California judge overturns 11-year prison term for woman whose baby was stillborn
A Central Valley woman’s 11-year prison sentence was overturned this week after a Kings County judge ruled that her plea agreement for voluntary manslaughter was unlawful.
Adora Perez was originally charged with murder after delivering a stillborn baby at Adventist Health Hanford on Dec. 30, 2017. Tests revealed that her son, Hades, had methamphetamine in his system, and a doctor told investigators he believed the drug was responsible for the death, court records show.
Fearful that she could be facing a possible life sentence, Perez pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced in June 2018 to 11 years in prison.
The case opened up a years-long legal battle that continues even after Kings County Superior Court Judge Valerie Chrissakis signed an order Wednesday overturning Perez’s plea and sentence.
“All parties admit that voluntary manslaughter of a fetus is not a crime in California,” Chrissakis wrote in her ruling. “Faced with [her] illegal plea bargain based upon a factual or legal impossibility … the trial court should have withheld its approval of the same.”
Perez was released from state prison to Kings County Jail, according to the order. The murder charge was reinstated, and she was ordered to appear in court April 6.
Adora Perez was imprisoned for delivering a stillborn baby after using drugs. Her case largely went unnoticed until another woman was charged.
“Adora Perez did not commit any crime, yet she has served more than four years in prison,” her attorneys, Audrey Barron and Mary McNamara, said in a statement Thursday. “We are very grateful that Judge Chrissakis overturned Ms. Perez’s plea to manslaughter, which was illegal. Unfortunately, she remains in custody and is once again facing a murder charge in Kings County.”
The attorneys said they will ask the court to release Perez on bail while they work to dismiss her murder charge.
California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta has made it clear that women in California can’t be prosecuted for suffering a stillbirth, Barron and McNamara said, adding that they hope the Kings County district attorney’s office will dismiss the case promptly.
A district attorney’s representative could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Bonta issued a statement applauding the judge’s decision, which he called “the beginning of an overdue course correction.”
Perez will have a chance to argue that murder “does not cover the conduct or omissions of pregnant persons resulting in stillbirth,” according to Bonta’s statement.
“This decision is a good first step towards affirming what we know to be true, no woman should be penalized for the loss of her pregnancy,” he said. “As we’ve repeatedly explained, the remaining murder charge is unlawful, and we will continue to support Ms. Perez in her fight to challenge that charge. Bottom line: Pregnant individuals will be protected by the law, not criminalized by it.”
Before Perez, no woman in California had been sent to prison for the death of her unborn child.
In 1970, after California’s Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of a man who beat his pregnant wife and killed her unborn child, legislators changed the state’s homicide law to make it possible to charge someone for the death of a fetus.
But a section in the law states it does not apply to acts “solicited, aided, abetted, or consented to by the mother of the fetus.”
Attempts to convict women of killing their unborn children had been knocked down until Perez.
She grew up in Hanford, Calif., an old railroad town south of Fresno. Her childhood was short. She said she was molested repeatedly by a family friend and became pregnant by another man at 14. By 16, she was smoking meth.
At 21, she met the man who would become the father of eight of her children. He beat her throughout each of those pregnancies, her aunt, Sabrina Perez, told The Times in 2020.
Perez tried to break the hold of her addiction many times, including during her most recent pregnancy, when she moved back in with her aunt and managed to stay clean for nearly three months, her aunt said.
But her success was undercut by the boyfriend, the aunt said. He talked her into renting a hotel room, where her tenuous grip on sobriety slipped.
Perez had been jailed for roughly three months when prosecutors offered her the deal to plead no contest to voluntary manslaughter.
A California woman is at the center of a legal and ethical debate about how the justice system is policing women’s bodies and treating mothers with addiction.
They presented the agreement as a way for her to avoid spending the rest of her life in prison, but her attorneys at the time didn’t tell her that state laws don’t include a provision for a woman to be charged with killing her fetus, Perez told The Times in 2020.
She took the plea bargain but almost immediately regretted it.
“I realized, ‘Oh my God, I just pleaded guilty without pleading guilty,’” Perez said, referring to the no-contest plea, which is tantamount to a conviction.
She and her family scraped together several thousand dollars to hire a private attorney in an attempt to withdraw the agreement, but Kings County Superior Court Judge Robert Burns refused to allow it and sentenced her to the maximum prison term of 11 years.
A court-appointed attorney took up her appeal but failed to raise any specific legal challenges, McNamara said in 2020.
When an appeals court upheld Perez’s plea in March 2019, her case seemed shut for good.
Then another woman was arrested in a case that bore striking similarities.
Chelsea Becker also grew up in Hanford, struggled with methamphetamine addiction and delivered a stillborn at Adventist Health nearly two years after Perez. Hospital staff called authorities.
She was appointed the same public defender as Perez and appeared before the same judge.
Becker’s case, however, received national attention and was dismissed in May 2021.
Attorneys discovered Perez when a Times reporter, while writing about Becker, came across the case and asked lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union about the validity of Perez’s conviction.
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