California mother’s conviction for fetal death overturned


A California court has overturned the conviction and 11-year prison sentence of a woman for causing the death of her unborn child through drug use, the state’s top prosecutor said Thursday.

A judge in Kings County Superior Court on Wednesday reversed the conviction of Adora Perez, who pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter in 2018 to avoid a charge of murder of a fetus. The original murder charge was ordered reinstated.

However, Perez was ordered sent from prison to the county jail pending an April 6 lower court hearing where Perez can argue that the law was intended to prosecute people who cause a miscarriage or stillbirth rather than the pregnant women themselves.

"We will review the Court’s ruling and analysis in detail and make a determination on any further action we may take, including appeal," Kings County Executive Assistant District Attorney Philip Esbenshade said in an email Thursday.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta applauded the decision.

"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," he said in a statement. "Bottom line: Pregnant individuals will be protected by the law, not criminalized by it."

Perez gave birth to a full-term, stillborn baby on Dec. 31, 2017, at a hospital in Hanford in the San Joaquin Valley. Perez acknowledged that she had used methamphetamine during the pregnancy, and a doctor believed that the baby had died hours earlier from "extensive drug use" by the mother, according to court documents.

She was charged with fetal murder and pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and the plea was upheld on appeal. The judge in Wednesday’s ruling said that the court shouldn’t have permitted the plea because California’s voluntary manslaughter law doesn’t apply to the unborn.

"There is no crime in California of manslaughter of a fetus," Judge Valerie R. Chrissakis wrote.

That means the woman’s plea bargain was illegal "based upon a factual or legal impossibility and/or non-existent crime," the ruling said.

Perez was one of two women charged with fetal murder in Kings County on grounds that their drug use led to stillbirths. The first woman was charged in 2019, but a Kings County judge dismissed the case last May.

California’s murder law was amended in 1970 to include the death of a fetus. In January, Bonta issued a legal interpretation that said the change was intended to criminalize violence done to pregnant women that caused fetal death. The intent, he said, was never to include a woman’s own actions that might result in a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Otherwise pregnant, addicted women might avoid health care services for fear their substance abuse could lead to criminal prosecution, he said.