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Bail granted for Central California woman who used meth before stillbirth

Chelsea Becker
Chelsea Becker has been charged with murder after delivering a stillborn fetus that tested positive for methamphetamine.
(Hanford Police Department)

A Central California woman charged with murder after delivering a stillborn baby who tested positive for methamphetamine will be released to a drug treatment center as her lawyers argue that the state’s homicide law does not apply to pregnant women, a position backed by Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra.

Chelsea Becker, 26, has been in a Kings County jail since her arrest in November 2019, unable to raise $2 million bail. Kings County Superior Court Judge Robert Shane Burns on Tuesday granted her attorneys’ request to release her to an out-of-county residential treatment center pending trial. She has pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors say the case is about stopping a woman who has repeatedly abused narcotics while pregnant, resulting in two other babies who tested positive for meth at birth.

“Despite Ms. Becker’s lengthy and continual history of using illegal narcotics and failed attempts at recovery, we maintain hope in her recovery and her ability to stop choosing drugs over her children,” said Phil Esbenshade, the top assistant district attorney in Kings County, about her release.

The case has outraged advocates of pregnant women who say overzealous prosecutors are trying to punish someone who needs treatment, not prison time, and they hope the charges will soon be thrown out. There is no evidence that drug use results in stillbirths, they say, and allowing the charges would have a chilling effect on patients’ willingness to seek needed prenatal care.

“We are deeply saddened, horrified that this case has been continuing for 15 months, keeping someone incarcerated because she lost a pregnancy, which thousands of women do every year,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which is providing legal support for Becker.

Becerra, who is being considered as President Biden’s nominee for Health and Human Services secretary, sent a friend-of-the-court brief stating that the law was never meant to apply to pregnant women and urging that the charges be dropped. But Judge Burns has declined to do so.

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Adora Perez was imprisoned for delivering a stillborn baby after using drugs. Her case largely went unnoticed until another woman was charged.

In September 2019, Becker gave birth to a stillborn child she had named Zachariah Joseph Campos. The coroner’s report listed toxic levels of meth as the cause of death, but one of Becker’s attorneys, Dan Arshack, said the pathologist never reviewed her medical record, which included three infections that could have caused the stillbirth.

Becker had successfully given birth to three children and had no reason to believe that meth use would cause a stillbirth, Arshack said. He declined to make Becker available for an interview.

“This was a baby she intensely wanted to have, and she remains heartbroken that it resulted in a stillbirth, like any woman who has a stillbirth,” he said, adding that the notion that she bore malice toward her child “is just prosecutorial magical thinking.”

Arshack said Becker’s legal team was “gratified” she would not have to remain in jail and would move again to have the case dismissed.

The prosecutor, Esbenshade, said Becker had repeatedly endangered her children with her narcotics use. He rejected the idea that the law did not apply to Becker. An appeals court and the state Supreme Court have declined to intervene, saying it was too early in the legal process.

Policymakers have debated the intersection of substance use and pregnancy since the late 1980s, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that works to advance sexual and reproductive rights. The high courts in Alabama and South Carolina have upheld convictions that found substance use during pregnancy to be criminal child abuse, according to the institute.

But numerous medical and public health groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, oppose punishment for drug use during pregnancy. There is no evidence that meth use is “uniquely and fatally dangerous” to the fetus, said two doctors in a letter submitted by Becker’s lawyers.

In California, lawmakers amended the state murder statute to include a fetus after the California Supreme Court in 1970 overturned the conviction of a man who had beaten a pregnant woman, causing her to lose the fetus. But attempts in California in the 1990s to use the law to prosecute pregnant women failed.


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