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How Can a Stillbirth Lead to Murder Charges?


In September of 2019, a California woman had a stillborn baby, and a week later, she was charged with first-degree murder. How was that possible?

What Is California’s Murder Law?

To understand how the woman faced criminal charges, let’s look at California Penal Code 187 PC. Under this statute, murder is defined as an unlawful killing with malice aforethought. The law specifically prohibits taking the life of either a human being or a fetus.

California Penal Code 187 PC does not apply to a fetus death if:

  • The act was carried out in compliance with the Therapeutic Abortion Act.
  • The act was performed by a licensed physician or surgeon in a case where not taking such action would more than likely result in the mother’s death.
  • The mother requested, aided, abetted, or consented to the act.

What Is Malice Aforethought?

Malice aforethought is the alleged perpetrator’s state of mind when carrying out an act that resulted in death.

Under California Penal Code 188, there are two types of malice aforethought:

  • Express: This is when a person’s behavior clearly shows an intent to kill.
  • Implied: This type of malice means that a person engaged in conduct that shows they consciously disregarded human life.

In the case of the California woman, medical examiners performed an autopsy on the baby. Results indicated that the baby had high levels of methamphetamine in its system. The medical staff then called the police to report a suspicious stillbirth.

When investigators questioned the woman, who had been 8 months pregnant at the time of the stillbirth, she admitted to having used meth as early as 3 days before the delivery.

Whether or not the woman had express malice (meaning she intentionally used the meth to cause the fetus’s death) or implied malice (meaning she used the substance not necessarily with the intent to kill but knowing that it could cause harm to the fetus) is unknown. However, because she knowingly used methamphetamine while pregnant, she was charged with felony first-degree murder.

Why Does California’s Murder Law Include Death of a Fetus?

Many states across the country have some type of “fetal assault law.” The rationale behind these types of measures is that it will prevent women from engaging in conduct that could potentially harm their unborn babies.

However, some people say that such laws have the potential to backfire. Pregnant women might not seek medical care because they may be apprehensive in admitting that they have done drugs or consumed alcohol, fearing prosecution because of such behaviors.

Get Effective Legal Counsel from Appel & Morse

If you or a loved one was charged with a violent crime such as murder, it’s imperative to seek legal help right away. A conviction could result in life-altering consequences. Our team in Santa Barbara is here to help fight charges and work toward a favorable outcome on your behalf.

Schedule a free consultation by calling us at (805) 467-6060 or contacting us online.

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