Advertisement

Meth Murder Verdict Voided

Share via
Times Staff Writer

A state appeals court on Wednesday overturned the second-degree murder conviction of a Riverside County mother whose infant son died of a lethal dose of methamphetamine he may have ingested through her breast milk.

The state’s 4th District Court of Appeal also reversed three felony child endangerment convictions involving Amy Leanne Prien’s treatment of her three surviving children and instructed the trial court to acquit Prien on those counts.

The court said such convictions meant there was actual harm to the children, whereas prosecutors argued only hypothetical harm.

Advertisement

Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask said he was disappointed by the ruling but that he had the option to appeal to the state Supreme Court or retry Prien for murder.

“We have to analyze this in far more detail, and we will discuss this with the [California] attorney general, which would handle our appeal,” Trask said.

Trask had decided on aggressive prosecution of Prien, whose case drew national attention, as a deterrent for other drug users. The prosecution was part of his larger effort to crack down on methamphetamine-related crime in the county, which has a reputation among law enforcement as the nation’s “methamphetamine capital.”

If Prien is retried on the murder count, prosecutors will have to prove there was implied malice, meaning that Prien knew her meth habit would cause her child’s death and continued using the drug regardless, the appeals court said.

The court upheld Prien’s conviction for felony child endangerment over her treatment of her 3-month-old son, Jacob Wesley Smith, who died in 2002 at her Mead Valley home of what the county coroner termed acute methamphetamine intoxication. But Prien must be resentenced for that conviction because it should be considered without a murder conviction, the court said.

However, the appeals court ruled that Riverside County Judge W. Charles Morgan erred when he told the jury it could convict Prien of murder if it found her guilty of the “inherently dangerous felony” of child endangerment.

Advertisement

Felony child endangerment is not an inherently dangerous felony and cannot be used to support a murder conviction, the appeals court wrote in its 25-page decision. Prien was sentenced to 15 years to life in 2003, and she’s housed at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.

She was informed of the ruling Wednesday afternoon.

“Amy is happy but otherwise has no comment,” said Tracy Dressner, the attorney who handled Prien’s appeal.

Dressner praised the ruling, saying the district attorney’s office never should have charged Prien with murder.

“They don’t know how the baby died. They don’t know how the meth got into that baby,” Dressner said. “They made her the poster child for the meth problem in Riverside County, but, as I wrote in our appeal, a drug-using mom and a dead baby doesn’t equate to murder.”

Allison Nelson, the Riverside County supervising deputy district attorney who prosecuted Prien, argued during the trial that Prien poisoned Jacob by either allowing him to ingest her meth-tainted breast milk or by neglecting the boy while using and dealing drugs in her home, allowing the boy to ingest the drug somehow.

Stephen Yagman, Prien’s attorney during the trial, criticized county prosecutors. “This shows that sloppy ... district attorneys Grover Trask and Allison Nelson overreached, and an incompetent, arrogant judge who ignored the law caused a great injustice and an unnecessary expense to Riverside County taxpayers,” Yagman said.

Advertisement

In allowing the district attorney to seek a retrial on the murder count, the appeals court wrote, “a jury could reasonably infer that [Prien] knew that methamphetamine posed a serious and even deadly danger to Jacob.”

Trask said prosecutors, if they seek a new trial, would be allowed to introduce more evidence of implied malice.

“We’ll have to decide if there’s substantial evidence to find the defendant guilty,” Trask said.

Advertisement