A 25-year-old central California woman was been arrested and charged with murder after she delivered a stillborn baby that authorities said had toxic levels of methamphetamine in its system.
Being that it is California, where unborn children have no rights, there are some women’s right advocates that say she didn’t commit any crime and should not face prosecution.
The Hanford Police Department said in a news release that Chelsea Cheyenne Becker delivered a stillborn child September 10 that medical professionals believed may have been exposed to narcotics while she was pregnant. The death was ruled a homicide after an autopsy by the Kings County Coroner’s Office found methamphetamine in the baby’s system, police said.
Police put out a warrant for Becker, and she was arrested this past Tuesday night on a felony charge of first-degree murder and booked into the Kings County Jail in Hanford early Wednesday, records show. Her bail has been set at $5 million.
Becker pleaded not guilty at her arraignment the next morning. Court records indicate her next hearing is November 19.
Detective Sgt. Justin Vallin of the Hanford Police Department said that three of Becker’s previous children were born with meth in their systems. Police said they learned through an investigation that she had lost custody of multiple children because of substance abuse problems.
Julie Lance, Becker’s aunt, had already adopted Becker’s 3-year-old son and has custody of her 1-year-old. Becker’s oldest child, a 4-year-old, was also adopted.
Authorities say Chelsea Becker was using drugs throughout her pregnancies, and each of her 4 babies had meth in their systems when they were born. Last month she gave birth to a stillborn boy with over 6 times the toxic level of meth in his system. https://t.co/MNqm1ooFYm
— FOX59 News (@FOX59) November 6, 2019
Police said Becker admitted to using meth during her most recent pregnancy as late as three days before giving birth.
“The levels of methamphetamine in this baby’s system were such high levels, even for an adult, so we believe that she was using almost the entire time that she was pregnant,” Vallin told KGPE.
Becker’s cousin, Terra Ordonez, said she is optimistic her cousin will recover.
“I’m excited for her to straighten up and get clean because I know she’s smart enough to get out of it,” Ordonez told the affiliate. “Hopefully, it’s an eye-opener for a lot of women who are struggling. If you’re pregnant, scream for help.”
Legal experts and women’s rights advocates say such prosecutions are increasing but still remain relatively rare in California.
The state’s penal code has defined murder as the unlawful killing of a human being or unborn child. The statute was amended to include the word “fetus” in 1970.
Legislators made the change after the state Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Stockton man who had been charged with murder for beating his estranged wife and killing her unborn child. The court had ruled that the state penal code did not provide for a homicide conviction arising from the death of a fetus.
The change was intended to strengthen protections for victims of domestic violence, not to be applied to women seeking abortions or those who suffer miscarriages or stillbirths, said Michele Goodwin, a law professor at UC Irvine and author of the forthcoming book “Policing the Womb.”
“At the time, there were feminist organizations and others that were assured by legislators that these laws would never be applied to pregnant women,” Goodwin said.
But as the drug war ramped up in the 1980s and ‘90s, it became more common for prosecutors to use such laws to charge women with killing their own unborn children, particularly when narcotics were involved, she said.
“We are seeing an increasing number of women who are arrested for experiencing miscarriages and stillbirths,” said Lynn M. Paltrow.
Paltrow is the 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.
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Many of the cases either did not result in a conviction or were overturned, she said, in part because it’s difficult to prove what causes a miscarriage or stillbirth.
“No woman can guarantee a healthy birth outcome,” she said. “That’s a medical impossibility.”
Philip Esbenshade, an assistant district attorney in Kings County, said the D.A.’s office is aware of legal experts’ concerns.
“As prosecutors, we follow the law,” he said in an email. “Taking into account the totality of the circumstances, including the investigation, Ms. Becker’s prior history with the courts and drug treatment and the forensic pathologist’s findings, we feel that the charge filed is appropriate under California law.”
But state courts have dismissed similar cases in the past.
Rosann Juarigue, 36, of Gilroy was charged with murder in San Benito County in 1992 after her stillborn baby’s death was attributed by authorities to cocaine use. The case was reported as the first attempt in California to prosecute a woman for murder on grounds she had recklessly ingested illegal drugs that led to her child’s death.
A judge dismissed the charges months later, ruling that the murder statute did not clearly authorize them and noting there was no evidence the Legislature intended the law be used in such circumstances.
The following year, Lynda Jones, 36, was charged with murder in Siskiyou County after she gave birth prematurely and the infant died. Authorities said that methamphetamine use caused the premature birth.
A motion to dismiss that case was granted about a year later.
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