By Fiona Davis
HANFORD, CA – A Kings County Superior Court judge last week overturned the 11-year prison sentence of a woman charged with the murder of her stillborn child, determining the woman’s plea agreement for voluntary manslaughter was made unlawfully.
In 2018, 29-year-old Adora Perez was charged with the murder of her stillborn child after giving birth on Dec. 31, 2017.
The murder charge—brought on by District Attorney Keith Lee Fagundes—was based on evidence of Perez’s drug use during her pregnancy, according to news reports.
Perez acknowledged that she had taken methamphetamine while pregnant, and postmortem tests also revealed that the child had methamphetamine in its system. It was also estimated by medical staff that the child had died hours prior to birth due to “extensive drug use.”
According to a member of Perez’s family, Perez had attempted to control her addiction before and during her pregnancy. But as she suffered from an abusive relationship, she was unable to maintain her sobriety long-term.
To avoid the penalties and potential life sentence associated with the murder charge, Perez pleaded no contest to a voluntary manslaughter charge, and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Shortly after accepting the plea agreement, Perez said she regretted her decision to take the deal, stating to the LA Times that she had not understood what it meant to plead “no contest.”
“I realized, ‘Oh my God, I just pleaded guilty without pleading guilty,’” Perez said.
Now, three years into Perez’s sentence, and several years of attempted appeals, Judge Valerie R. Chrissakis in Kings County Superior Court overturned the 11-year-sentence.
In her ruling, Judge Chrissakis explained that Perez’s sentence lacks legal basis as, “There is no crime in California of manslaughter of a fetus.”
Without this legal basis, Judge Chrissakis argued that the court should not have permitted or accepted Perez’s plea.
In response to the judge’s decision, California Attorney General Rob Bonta issued a statement praising the ruling.
“This decision is a good first step towards affirming what we know to be true, no woman should be penalized for the loss of her pregnancy,” Attorney General Bonta stated.
Perez’s attorneys, Audrey Barron and Mary McNamara, also applauded Judge Chrissakis, stating, “We are very grateful that Judge Chrissakis overturned Ms. Perez’s plea to manslaughter, which was illegal.”
However, both attorneys emphasized that, in spite of the overturned sentence, Perez continues to remain in custody.
After her sentence was overturned, Perez was transferred from prison to the county jail pending a lower court hearing. There, Perez and her defense team can argue that the crime of murder does not cover the conduct pregnant persons who experience stillbirth under California law.
“Adora Perez did not commit any crime, yet she has served more than four years in prison,” her attorneys remarked. “Unfortunately, she remains in custody and is once again facing a murder charge in Kings County.”
Perez is the first woman in California to be sent to prison for the death of her own stillborn child.
However, a year after Perez’s arrest, Chelsea Becker, then 25 years old, was charged with the “murder of a human fetus” after suffering a stillbirth. Like Perez, Becker was charged in Kings County after struggling with addiction to methamphetamine during her pregnancy.
While Becker’s case was dismissed in May 2021, she was forced to spend over a year in jail under a $2 million bail before she was released on her own recognizance to await trial.
DA Fagundes—who also brought on the charges in Becker’s case—argued that the steep bond was placed to prevent the possibility of Becker “becoming impregnated” again.
Phil Esbenshade, the executive assistant district attorney for Kings County, commented, “This is not a case about abortion nor women’s reproductive rights. … This is a case about a person who did specific acts that resulted in the death of a viable fetus.”
As Becker served time in prison, then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote an amicus brief in support of Becker, stating that California laws applied to the assault or death of a fetus were never meant to be applied to the pregnant victim.
“The Legislature’s purpose in adding the killing of a fetus … was not to punish women who do not—or cannot, because of addiction or resources—follow best practices for prenatal health” Becerra wrote in his brief.
The State Attorney General continued, stating this interpretation of the law, “would subject all women who suffer a pregnancy loss to the threat of criminal investigation and possible prosecution for murder.
“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,” he stated.
For the ACLU of Northern California, Becker and Perez’s cases “have deeply troubling implications for California and the rest of the nation.
“The DA’s efforts in the Perez and Becker cases represent some of the most extreme and invasive effort to assert government control over pregnant people’s bodies, and if successful, could potentially giving prosecutors the power to criminalize a wide range of behavior,” the organization argues.