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How About We Don't Charge Women Who Have Stillbirths With Murder?
California judge dismisses murder charges against Chelsea Becker
Yesterday, a judge in California dismissed murder charges against Chelsea Becker, for having a stillborn baby.
Prosecutors had argued the baby died because Becker, who struggles with addiction, caused the stillbirth by ingesting meth during her pregnancy, but Kings County Superior Court Judge Robert Shane Burns ruled that they hadn't presented any evidence that Becker knew when she took the drugs that doing so could kill her baby.
The outcome is right. Pregnancy should not be criminalized.
But, unfortunately, this is not the end of the bigger fight.
In September 2019, Chelsea Becker, then 26 and nearly 9 months pregnant, delivered a stillborn son. After she gave birth to Zachariah Joseph Campos, at Adventist Health hospital in Hanford, California (near Fresno), hospital workers who thought she might have used drugs while she was pregnant alerted the Kings County Coroner's office.
Two months later, prosecutors charged Becker with murder, citing an autopsy report that Zachariah had "toxic levels of methamphetamine in his system." The court set her bail at $5 million.
Becker sat in jail for more than a year before eventually being transferred to a drug treatment center earlier this year. (After the ruling, Becker's lawyers said she would be staying at the treatment facility for now.)
On Thursday, Judge Burns ruled from the bench that prosecutors had failed to prove Becker acted with malice, a requirement in a murder charge, because they presented no evidence that Becker knew using meth while she would pregnant would kill her baby.
According to Lynn Paltrow from National Advocates for Pregnant women, one of Becker's lawyers, that's because there actually is no medical or scientific basis for saying meth causes stillbirths. And in Becker's case, during her pregnancy she had also had three reproductive tract infections during her pregnancy that could have caused the baby's death.
Rather, this is an attempt to "polic[e] pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes in general." Paltrow celebrated the dismissal but noted that Judge Burns had left the door open for future prosecutions of pregnant women.
"This is such an important victory," Lynn Paltrow ... said Thursday. "We are so grateful that Chelsea Becker was willing to fight this egregious charge to try to ensure that no one else has to face a murder charge for experiencing a stillbirth."
Still, she said, the outcome was slightly bittersweet.
"This prosecution based on a misinterpretation of state law resulted in somebody being deprived of her liberty and exposed to the real danger of COVID for 16 months of her life," she said. "This cost taxpayers innumerable dollars in terms of the incarceration as well as all of the time to pay for the prosecution in this case, money that could have been used to improve access to healthcare in their community."
So why the fuck is this happening?
In 1970, the California Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Robert Harrison Keeler. Keeler had been found guilty of murder after he badly beat his ex-wife, trying and succeeding at killing the baby she was having with another man.
In response the California legislature added fetuses to its murder law, with the intention of being able to charge people who attack pregnant people. The law included an exception for abortion, saying it does not apply to acts "solicited, aided, abetted, or consented to by the mother of the fetus[.]"
That language would seem to preclude prosecutions against women like Chelsea Becker. Unfortunately, however, the California Supreme Court has never explicitly ruled that you can't prosecute someone for losing a baby.
So initially Judge Burns sided with the DA, allowing the case to proceed. And when he dismissed the case against Becker, Judge Burns also made it clear that the case was being dismissed because of a lack of evidence, not because the law was being improperly applied.
Becker's nightmare isn't over yet. The prosecution can still appeal the ruling or request a new preliminary hearing. According to executive assistant district attorney Phil Esbenshade, Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes, the asshole who chose to prosecute her in the first place, "will review the record and the transcript of Thursday's proceedings before deciding how to move forward."
Fagundes also said he disagreed with the court's ruling.
"It is the opinion of our office that sufficient evidence was presented at the preliminary hearing to hold Ms. Becker to answer for trial," he wrote in an email. "The judge who presided over that preliminary examination, upon hearing that evidence and considering arguments from both sides, did find such sufficient evidence existed. Judge Burns, the judge who dismissed the case this morning, apparently disagrees with that finding."
So it's very possible that Fagundes will keep trying to throw Becker in prison.
For their parts, both former California Attorney General and current HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and current AG Rob Bonta have both strongly opposed Becker's prosecution. Like Becerra wrote in an amicus in Becker's case, prosecutions like this "subject all women who suffer a pregnancy loss to the threat of criminal investigation and possible prosecution for murder."
Stop criminalizing pregnancy
Robert Burns. Phil Esbenshade. Keith Fagundes. Xavier Becerra. Rob Bonta.
That sure is a lot of men making decisions about people with ovaries.
Sadly, Chelsea Becker isn't the only person being prosecuted for losing a child. She wasn't even the only woman in California behind bars for it.
"We are seeing an increasing number of women who are arrested for experiencing miscarriages and stillbirths," said Lynn M. Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
Between 1972 and 2005, Paltrow's organization documented 413 cases in 44 states and the District of Columbia in which women were arrested or detained for reasons related to pregnancy, she said. About 84% of them involved drug use. In the 14 years since, she estimates there have been about 900 additional cases.
Like Chelsea Becker, Adora Perez also delivered a stillborn baby at Adventist Health hospital in Hanford, where staff again called the coroner to report suspected drug use after delivering a stillborn baby.
The same prosecutor, Keith Fagundes, charged Perez with murder. The same judge, Robert Burns, allowed the case to proceed.
Threatened with life in prison if she was found guilty of murder, Perez accepted a plea deal for voluntary manslaughter. She had no idea at the time that she was the first woman in California to be sent to prison for killing her fetus. Perez pled no contest to a voluntary manslaughter charge as part of a plea agreement.
A month later, after talking to a new lawyer, Perez tried to withdraw her guilty plea. She said she hadn't understood how strong her defense was or disagreements about whether she could even be charged.
Judge Burns denied Perez's request to withdraw her plea. She is two years into an 11-year sentence at the Central California Women's Facility.
It's not exactly shocking that these cases involve all of the same players. Things like this happen when you have religious hospitals and shitty local politicians who are all too happy to work together to persecute women and pregnant people.
A hospital ready and willing to accuse its patients of murder. An obliging coroner, district attorney, and local judge.
Apparently, those are all the things you need to criminalize pregnancy. Even in California. In 2021.
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