Addicts with stillborn babies are being charged with murder in California
Chelsea Becker was ready for Zachariah. She’d bought a crib, a car seat and clothes.
“Here’s your baby brother,” she’d whisper to her 16-month-old son Silas, and the child, her youngest, would hug her stomach.
But alone at a friend’s house in September, the 25-year-old knew something was wrong.
She’d noticed a little bleeding when she’d gotten up to use the bathroom. Before she could make it back to where she’d been lying down, she felt something wet.
At first, she thought her water had broken. Then she realized it was blood.
When her mother, Jennifer Hernandez, came to take her to a hospital and saw her daughter’s condition, she called an ambulance instead.
About three hours after she arrived at Adventist Health hospital in Hanford, Calif., she delivered a stillborn baby. A staffer handed her the little boy so she could say goodbye.
The hospital then called the Kings County coroner’s office.
Nearly two months later, on Nov. 6, police arrested Becker. Prosecutors allege she murdered her child, citing an autopsy report showing the baby had toxic levels of methamphetamine in his system. She’s being held in Kings County Jail in lieu of $5-million bail.
About a week after she was taken into custody, Becker sat at a visitation kiosk wearing a green-and-white-striped uniform. Her face was puffy and tear-streaked, the skin around her eyes rubbed raw.
At first it was hard for her to find words, then they came all at once.
“I didn’t kill my baby,” she said between sobs. “I was ready for him. He was so pretty. Then they had me see him after he was born, and he was all blue.”
She acknowledged she’s made mistakes and needs help, that she struggles with addiction.
“I wish it could have been me instead.”
Becker is at the center of a legal and ethical debate over the criminalization of drug abuse and pregnancy that’s playing out across the country. Legal experts have raised questions about how the justice system is policing women’s bodies and treating mothers who struggle with addiction.
California’s penal code defines 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 charged with murder for beating his estranged pregnant wife and causing her to lose the baby.
But the statute was never intended to implicate mothers of stillborn babies, women’s rights advocates argue. In fact, other than one case involving a no contest plea, there have been no convictions in such cases in modern state history.
That one also happened in Hanford.
Adora Perez was arrested there in 2018. She’s now serving 11 years in a state prison.
The Kings County district attorney’s office led the prosecution against Perez and is now waging a similar murder case against Becker.
“As prosecutors, we follow the law,” Assistant Dist. Atty. Philip Esbenshade said in an email earlier this month. He said the Hanford Police Department “conducted a very detailed investigation” into Becker and prosecutors “feel that the charge filed is appropriate under California law.”
But Lynn M. Paltrow, founder and director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, says the case is a misuse of the prosecution’s authority.
“There is no role for the criminal law system in response to pregnant women, pregnancy and the outcome of their pregnancies,” Paltrow said. “All these prosecutions do is deter women from getting care and from speaking honestly about their health problems.”
Becker was born and raised in Hanford, a town of neat cul-de-sacs carved into vast tracts of farmland in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
The area’s unemployment rate — 5.7% — is the seventh-highest of any metro region in the nation. Almost one-fifth of Kings County residents lived in poverty in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Methamphetamine is no stranger to the town of 56,000, but that’s not where Becker first encountered the drug, her mother said.
As a teen, Becker moved to Minnesota to live with her father for several years. She returned at 19 an addict and found a steady supply of meth in Hanford, Hernandez said.
The same routes that help make the San Joaquin Valley one of the world’s agricultural meccas also help bring in darker forces. The Central Valley has become a hub for meth distribution in the U.S., according to federal law enforcement officials.
Because of her addiction, Becker admits she’s made poor choices and has struggled as a mother. Two of her three surviving children were born with meth in their systems, according to her family. They have all been removed from her care.
Becker’s aunt, Julie Lance, who has custody of two of her children, thinks her niece should face consequences for her actions.
“If they drop these charges and let her out of jail, she’s just going to do this again,” Lance said. “She needs mental healthcare, she needs drug rehabilitation — and she needs jail time.”
Other members of Becker’s family, however, say the criminal charges against her are unfair and the D.A.'s office has made her out to be a monster.
“We don’t condone what happened, but at the same time, what they’re painting her to be is not what she is,” Becker’s brother, Brandon Nikonowicz, said. “She’s somebody with an addiction problem, not a murderer.”
Since Becker’s arrest, her family members have desperately searched for similar cases involving addiction and childbirth. There are prior court decisions in California and elsewhere that could play a prominent role in her fate.
In 1992, San Benito County authorities charged Roseann Jaurigue with murder after she suffered a placental abruption that led to a stillbirth. Authorities said she’d gone on a cocaine binge the day she was due to give birth and only sought care at a hospital two days later.
Jaurigue’s case was the first attempt in California to prosecute a woman under the 1970 amendment to the penal code.
ACLU defense lawyers argued the amendment was not intended to be used against pregnant women. It was meant to prosecute people who attack pregnant women with the intention of killing their unborn babies, they said.
A Superior Court judge in San Benito County agreed and dismissed the case.
A year later, in 1993, Lynda Jones was charged with murder in Siskiyou County after she suffered a placental abruption and gave birth prematurely. The infant died 22 hours later, and authorities blamed methamphetamine use. A judge dismissed the case.
Legal experts are at a loss to explain why now, more than 25 years later, prosecutors are using the same rationale against Becker.
“California law clearly does not permit a prosecution like this,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.
More broadly, Becker’s supporters have pointed to a South Carolina case that wrestled with many of the same issues involving pregnancy-related drug use.
In 2001, Regina McKnight was convicted of homicide by child abuse after admitting she used cocaine while pregnant and then delivering a stillborn baby.
McKnight spent years behind bars before the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that she didn’t get a fair trial.
The court found that McKnight’s public defender had failed to challenge testimony from the prosecution’s expert witnesses ruling out natural causes of death.
In its ruling, the state Supreme Court said an adequate defense would have included “recent studies showing that cocaine is no more harmful to a fetus than nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, or other conditions commonly associated with the urban poor.”
Michele Goodwin, a law professor at UC Irvine and author of the forthcoming book “Policing the Womb,” said women prosecuted in connection with the drug-related deaths of stillborn children overwhelmingly live in poor, unstable environments.
“What makes these prosecutions so deeply problematic is that coinciding with these women’s poverty and also their drug use and addiction happen to be the situations in which they live,” she said.
Despite legal questions raised by these earlier cases, prosecutors in Kings County are moving forward with Becker’s case after having successfully prosecuted Perez.
Perez, now 31, was charged with murder in January 2018 after suffering a placental abruption and delivering a stillborn baby at Adventist Health in Hanford, the same hospital where Becker was treated.
The baby, named Hades, was her 10th. All but the three oldest were born with methamphetamine in their systems, said her aunt, Sabrina Perez.
Initially, hospital employees were sympathetic toward Perez, her aunt said. “They were like, ‘We’re sorry for your loss; we’ll leave you alone with the baby for a while,’ and Adora got to hold him while he was still warm.”
But as soon as Perez’s history of giving birth to drug-exposed babies was discovered, staff immediately took him away, telling her they needed to run tests.
Hospital officials then called the coroner, and a doctor told police the baby died because of methamphetamine use during pregnancy, court records show.
Although there is no state law requiring medical centers to notify the coroner’s office of stillbirths, a spokeswoman for the Adventist Health group in the Central Valley, which includes Adventist Health Hanford, said it is the hospital’s policy to call the coroner about any stillborn babies delivered over 20 weeks.
Police arrested Perez the morning after she gave birth, on New Year’s Day.
“She didn’t get a chance to mourn her own baby,” Sabrina Perez said. “She didn’t get a chance to even do a little reception for her own child.”
About four months after her arrest, Adora Perez pleaded no contest to a charge of voluntary manslaughter as part of a plea agreement. But soon after, she had a change of heart and hired a new attorney, who filed a motion to withdraw the plea.
In court documents, Perez said she hadn’t understood what she was doing and her court-appointed public defender neither investigated her baby’s death nor discussed potential defenses with her.
Instead, a Kings County Superior Court judge denied the motion and handed Perez an 11-year prison sentence.
After that, the private-practice lawyer, to whom Perez had paid $10,000, filed a notice of appeal with the court and then stopped returning the family’s phone calls, her aunt said.
“Pretty much, she just took Adora’s money and that was it.”
The appeal went forward, handled by another court-appointed attorney, who offered no new evidence. On March 26, 2019, the 5th District Court of Appeals upheld Perez’s sentence.
Becker, meanwhile, is due in court Dec. 5, when a judge is expected to set a date for her preliminary hearing.
From her jail cell, she replays events that led up to Zachariah’s death and wonders how things could have turned out differently.
“I’m not going to be OK mentally after this, even if I get out.” But, she said, “I’m not a killer. I just need to go to rehab.”
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