Mom Guilty of Murder in Infant’s Meth Death
Convinced Amy Leanne Prien loved drugs more than her baby, a Riverside County jury on Monday convicted the mother of four of murdering her son with a lethal dose of methamphetamine that he may have ingested through her drug-tainted breast milk.
Prien, 31, was found guilty of second-degree murder and four felony counts of child endangerment, and could face 23 years to life in prison.
“It may be the first murder conviction of its type in this country, but the evidence was overwhelming, and the jury understood that,” said Allison Nelson, the Riverside County prosecutor on the case.
During the three-week trial, Nelson called witness after witness who told jurors of Prien’s unquenchable appetite for the cheap, illicit stimulant known as “speed” and how her squalid Mead Valley home had turned into a den for drug users and dealers. It was there that 3-month-old Jacob Wesley Smith was found dead on Jan. 19, 2002.
Several jurors burst into tears after they left the courtroom, and expressed some sympathy for Prien and her family.
“We believed she loved her children, but she loved that meth more,” a female juror said. “She put that meth above all, which led to that poor baby’s death.”
Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask viewed the aggressive prosecution of Prien as a deterrent for other drug users, and a part of his campaign to shed the county’s reputation among law enforcement as the nation’s “methamphetamine capital.”
“We believe the jury reached the correct verdict, particularly because of the vulnerability of the young child and the death of the child,” Trask said in a written statement. “The wanton disregard of the mother using dangerous drugs warrants this verdict.”
As the verdict was read, Prien, looking exhausted in a turquoise top and two long braids, turned away from the jury and slumped against her defense attorney’s chair, but didn’t visibly react as the clerk read the list of guilty verdicts.
She turned around twice to look at family members, once at her mother, Janelle Dzik, and once at her sobbing eldest daughter, Alexis. Afterward, a heavy chain and padlock were wrapped around her waist, her wrists were manacled, and she was led away.
The jury, which deliberated eight hours Friday and Monday, also convicted Prien of four misdemeanor counts of drug possession.
Jack Haskins, the paternal grandfather of the baby, whispered “Travesty” fiercely under his breath as the reading of the verdicts stretched on for five minutes.
“They didn’t listen to the evidence. They just listened to the prosecution’s lies and innuendoes,” he said in the hallway afterward.
Prien is due to be sentenced Oct. 6.
Stephen Yagman, Prien’s attorney, said he would consider filing an appeal of the murder conviction based on jury instructions, which he said were flawed. Yagman said Prien told him she was “disappointed” with the verdicts.
“I’ve said there was no evidence at all that supported the belief that there was a transmission to the baby from Amy that contained meth,” Yagman said.
But all the jurors were convinced that the baby died from ingesting methamphetamine because of his mother’s actions or neglect, several said afterward.
The jury foreman, a 33-year-old man from Corona and father of a newborn, said the panel quickly determined that the infant died of methamphetamine intoxication, and not sudden infant death syndrome, as Yagman had argued in the trial.
The Riverside County coroner originally labeled the baby’s death as SIDS, but that changed in April 2002 when the coroner’s toxicology report showed that Jacob had methamphetamine in his stomach, liver and blood.
The prosecutor had argued that the most likely cause of death was a lethal dose of methamphetamine-laced breast milk from Prien. She also said that Jacob may have ingested the drug from a baby-bottle liner, some of which were used to package and sell the drug in Prien’s home.
“The circumstantial evidence points to breastfeeding, but we didn’t actually catch her with her nipple in the baby’s mouth,” Nelson said shortly before the verdict was read.
The foreman said the jurors “settled on multiple possible causes,” as to how the baby ingested the drug.
“The fact is, [the infant] got methamphetamine in his system, and she is the one who was responsible for the death of that child,” said juror Cynthia Klein of Murrieta.
The foreman said a wealth of evidence persuaded him of Prien’s guilt, including a law enforcement photograph that showed Prien had left Jacob face-down and dead on her bed for more than an hour while hiding evidence of her drug use before calling police.
“I can’t imagine finding my child suffering or dead, and putting it face-down and leaving it,” he said. “Oh man, they would have to rip that baby from me.”
Some jurors criticized Yagman’s defense, saying they were incredulous when a doctor serving as an expert defense witness testified that use of an over-the-counter inhaler might have been more dangerous to the child than methamphetamine.
“His experts didn’t review the evidence, and it didn’t look like they wanted to,” juror Klein said.
She said she hoped the verdict would send a message in the county.
“Maybe the people out there doing the same thing need to think more, that there are consequences to what they do, and the drugs they take,” Klein said.
According to the Riverside-based Inland Narcotics Clearinghouse, law enforcement officials seized 226 meth-making labs, arrested 382 people and removed 89 children from lab sites from the beginning of 2002 through March 2003.
Since Prien was charged, two breastfeeding mothers arrested in Riverside County on methamphetamine charges have pleaded guilty to child endangerment, although neither child died.
“It’s a very rare verdict in any state,” said Robert Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. He said he does not expect an outburst of cases.
“The avenue of criminal prosecution is not going to be a primary tool -- nor should it be -- in correcting the widespread problem of drug-addicted parents.
“Speaking as an individual, as a law professor, a conviction on this ground could grab the attention [of drug abusers] that our law enforcement is taking the problem seriously, that their behavior can lead to criminal prosecution.”
Times staff writer Kristina Sauerwein contributed to this report.