Advocates Challenge Woman’s Wrongful Imprisonment for Stillbirth

Motion Seeks to Reopen Case

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FRESNO — Today, attorneys representing Adora Perez, a woman charged with murder for a stillbirth, filed a motion in the California Court of Appeal, arguing that she cannot be charged with murder for a pregnancy outcome. The ACLU of Northern California and Drug Policy Alliance filed amicus briefs in support.

After Perez lost her pregnancy in late 2017, Kings County prosecutors charged her with murder for taking methamphetamines while pregnant. This, despite the fact that California law explicitly exempts women from murder liability for any actions they take that may end their pregnancy. 

The motion argues that the court, prosecutors, and Perez’s lawyers all wrongly assumed that Perez could be legally convicted of murder for delivering a stillbirth. Perez’s lawyer failed to contest the prosecutors’ misuse of the law. Instead, Perez’s attorney advised her to plead guilty to manslaughter to avoid more serious murder charges. As a result, Perez accepted the plea and was sentenced to 11 years in prison, the maximum term for manslaughter.

“Ms. Perez was prosecuted for a crime that doesn’t exist and is now imprisoned based on a plea that shouldn’t have been accepted,” said Mary McNamara of Swanson & McNamara LLP, Perez’s new attorney. “We are filing this motion to reopen her case, and we are working to secure Ms. Perez’s release as soon as possible.”

The ACLU argues that Perez’s conviction also violates the U.S. and California Constitutions. Laws that criminalize people for their pregnancy outcomes create a near-limitless level of liability under which women could be charged with murder for any behavior that could potentially harm their pregnancy, including jaywalking or working at a physically strenuous or stressful job.  

“The prosecution’s fixation on punishment instead of prevention is unconstitutional and backward,” said Jennifer Chou, Reproductive Justice and Gender Equity Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “We should all be asking ourselves: why is it that we have little to no money to spend on supporting parents, pregnant women, and people suffering from addiction, but unlimited funds for incarceration?”

Earlier this year, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a brief in support of Chelsea Becker, who, like Adora Perez, is being charged with murder by the same prosecutors after a stillbirth in Kings County.

“In addition to violating the law, punishing people for the outcomes of their pregnancies harms pregnancies, expectant parents, and families as a whole,” said Kellen Russoniello, Senior Staff Attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance. “This approach is strongly opposed by medical and public health professionals, who agree that expanding access to voluntary, patient-centered prenatal and substance use services is the ethical and effective way to improve birth outcomes.”

If the motion is successful, Perez will be able to reopen her appeal.

Perez is represented by Mary McNamara and Audrey Barron of Swanson & McNamara LLP and Matthew Missakian of the Law Office of C. Matthew Missakian.

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