams, Assistant Attorney
General. Argument by Mr. Williams.
DAVIS, C.J., and BURKE [*] , FOX, KAUTZ, and BOOMGAARDEN, JJ.
A jury convicted Dennis Larkins and Emily Larkins of multiple
counts of child abuse and one count of abuse of a vulnerable
adult. On appeal, they contend that the evidence was
insufficient as to some of the counts, that the district
court erred when it denied their motion for new trial based
on ineffective assistance of counsel, and that the prosecutor
committed misconduct during closing argument which warrants
reversal. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.
Mr. Larkins and Mrs. Larkins raise three interrelated issues
on appeal, which we rephrase:
1. Did the State present sufficient evidence:
a. that Mr. Larkins caused physical injury to J.K. and J.T.?
b. that Mr. Larkins and Mrs. Larkins caused mental injury to
J.T. and M.D.T.?
c. that Jesus Manzanares was a vulnerable adult?
2. Did the district court err when it denied the Larkins'
Rule 21 motions for a new trial?
3. Did the prosecutor commit misconduct during closing
argument which requires reversal?
Trial Proceedings and Relevant Testimony
Jesus Manzanares, M.D.T., J.T., and M.M.T. are the biological
children of Mrs. Larkins' sister, Laura Trujillo, who
lives in Colorado. Authorities in Colorado removed the minor
children from Ms. Trujillo and placed them with Mrs. Larkins
(M.D.T. in 1998; M.M.T. and J.T. in 2007). Jesus Manzanares
moved in with the Larkins in 2011. He turned 18 on January
25, 2012. Another child, J.K., and his mother, lived with the
Larkins for approximately six months in 2010 and
The Mental and Physical Injuries to J.T.
When they lived on 10th Street, Mr. Larkins and Mrs. Larkins
would punish J.T. by requiring him to hold onto the washer
and dryer while Mr. Larkins and Mrs. Larkins spanked him.
They would either use a "brown belt or the black
belt." Mrs. Larkins would use both belts to spank J.T.,
while Mr. Larkins would "sometimes" use the black
belt. When Mr. Larkins and Mrs. Larkins used the belts to
spank J.T., it would leave bruises on J.T.'s bottom,
back, and legs.
Occasionally, Mrs. Larkins would wet the belt with water
before hitting J.T. with it. Mrs. Larkins would also wrap the
belt around J.T.'s neck and lift him off the ground by
the belt. Mrs. Larkins would tighten the belt around
J.T.'s neck so that he could not breathe or talk, leaving
red marks on J.T.'s neck. At other times, both Mr.
Larkins and Mrs. Larkins would hit J.T. with a wooden
backscratcher as punishment. As with the belts, the
backscratcher would cause "dark bruises" on
J.T.'s bottom and legs. In addition to the beatings, both
Mr. Larkins and Mrs. Larkins would tell J.T. that they
"didn't want to see his face again, that he was
worthless, and that he wasn't part of the family."
In late April 2015, M.D.T. showed her school psychologist
some pictures of bruises on J.T.'s bottom that Mrs.
Larkins had inflicted with a belt the day before, at the 10th
Street address. The psychologist reported the abuse to
Jennifer Stowers, J.T.'s counselor, began seeing him in
September 2015 after he was removed from the Larkins'
home. As part of her examination, Ms. Stowers was "made
aware that there was some past trauma in his history,"
which included "physical abuse." J.T. talked with
her about "getting hit with a belt . . . [and] being
yelled at." Ms. Stowers diagnosed J.T. with
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), based on J.T.'s
"hypervigilance," "hyperalertness," and
"dissociation." This caused J.T. to have
"tantrums" where "he would go into his room
[at the foster home] and . . . start yelling out things, like
he wasn't feeling like he was loved and stuff like
that." The PTSD also caused J.T. to have a
"diminished interest in participation in significant
activities." During their sessions, J.T. would
"emotionally almost shut down" when Ms. Stowers
would try to discuss the abuse. During one session, J.T.
became upset because a mask he saw in the office's
playroom looked like Mr. Larkins. Ms. Stowers testified that,
notwithstanding J.T.'s PTSD, he generally "functions
normally," but that he was "emotionally . . . very
flat," and "not very good at expressing his
The Mental Injuries to M.D.T.
M.D.T. testified about witnessing Mr. Larkins and Mrs.
Larkins physically abuse her younger siblings and Jesus. Most
of the beatings M.D.T. witnessed occurred at the 10th Street
address. She recalled how they would beat J.T. on
"almost . . . a daily basis." She watched Mrs.
Larkins use a wet belt to whip J.T., and saw her use a belt
to choke J.T. She witnessed both Mr. Larkins and Mrs. Larkins
beat J.T. with the wooden backscratcher. M.D.T. saw the
bruises and welts these beatings left on J.T.'s bottom
and lower back. She remembered one occasion when she watched
Mr. Larkins beat J.T. with the backscratcher as J.T. screamed
for help. She characterized these episodes as "very
traumatizing." On one occasion, at the Merritt Road
house, M.D.T. tried to intervene while Mrs. Larkins was
choking J.T. with the belt, but Mrs. Larkins pushed M.D.T.
into a wall.
At the West Winds address, M.D.T. also watched the Larkins
spank her younger sister, M.M.T., and later saw the bruises
the beatings left on M.M.T. She also saw Mr. Larkins, at the
West Winds address, whip J.K. with a belt while he called for
help, leaving marks and bruises on J.K.'s back and behind
M.D.T. testified that once Mrs. Larkins choked her with her
hand. Both Mr. and Mrs. Larkins would also call her
"stupid" and "fat." These verbal attacks
made her feel "lonely," "worthless," and
"alone" to the point that she wanted to die. M.D.T.
lived with these feelings every day. Sometimes she would cope
by cutting herself or making herself throw up. Despite the
abuse she witnessed, M.D.T. was reluctant to tell anyone for
fear of losing the only family she had known.
After M.D.T. was removed from the Larkins' home, she
lived at the Cathedral Home in Laramie. Stacey Scholl, the
therapist at Cathedral Home, diagnosed M.D.T. with PTSD,
depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Ms. Scholl relied
on the reports of the abuse M.D.T. witnessed to diagnose her
with PTSD. Because of her mental illnesses, M.D.T. had a
difficult time "processing her emotions[, ] . . .
connecting with others, . . . [and] function[ing] at times
within her [social environment]."
The Abuse of Jesus Manzanares
Jesus was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. He has a
hole in his spine and water on his brain. When he was
younger, he had to have his right foot amputated. He has a
shunt from his brain to his stomach and uses a wheelchair to
get around. He also suffers from anxiety and attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In approximately 2011, when he was 17 years old, Jesus went
to live with the Larkins in Cheyenne. Because of his
disabilities, when Jesus would have particularly bad bowel
movements, he would need help cleaning up, but did not ask
Mr. Larkins or Mrs. Larkins for help because he "already
knew what [the] answer was going to be." Jesus'
grandmother testified that Jesus "has a hard time . . .
doing things for himself."
M.D.T. testified that she would help Jesus clean himself. The
Larkins, however, refused to help Jesus clean himself.
Instead, they would get "extremely angry" at Jesus
and call him "worthless" and "crippled."
While in the basement at the Merritt Road house, M.D.T. saw
Mrs. Larkins pull Jesus out of his wheelchair and beat him
with her hands. Later that day, after Mr. Larkins returned
home, he told Jesus that he was "worthless."
On another occasion in the basement, Mrs. Larkins pushed
Jesus to the ground for having a bowel movement on the couch.
Jesus had another bowel movement in the garage and Mr.
Larkins and Mrs. Larkins made him wash his clothes in the
garage sink by hand without any gloves, while they berated
him and told him that he was "sickening." Mr.
Larkins also "knocked" him on his head because of
his occasional incontinence.
The Physical Abuse of J.K.
J.K. and his mother lived with the Larkins at the West Winds
address for approximately six months in 2010 and 2011.
J.K.'s mother gave Mr. Larkins permission to discipline
J.K. while she was at work. Mr. Larkins obliged and would
punish J.K. for not doing his chores or for being
disrespectful to Mrs. Larkins. As punishment, Mr. Larkins
would require J.K. to get in the "front-lean rest
position," a push-up position J.K. was required to hold
with his arms extended until Mr. Larkins allowed him to stop.
In January 2011, while being punished this way, J.K. could
not hold the position because of an unrelated shoulder
injury. As further punishment, Mr. Larkins used a belt to
whip J.K. on his back and punched him on the side of the
head. The belt left bruises on J.K.'s back and Mr.
Larkins' hand left a mark on the side of J.K.'s head.
The next day at school, J.K. reported the abuse to the school
nurse and to Deputy Michael Poteet of the Laramie County
Sheriff's Office. Deputy Poteet took pictures of
J.K.'s injuries. Mr. Larkins was arrested shortly after,
but the Laramie County District Attorney's Office
dismissed the charges for insufficient evidence. The State
refiled this charge against Mr. Larkins after the other
children came forward with their accounts of abuse in the
The Recordings of Mr. Larkins' and Mrs. Larkins'
Interviews with Detective Johnson
Detective Zach Johnson of the Cheyenne Police Department
interviewed separately Mrs. Larkins and Mr. Larkins during
his investigation of the abuse allegations. Those interviews
were played, without objection, to the jury. Mr. Larkins'
interview, conducted at the Cheyenne Police Department, was a
video recording, while Mrs. Larkins' interview was
conducted at her home and was an audio
The State played Mr. Larkins' interview first. In it,
Detective Johnson repeatedly asked Mr. Larkins if he thought
the children were lying. Mr. Larkins said that he did. He
also told Detective Johnson, "Have I thought of beating
their a** until bloody? Yes, I have. . . . Have I? No."
When the conversation turned to the phrase "reasonable
corporal punishment," Detective Johnson told Mr. Larkins
that it meant "legal punishment," "physical,
spanking, things like that," to which Mr. Larkins
responded: "We'll beat their a**, yeah . . . .
We'll spank their a**, we'll beat their a**,
yeah." Mr. Larkins clarified, however, that he meant
only with their hands.
During the interview, Detective Johnson stated that "I
don't have a dog in this fight," and that he was
only "the finder of fact." He also stated that he
did not "want to have to tell [the people he has to
report to] . . . we have this evidence, but [Mr. Larkins] and
[Mrs. Larkins] said no, that never happened." At the end
of the interview, when Detective Johnson discussed the
backscratcher and some earlier statements Mr. Larkins had
made regarding the backscratcher, Mr. Larkins stated,
"We have a lawyer for that," and ended the
In both interviews, Detective Johnson discussed how all the
children were forensically interviewed. He asserted that:
I'm also trained in forensic interview[s]. I didn't
do these forensic interviews . . . but I'm actually
trained in them too. And you can tell when the kids have been
coached as opposed to when they actually have contextual
details [inaudible] to things that have happened, because
they'll be able to say, yes, this happened but they
won't be able to describe it. They won't be able to
give things around it. So there's no signs of coaching or
anything like that. So that's why -- they're credible
statements from the children.
There's 20 some thousand research articles by
psychiatrists and people like that, people way smarter than
I'll ever be, that research forensic interviewing of
children that actually show forensic interview of a child is
more credible than a statement from you or me as an adult
because of how the information is gathered.
In addition, during her interview, Mrs. Larkins referenced
"the whole civil stuff with the DA's office"
and that she had a separate attorney for that matter. Towards
the middle of the interview, Mrs. Larkins also stated,
"this is where I'd like my lawyer." However,
she then immediately told Detective Johnson that they could
keep talking, and the interview continued.
After the State played Mr. Larkins' interview, and while
it was playing Mrs. Larkins' interview, the district
court, outside the presence of the jury, voiced its concerns
about some of the statements contained in the interviews. The
court observed that, in both interviews, Detective Johnson
appeared to be vouching for the children's credibility,
and that, in Mr. Larkins' interview, the jury heard him
request counsel and "invoke . . . his right to remain
silent." Both Mr. Larkins' and Mrs. Larkins'
counsel told the court that they had reviewed the recordings,
identified those issues, and had decided that they would not
object to playing the recordings. Mr. Larkins' counsel
stated that she "thought there were a lot of good things
that came out for us on that video." Similarly, Mrs.
Larkins' counsel told the court that she wanted the
recording played because it helped establish that Mrs.
Larkins' defense-that these incidents did not happen-had
been consistent from the beginning.
The district court then asked each defense counsel if they
wished to have the court issue a limiting instruction about
some of the objectionable material in the recordings. Neither
counsel requested a limiting instruction because they did not
want to draw further attention to the objectionable material.
In fall 2015, after M.D.T. had reported the abuse of J.T. in
late April 2015, the State charged Mr. Larkins with one count
of causing physical injury to J.K, in Docket No. 32-780.
Then, in Docket No. 32-782, the State charged Mr. Larkins
with two counts of physical injury to J.T., one count of
mental injury to J.T., one count of physical injury to
M.M.T., one count of mental injury to M.M.T., one count of
mental injury to M.D.T, and one count of abuse of a
vulnerable adult regarding Jesus. In Docket No. 32-781, the
State charged Mrs. Larkins with three counts of physical
injury to J.T., one count of mental injury to J.T., one count
of physical injury to M.M.T., one count of mental injury to
M.M.T., one count of mental injury to M.D.T., and one count
of abuse of a vulnerable adult.
The State moved, without objection, to join all three dockets
for trial. The district court granted the State's motion,
all three dockets were joined, and they proceeded to trial
together. Towards the close of the evidence at trial, with no
objection, the State moved to amend the Information to
clarify the specific acts that it alleged constituted the
physical injury to J.T. The district court granted the
request. Thus, the charges, as they were submitted to the
jury, other than those regarding M.M.T.,  were:
Mr. Larkins: two counts of physical injury caused
between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014: with the black
belt and with the backscratcher.
Mrs. Larkins: three counts of physical injury: one
with the belt and one of choking him with the belt between
January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014; and one unspecified
count for injuries inflicted on April 19, 2015.
Both: one count of mental injury caused between
January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2015.
Mr. Larkins: one count of physical injury caused on
January 13, 2011.
Both: one count of mental injury caused between
January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2015.
Both: one count of abuse of a vulnerable adult
caused between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014.
information regarding the charges and testimony relevant to
these charges is discussed below.
Verdict and Sentence
The jury convicted Mr. Larkins of two counts of physical
abuse of J.T., one count of mental abuse of J.T., one count
of mental abuse of M.D.T., one count of abuse of a vulnerable
adult, and one count of physical abuse of J.K. The jury
convicted Mrs. Larkins of three counts of physical abuse of
J.T., one count of mental abuse of J.T., one count of mental
abuse of M.D.T., and one count of abuse of a vulnerable
adult. The district court sentenced Mr. Larkins to between
three and five years in prison on each count. It ordered
three counts to run concurrently, and ordered the remainder
to also run concurrently, but suspended the remainder in
favor of five years of probation to start after he served his
imposed sentence. Thus, Mr. Larkins received an imposed
sentence of three to five years in prison, with a consecutive
term of probation for five years. The district court
sentenced Mrs. Larkins to three concurrent sentences of
between 18 and 36 months in prison, and three concurrent
sentences of three to five years in prison. The former
sentences were imposed, while the latter were suspended in
favor of five years of probation.
Both Larkins timely appealed the district court's
judgments and sentences.