Murder charges against a Central Valley woman who delivered a stillborn baby after allegedly using methamphetamine were dismissed Thursday after a court ruled the prosecution failed to present adequate evidence to support the accusation.
Chelsea Becker, 26, of Hanford had already been released into a treatment facility in March while awaiting trial. Before that, she had been ordered held in on $5-million bond, which was later reduced to $2 million, and spent more than a year in jail following her arrest in November 2019.
Kings County Superior Court Judge Robert Burns on Thursday granted a motion by Becker’s attorneys to set aside the charge entirely, finding that prosecutors failed to prove she acted with implied malice, meaning that she had understood but disregarded the risk to her unborn child when she allegedly used methamphetamine while pregnant.
“We are extremely pleased that the charge was finally dismissed, but the case should never have been filed in the first place,” read a statement from Becker’s attorney, Dan Arshack, a consulting counsel at National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “No one should spend even a day in jail because they experienced a stillbirth.”
The prosecution can appeal the ruling or seek a second chance to present its case at a new preliminary hearing if it chooses.
Becker delivered a stillborn son, whom she named Zachariah, at Adventist Health hospital in Hanford on Sept. 10, 2019. Hospital staff suspected she may have used drugs while pregnant and called the Kings County coroner’s office.
Nearly two months later, on Nov. 6, police arrested Becker. Kings County Dist. Atty. Keith Fagundes charged her with murder, citing an autopsy report stating her unborn child had toxic levels of methamphetamine in his system.
The charge drew outrage from civil rights groups, and a legal team backed by National Advocates for Pregnant Women took on her case.
Becker’s lawyers argued the prosecution presented no evidence that Becker was aware that using methamphetamine while pregnant could cause her to suffer a stillbirth.
In fact, her attorneys pointed out, the lead officer on the case actually testified during a December preliminary hearing that Becker had told him she didn’t know what using the drug during pregnancy could do to her unborn child. Prior to the stillbirth, she had given birth three times while struggling with addiction, each time with no significant injury to the baby, her attorneys said.
Becker’s lawyers also argued that the prosecution had walked a legal tightrope by arguing that Becker murdered her fetus with implied malice by engaging in conduct she knew was likely to end her pregnancy, but not with express malice by intentionally terminating her pregnancy. Had she intentionally terminated her pregnancy, they pointed out, the act would have been considered an abortion, which is constitutionally protected.
“The preliminary hearing made clear, however, that the People have already toppled from their tight rope because they failed to present any evidence of implied malice and therefore failed to prove probable cause for all elements of the crime charged,” they wrote.
Becker’s defense also argued that the prosecution failed to prove that drug use caused her unborn child’s death. Although she had suffered from three reproductive infections that could have resulted in the stillbirth, the pathologist who performed her stillborn baby’s autopsy and determined the cause of death to be methamphetamine toxicity failed to consider any of them, her attorneys said.
The pathologist, Dr. Jue-Rong Zhang, testified during a December preliminary hearing that he had not examined Becker’s medical records until the day of his testimony, which came more than a year after her arrest.
Thursday’s ruling marked a major victory in a high-stakes legal fight that advocates said could have had far-reaching implications for women’s rights in California. In addition to pointing out problems with the evidence, Becker’s attorneys argued that state law does not permit a woman to be convicted of murder for killing her unborn child. If the court allowed such a charge, they said, it would judicially rewrite the statute, opening the door to the prosecution of any woman who suffers a miscarriage or stillbirth.
Fagundes had contended the charge was permitted by a 1970 amendment to California’s murder statute that added a fetus as a potential victim. 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,” and multiple attempts to convict women of killing their unborn children have been knocked down by California courts.
Still, Burns in June sided with Fagundes’ interpretation, denying an application by Becker’s lawyers to dismiss the case because of the way the law is written. And in his ruling Thursday, he stated the charge should be dismissed due to evidentiary problems only, not improper application of the murder statute.
“While we are thrilled that the case against Ms. Becker has been dismissed, we are disappointed that a dismissal on these grounds does not foreclose the possibility that a misguided prosecutor may attempt a similar prosecution in the future.” Becker’s attorney, Jacqueline Goodman, said in a statement. “As a result, we are left to play a sort of whack-a-mole, ever vigilant that we find and prevent any similar efforts to charge a woman with murder for the outcome of her pregnancy.”
Former California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, who submitted court filings calling for an end to Becker’s prosecution, has contended Fagundes misinterpreted the law in filing the charge.
Becerra, who is now U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, had also said his office would work to end the imprisonment of Adora Perez, 33, of Hanford.
Perez was charged with murder by Fagundes’ office in 2018 after she delivered a stillborn baby at Adventist Health hospital and authorities alleged she’d used meth while pregnant. She pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 11 years.
Her attorneys, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, are now working to appeal her case, saying her previous legal counsel was ineffective and never told her the murder charge lacked a legal basis.
A request to reopen Perez’s appeal was denied by an appeals court in March, and her attorneys are now seeking relief in the state Supreme Court.