California woman cleared of murder charge for baby’s death in home birth

<span>Photograph: Courtesy of Shande Carpenter</span>
Photograph: Courtesy of Shande Carpenter

California prosecutors have dismissed a murder charge against a woman who was facing life in prison after her newborn died in a home birth, resolving a case that sparked national outrage.

Kelsey Carpenter, 34, was arrested in November 2020 for child endangerment after she gave birth at home and called 911 when her baby did not survive. Although the county coroner deemed the death an “accident”, and state law prohibits the prosecution of women for pregnancy losses, the San Diego district attorney, Summer Stephan, charged her with murder “with malice”.

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Last month, after years of court battles, the district attorney dismissed the murder charge and Carpenter pleaded guilty to the lesser count of child endangerment, with a judge sentencing her to two years in prison. With the time she has served in jail, Carpenter could be released as soon as January, her attorneys said on Thursday.

“I don’t want other pregnant women to experience what for me was the worst experience of my life,” Carpenter said in a statement from jail on Sunday. “I lost my child, and then I was prosecuted.”

The district attorney’s office has faced widespread scrutiny after Carpenter spoke out from jail in March about the nightmare she faced in the aftermath of the death of her newborn, whom she had named Keira, saying: “I am still stunned and horrified that a person could have the biggest tragedy of their life and lose a child who was loved and was so wanted, and then be charged with such a horrible crime. I had cherished the idea of this baby and was totally committed to becoming the best mother I knew how to be. I mourn every day for Kiera.”

The case, national advocates said, highlighted growing concerns about the criminalization of women across the US, who have increasingly faced surveillance, arrest and prosecutions for abortions, as well as miscarriages, stillbirths and other actions that law enforcement have claimed “endangered” their fetuses. It was also an example of how punitive responses to drug addiction can cause serious public health harms, her lawyers said.

Carpenter said she has long grappled with substance use disorder, stemming from abuse she endured as a child. Her first two children, born seven years apart, were both immediately taken from her after the hospitals reported the newborns tested positive for drugs, even though they had experienced healthy births and there was no evidence they had suffered consequences from drug exposure, according to her lawyers.

She maintained relationships with both of her sons, and when she became pregnant with Keira, she said: “I did not want to risk losing my third child to the system … I love my babies and hoped to provide a sibling to them.”

Carpenter had contacted a midwife and was preparing for a home birth. She was also in drug treatment, where she was prescribed buprenorphine, an addiction medication that medical associations and health officials have recommended for pregnant patients with opioid use disorder.

She went into labor earlier than expected and gave birth at home alone before losing consciousness. When she awoke, her baby was lifeless, and she attempted CPR and called 911, she said. She was hospitalized, then arrested. The coroner described her loss as “perinatal death associated with methamphetamine and buprenorphine exposure and unattended delivery”.

But a Yale expert who reviewed records for Carpenter’s attorneys said a rupture was probably the cause of death and that there was no evidence drug exposure was a factor. In court, police officials and the medical examiner also acknowledged the loss was “not a homicide”; it was not illegal to have an unattended birth at home nor to use buprenorphine; and that it was possible the baby would have died even if Carpenter had delivered at a hospital.

Still, the San Diego district attorney pressed forward with the murder charge, even after passage of a California law last year that made clear a person cannot be charged for conduct during pregnancy that results in perinatal death or losses such as miscarriage or stillbirth. In court, prosecutors focused on Carpenter’s actions after the birth, alleging that she did not properly secure the umbilical cord and did not call 911 fast enough.

In July, an appeals court allowed the case to proceed, ruling that the state had presented “sufficient cause” to move forward – “albeit by the thinnest of margins”.

Tanya Sierra, a spokesperson for district attorney Stephan, said in a statement on Thursday that Carpenter “sought to accept responsibility for endangering her newborn resulting in death”, adding: “In all criminal matters the District Attorney’s Office analyzes cases individually to determine whether a particular resolution serves the interests of overall justice balancing aggravating and mitigating factors, as we did in this case.”

Carpenter, who was originally released on bail but rearrested after failing to appear, has been locked in county jail since January, separated from her children. Sierra said that Carpenter had 665 days of jail credits as of 16 November, but the spokesperson did not comment on her exact release date, which her attorneys estimate will be in the next month or so. She will have no probationary conditions.

“This means she gets to start moving forward from the tragedy of losing her child and the tragedy of being wrongfully penalized by the state,” said Amber Fayerberg, a consulting attorney for Pregnancy Justice, a non-profit group that represented Carpenter. “I hope this dismissal reverberates throughout California so that we don’t see more of these prosecutions.”

In her statement, Carpenter said she hoped to see prosecutors and Child Welfare Services (CWS) “change the way they treat pregnant women with substance use disorders”, adding: “CWS took my previous two children from me at birth because of my substance use disorder. If CWS was set up to help pregnant women with services to ensure a healthy pregnancy and delivery with the assurance that mother and child would remain, many women would not have to face making less than ideal birthing decisions.”

Brian White, another attorney for Carpenter, said Carpenter hoped to earn a counseling certificate to help other people struggling with addiction and that she would like to engage in advocacy for pregnant women.

White said he was relieved the case was resolved, but added: “She never should’ve been charged with murder in the first place.”