For Immediate Release: May 20, 2021
Today, Kings County Superior Court Judge Robert Shane Burns dismissed the murder charge against our client, Chelsea Becker. This outcome is a major victory in her 19-month legal battle challenging the legitimacy of a murder charge for experiencing a stillbirth.
In 2019, Ms. Becker lost her pregnancy. Kings County District Attorney Keith L. Fagundes charged her with murder under California Penal Code Section 187, claiming, without scientific basis, that the stillbirth was caused by her methamphetamine use. Section 187 punishes the “unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.” The purpose of this law is to ensure that third parties who attack pregnant women and cause them to lose their pregnancies face a murder charge for the fetal death. Despite the fact that the law itself states it cannot be used to prosecute the “mother of the fetus,” DA Fagundes pursued the prosecution.
Today, 19 months after her arrest, 16 months of which were spent locked up in a county jail because she was unable to raise millions of dollars for bail, the court ruled that the prosecution did not establish that Ms. Becker used methamphetamine with conscious disregard of the fact that it could end her pregnancy. This is because, in part, there is no scientific evidence that methamphetamine use ends pregnancies. Moreover, the medical examiner, on whose conclusion the prosecutor relied, lacked basic knowledge regarding the potential causes of pregnancy loss and he had failed to review Ms. Becker’s medical records before jumping to the unsupported conclusion that the pregnancy loss was caused by drug use. The stillbirth was clearly caused by the presence of three infections completely unrelated to drug use as well as a detached placenta.
“We are extremely pleased that the charge was finally dismissed, but the case should never have been filed in the first place,” said Dan Arshack, one of Ms. Becker’s attorneys and consulting counsel at National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW). “No one should spend even a day in jail because they experienced a stillbirth. And, as the Supreme Court of California recently held, no one should be incarcerated, whatever the charge, because they cannot afford an outrageous, astronomically high cash bail. In fact, DA Fagundes is the only prosecutor in California in the last 30 years to have prosecuted women for having a stillbirth. This practice puts every pregnant woman in Kings County who experiences a miscarriage or stillbirth at risk of being prosecuted for murder at the whim of this single man, which will result in reduced access to prenatal care and increased risk to the health of more women and their fetuses.”
Ms. Becker was jailed from November 8, 2019 until March 9, 2021. Her bail, initially set at $5 million, was reduced to $2 million. Both bail amounts ignored the reality that she was indigent, that she was not a flight risk, and that her release posed no danger to the community. The amount also was an indication of the court’s acceptance of the prosecution’s claim that continued incarceration was necessary to prevent her from becoming pregnant again and otherwise good for her, because it would prevent her from using drugs. During the intervening year and through extensive legal battles, the California Supreme Court had granted Ms. Becker’s requests for rehearing on two previous denials of reasonable bail and ruled, in another case, that bail must be set in accordance with a person’s ability to pay. After having been incarcerated and subjected to considerable health risks from Covid-19 for more than a year, the trial court was recently ordered to hold a new bail hearing, at which Judge Burns ultimately ruled that Ms. Becker did not pose a risk to the community and was not a flight risk. Ms. Becker was finally released on her own recognizance on March 9, 2021.
Today, Judge Burns acknowledged that the murder charge had to be dismissed because the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence that Ms. Becker ingested drugs with knowledge and purposeful disregard of the knowledge that it could cause a stillbirth. “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,” said Jaqueline Goodman, trial counsel for Ms. Becker. “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.”
While today’s decision was based on lack of evidence, the dismissal is consistent with every other California court decision rejecting the misuse of California’s murder law as a basis for arresting women who terminated or lost their pregnancies. California courts have consistently held that the state’s murder law may not be used as a basis for charging a woman with murder because she experienced a pregnancy loss, regardless of the alleged cause of the loss, whether by gunshot or drug use. As every other court that has considered the issue has ruled, the statute’s plain language and well-documented legislative history make clear that the California legislature has refused to pass legislation that converts the issues of pregnancy loss, pregnancy termination, and, more generally, pregnancy and drug use into criminal matters.
There is overwhelming evidence and complete consensus among medical organizations that punitive approaches to drug use during pregnancy increase risks to maternal, fetal, and child health. “DA Fagundes is the only prosecutor in California in the last 30 years to have prosecuted women because their pregnancies did not end in a live birth,” said Lynn Paltrow, NAPW’s Executive Director. “This practice, one that could also be misused to prosecute women who have abortions outside of approved time limits or locations, is particularly alarming in the context of the U.S. Supreme Court’s apparent willingness to reconsider Roe v. Wade and limit protections for women seeking abortions. It is also one that violates the American Bar Association’s standards for professional and prosecutorial conduct. These standards make clear that prosecutors have ethical duties to act as ‘minister[s] of justice,’ to ‘seek justice within the bounds of the law,’ and to ‘act with integrity and balanced judgment to increase public safety.’”
In 2018, DA Fagundes also prosecuted Adora Perez for murder because she experienced a stillbirth. Ms. Perez’s court-appointed counsel failed to challenge the legitimacy of the prosecution and instead encouraged her to plead guilty to manslaughter of a fetus (an offense that also does not exist in California law). She is currently serving an 11-year sentence. Advocates and organizations, including National Advocates for Pregnant Women, are working together to support Ms. Perez’s legal challenges to her conviction.
“This dismissal does not redress the 16 months Ms. Becker spent in jail pending trial or the trauma of facing jail and a murder charge when she should have been supported in mourning the loss of what the prosecution conceded was a wanted pregnancy,” said NAPW Staff Attorney Samantha Lee. “We are thrilled, however, that Ms. Becker’s case has finally been dismissed and Ms. Becker can proceed with her life free from state interference. We will continue to fight for Ms. Perez’s freedom, and to monitor DA Fagundes and any other prosecutors in the state who may attempt to bring similar charges that are contrary to law in California.”
Ms. Becker’s legal team includes Samantha Lee and Lynn Paltrow of NAPW; NAPW consulting counsel Daniel Arshack of Arshack, Hajek and Lehrman; Jacqueline Goodman of Jacqueline Goodman Law Offices in Fullerton, California; Roger Nuttall and Alex De La Fuente of Nuttall & Coleman in Fresno, California, and Amber Fayerberg, of Amber Fayerberg, LLC; supported by the ACLU of Northern California, the Drug Policy Alliance on behalf of numerous medical experts and organizations, and California’s former Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Ms. Perez is represented by Mary McNamara of Swanson & McNamara LLP, and Matthew Missakian of the Law Office of C. Matthew Missakian, Inc.
For more information or to set up an interview with legal counsel, please contact: Dana Sussman, Deputy Executive Director, National Advocates for Pregnant Women | 646.854.1454 | firstname.lastname@example.org.