The Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office has filed a murder charge against a 26-year-old Loleta mother based on allegations she killed her 6-week-old son by feeding him methamphetamine-laced breast milk.
Maggie Jean Wortman was held to answer to charges of involuntary manslaughter and felony child endangerment July 20 at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing, but the DA’s office believes evidence presented during the hearing supports a murder charge.
”I think the conduct was just, in itself, so intentionally reckless that it rises to that level,” said Deputy District Attorney Ben McLaughlin, adding that his office has been mulling the decision since the conclusion of Wortman’s preliminary hearing.
Wortman, who is scheduled to be arraigned today, was free after posting $50,000 bail in the case but was arrested again in April for allegedly violating her probation by testing positive for methamphetamine use. She is currently being held in the Humboldt County jail without bail.
The murder charge seems to set an arduous path for prosecutors, as few cases stemming from similar allegations in California have resulted in murder charges and even fewer have ended with convictions. Told of the DA’s decision Tuesday, Wortman’s attorney M.C. Bruce said the facts of the case simply don’t support the charge.
”This is overcharged,” he said, adding that he plans to immediately file a motion to have the charge reduced. “There is nothing in the preliminary hearing to support this. … My client continues to maintain her innocence. I am hopeful that a good jury that listens to the facts and applies the reasonable-doubt standard appropriately will exonerate her.”
Wortman was arrested after a two-month investigation into the death of her son, Michael Phillip Acosta III, who was transported to a local hospital in November 2010 because he was not breathing. He was pronounced dead later that day.
According to court documents, Dr. Neil Kushner determined Michael’s cause of death to be “methamphetamine toxicity,” and a hair follicle sample taken from Wortman’s then 19-month-old daughter also tested positive for methamphetamine, prompting Child Welfare Services to take her into protective custody.
According to an affidavit for an arrest warrant filed in the case by Sheriff’s Office Detective Kyla Smith, Wortman received prenatal care while pregnant with Michael and tested positive for methamphetamine use when six months pregnant. Wortman allegedly admitted to smoking methamphetamine during pregnancy and doing so approximately three times after Michael was born, according to Smith’s affidavit. The document also states that Wortman exclusively fed Michael through nursing.
The allegations facing Wortman are similar to those Bakersfield’s Karen Henderson faced in 1994, when the then 21-year-old stood trial for murdering her daughter. In that case, prosecutors alleged that Henderson’s 2-month-old son, Jason, died in September 1993 from his mother’s breast milk.
A jury ultimately deadlocked in the case, 11-1 in favor of convicting, but found Henderson guilty of felony child endangerment.
The prosecutor in the case, now Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green, said she remembers the case well, even though she tried it 17 years ago. Green said one of the challenges in the case was that Jason was found to have very low levels of methamphetamine in his system, and the defense argued that he died of sudden infant death syndrome. She suspects this was the stumbling block for the sole juror who voted to acquit.
Green said she felt strongly about the case but decided against retrying Henderson.
”We really gave it our best shot the first time,” she said. “There was one person we just weren’t able to convince.”
In 2002, Riverside County prosecutors tried Amy Leanne Prien on a murder charge after her 3-month-old son was found to have died of acute methamphetamine intoxication. After multiple trials — including one that saw a murder conviction that was overturned by an appellate court — Prien pleaded guilty in 2006 to a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Green, who said she has seen a number of murder charges in these types of cases over the years, said the concept of “implied malice” is a key component of effectively prosecuting the case.
”That’s crucial,” she said.
”Implied malice” holds that if you knowingly commit an act that is inherently dangerous to human life — and someone dies as a result — then you are guilty of murder. The “knowingly” is the key.
In Henderson’s case, Green presented evidence that the mother had been counseled on the dangers associated with prenatal and post-natal drug use and consequently knew her actions were inherently dangerous to human life.
McLaughlin said he plans on prosecuting Wortman under the theory of implied malice.
In a previous interview with the Times-Standard, Smith said she reviewed information and pamphlets routinely given to pregnant mothers at the place Wortman went for prenatal treatment.
”There was a lot of information about drugs and how it affects you and your child, be it born or unborn,” said Smith, who testified at Wortman’s preliminary hearing.
Part of the inherent challenge in prosecuting these cases is that there is a dearth of medical information on the subject of passing methamphetamine through breast milk.
Health officials generally agree that breast feeding is not recommended for mothers who are using methamphetamine recreationally, but there isn’t a whole lot of information available on the effects of doing so nor on the rates at which methamphetamine can be passed to nursing children. No controlled studies have been done on the matter due to ethical concerns of giving recreational methamphetamine to nursing mothers.
One study on the website Drugs.com — which cited data from two mothers — found the women did pass methamphetamine through their breast milk after using the drug intravenously, but did so at relatively low levels. There is also very little available information as to what constitutes a lethal dose of the drug in an infant, also due to the ethical concerns of conducting studies on the topic.
McLaughlin said he realizes this may be a tough case.
”I think it might be an uphill battle, but it’s sort of a fight worth fighting,” he said. “I think it’s an important case because, hopefully, it would discourage people from engaging in similar conduct when they know the punishment can potentially be very severe.”
Bruce said it seems like the DA’s office is just piling on.
”I, as her attorney, am going to use all the resources available to me to prove that this woman does not deserve to go to jail,” he said. “For heaven’s sake, this woman has lost her child. For the DA to charge her with murder is completely inappropriate, and I wonder why they’ve made that decision.”