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Murder Charges Over Stillbirth in California Set Off Heated Legal Battle

  • August 11, 2020

Phil Esbenshade, the executive assistant district attorney for Kings County, said the case hinged on whether the state’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.”

California is among 38 states that have fetal homicide laws recognizing the fetus as a victim in cases of violence against a pregnant woman, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In recent years, charges of feticide, manslaughter or murder have been brought against women in states including Indiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi. Last year in Alabama, a woman was charged with manslaughter after another woman shot her in the stomach and her 5-month-old fetus did not survive. The case stirred national outrage, and that charge was dropped a week later.

In California, another woman in Kings County, Adora Perez, was charged with murder in 2018 after a stillbirth following methamphetamine use. Ms. Perez, who was prosecuted by the same district attorney as Ms. Becker, pleaded guilty on the lesser charge of manslaughter and is now serving an 11-year prison sentence.

In recent years, fierce battles over reproductive rights have been playing out in legislatures and courts across the country, often resulting in sweeping abortion restrictions at the state level, although the Supreme Court delivered a setback to abortion opponents in June.

Jacqueline Goodman, a lawyer for Ms. Becker, said the outcome of her case would reverberate beyond the borders of Kings County, and that prosecutions like these could make pregnant women afraid to seek health care or counseling for substance abuse.

“It’s part of a nationwide effort to criminalize abortion,” she said of the murder charge. “That’s where this comes from.”

Ultimately, Ms. Becker’s case comes down to the courts’ interpretation of a small subsection in California’s criminal code. Penal Code Section 187 is the state’s primary statute for murder, which it defines as “the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.”

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