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Attorney general denounces murder charge over stillborn baby

Jennifer Hernandez shows a picture of daughter Chelsea Becker on her phone.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

California’s top prosecutor has intervened in the case of a Central Valley woman who was charged with murder after she gave birth to a stillborn baby and authorities alleged her methamphetamine use was to blame.

Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra on Friday filed an amicus brief in support of ending the prosecution of Chelsea Becker, saying his office believes “the law was misapplied and misinterpreted.”

“We will work to end the prosecution and imprisonment of Ms. Becker so we can focus on applying this law to those who put the lives of pregnant women in danger,” Becerra said in a statement.

Becker, 26, has been confined to the Kings County Jail since her arrest in November, with bail set at $2 million. Her attorneys have asked California’s 5th District Court of Appeal to prohibit the lower court from proceeding with the case, arguing that California’s murder law was never intended to be used against women in connection with the deaths of their own unborn children.

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“It is outrageous that Ms. Becker has been incarcerated since November of 2019 for a nonexistent crime,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which is assisting with Becker’s defense.

Kings County Dist. Atty. Keith Fagundes has maintained the murder law supports the charge, pointing to a 1970 amendment that added a fetus as a potential victim. A Kings County Superior Court judge sided with his office in June, denying an application by Becker’s lawyers to dismiss the case.

But in the brief, Becerra argues that Fagundes misinterpreted the law’s intent in filing the charge, and the Superior Court erred in declining to dismiss it.

“Section 187 of the California Penal Code was intended to protect pregnant women from harm, not charge them with murder,” Becerra said. “Our laws in California do not convict women who suffer the loss of their pregnancy, and in our filing today we are making clear that this law has been misused to the detriment of women, children and families.”

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Fagundes said he had not seen the brief as of Friday afternoon, because it was served on the Kern County district attorney’s office by mistake.

“It’s shocking to me the attorney general’s office has taken a position without ever having contacted our office, without admitting whether they’ve read any police reports, without discussing these issues to say what makes this [case] different,” he said.

“And unfortunately the petitioner is attempting to couch this in terms of a reproductive rights case and it’s not about that.”

The filing does not have an immediate impact on whether the prosecution will go forward. But it is a powerful statement of support from the state’s top lawyer as the appeals court weighs whether to dismiss the case.

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“The attorney general of California is the highest legal officer in the executive branch of the state government,” said Daniel Arshack, special counsel to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “That they felt compelled to alert the court that the Kings County judiciary has misapplied state law is something that the court will not ignore.”

Becker’s case has gained the support of medical and civil rights organizations, with 15 groups — including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry — signing onto a brief in support of dismissing the charge. The American Civil Liberties Union also filed a brief.

“We commend Attorney General Becerra’s call for the criminal charges against Chelsea Becker to be dropped,” attorney Jennifer Chou of the ACLU of Northern California said in a statement. “The decision to prosecute her flies in the face of California law, and holds deeply dangerous implications.”

Experts have expressed concern that the Superior Court’s interpretation of the homicide statute could change how the law is applied. “It would subject all women who suffer a pregnancy loss to the threat of criminal investigation and possible prosecution for murder,” Becerra wrote in the brief.

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But Fagundes said the defense and attorney general’s office have politicized the case to distract from the core legal issues. He said the amendment to the murder statute did not anticipate the meth epidemic that has ravaged Kings County and likened the attorney general’s intervention to the state of California condoning meth use.

“We’re not sitting here seeking to lock up mothers who have miscarriages,” he said. “That’s not what ever happens here. But there’s certain conduct a government should not partake in, which is allowing people to use drugs to a degree that’s harmful to themselves and others.”

If the charge is dismissed, advocates hope the ruling will also bolster the case to free Adora Perez, 32, who is two years into an 11-year sentence at the state prison in Chowchilla.

The facts in Perez’s case are nearly identical to Becker’s: Fagundes charged the Hanford woman with murder in 2018 after she gave birth to a stillborn baby at the same hospital where Becker delivered her stillborn child. Staff called the coroner’s office in both instances. Perez was assigned the same public defender as Becker and appeared before the same judge.

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But her counsel didn’t challenge the legality of the proceedings, and Perez took a plea agreement, pleading no contest to a charge of voluntary manslaughter.

The case marked the first time in nearly 30 years a California woman was charged with the murder of her unborn child. Perhaps more troubling, advocates say, is that it was the first time in the state’s history that such a charge resulted in jail time. Several other attempts to prosecute women for murder for stillbirths in the 1990s were dismissed.

“Every single other judge in California has recognized that you don’t prosecute a woman for having a stillbirth,” Arshack said. “Only Kings County, twice in the last two years, has decided to criminalize women who have stillbirths.”


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