Judge Dismisses Murder Charge Against California Mother After Stillbirth

A California judge on Thursday dismissed a murder charge against a woman who delivered a stillborn child in 2019 after consuming methamphetamine.

Judge Robert Shane Burns of Kings County Superior Court dismissed the charge because prosecutors had failed to present sufficient evidence that the woman, Chelsea Becker, had ingested drugs with the knowledge and intent that doing so could cause a stillbirth, according to Jacqueline Goodman, a lawyer for Ms. Becker.

The case drew widespread attention from civil rights groups and reproductive health advocates, who argued that the prosecution of Ms. Becker could set a precedent for criminalizing the choices women make while pregnant.

Ms. Goodman welcomed the judge’s decision to grant a motion to dismiss the charge in this case but said the judge had left open the possibility that other women in similar situations could face murder charges. The judge, according to Ms. Goodman, said that the statute did not exempt women from criminal charges based on the outcome of their pregnancies.

In a statement on Thursday, Philip Esbenshade, executive assistant district attorney with the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, said that the office was considering its options.

“It is the opinion of our office that sufficient evidence was presented at the preliminary hearing to hold Ms. Becker to answer for trial,” he wrote in an email. “The judge who presided over that preliminary examination, upon hearing that evidence and considering arguments from both sides, did find such sufficient evidence existed. Judge Burns, the judge who dismissed the case this morning, apparently disagrees with that finding.”

Ms. Becker, who lives in Hanford, Calif., near Fresno, was 26 years old and eight and a half months pregnant when she delivered a stillborn baby in September 2019.

That November, when she was arrested and charged with murder, the Hanford Police Department said in a statement that the Kings County coroner’s office had ruled the fetus’s death a homicide because of toxic levels of methamphetamine in the fetus’s system. Ms. Becker “further admitted to law enforcement she used methamphetamine while she was most recently pregnant as late as three days prior to giving birth to the stillborn fetus,” the department added.

Ms. Becker’s lawyers argued that there was no scientific basis for saying that the stillbirth had been caused by methamphetamine. “There is no medical knowledge that” the drug would have that effect, Lynn M. Paltrow, the executive director for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which provided legal counsel to Ms. Becker, said in an interview Thursday night.

Ms. Paltrow said the effort to prosecute Ms. Becker was an attempt to curtail abortion rights and “for policing pregnancy and pregnancy outcome in general.”

But prosecutors said the case was more narrowly focused than that.

Mr. Esbenshade has said that the case hinged on whether California’s penal code exempts pregnant women from criminal liability in cases like these. “This is not a case about abortion nor women’s reproductive rights,” he said. “This is a case about a person who did specific acts that resulted in the death of a viable fetus.”

Penal Code Section 187 is California’s primary statute for murder. It was amended in 1970 to include references to fetuses, but the revision provided exemptions for abortions, certain other actions by the mother of a fetus and actions by doctors to protect the life of a mother.

Ms. Becker had challenged the basis for the murder charge in 2020, but that effort was denied in Kings County Superior Court last June. Later that year, California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, wrote an amicus brief to an appellate court in support of Ms. Becker.

In it, Mr. Becerra argued the lower court’s interpretation of the law would “subject all women who suffer a pregnancy loss to the threat of criminal investigation and possible prosecution for murder.”

He added, “Whether a stillbirth or a miscarriage was due to drug use or some other reason, there is nothing in the statute that would constrain a district attorney’s ability to investigate the most intimate aspects of the circumstances of a woman’s pregnancy and to bring murder charges against that woman who suffered a pregnancy loss.”

The appellate court denied the petition and returned it to Kings County Superior Court, ultimately paving the way for Judge Burns’s action on Thursday. Ms. Goodman, Ms. Becker’s lawyer, said the ruling was good news for her client, but not for all pregnant women in California. “I think that ruling preserves the right to prosecute a different case with different facts,” she said.

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