Missouri court overturns conviction of woman whose baby died

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A central Missouri woman who gave birth alone at home and didn't seek medical attention before her baby died should not have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter, an appeals court ruled.

The Missouri Western District Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of 43-year-old Emily Usnick on Tuesday, saying in a unanimous opinion written by Judge Gary Witt that the state didn't prove she acted recklessly or with criminal intent when her baby died in 2009, The Columbia Daily Tribune reported.

"Where even the experts were unable to determine within a reasonable degree of medical certainty a clear cause of death, we cannot say that a lay juror would be able to make a determination that this death was caused by a criminal act as opposed to natural causes," Witt wrote.

Usnick was originally charged with second-degree murder but was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in July 2017. Prosecutors argued that she was guilty because she gave birth unattended, didn't seek medical attention after the birth and put the body in a plastic bag.

An autopsy found that the baby girl had a "potentially lethal" dose of methamphetamine in her blood and liver. She died from a lack of oxygen, but the autopsy didn't specify whether the baby drowned or if methamphetamine caused her death.

The case rested on the unusual question of whether giving birth without medical care can be the basis of a crime.

"Usnick correctly argues (and the State does not contest) that there is no duty imposed on expectant mothers to have a medically attended birth, at the risk of criminal prosecution," Witt wrote.

In the statement of facts in the case, Witt wrote that Usnick was alone when her water broke and she delivered the baby into a toilet. After delivering the placenta, she told investigators, it took her several minutes to recover from the shock before she picked up the baby.

Usnick said in a statement to investigators that she "was so scared" because the baby wasn't moving or breathing. She eventually put the baby's body in a plastic bag and put it in the car trunk. Although an autopsy concluded the baby was alive when it was born, prosecutors did not argue that Usnick had drowned the child.

The baby's body was found when officers conducted a drug raid at Usnick's home in St. Elizabeth. Investigators found large amounts of methamphetamine in the house and Usnick admitted that she had smoked methamphetamine and marijuana the night before giving birth.

Witt wrote that Usnick said she didn't seek medical attention because her car was broken down, she didn't have minutes on her cellphone to call for help and, even if she had minutes, cell service was inconsistent at the house.

Prosecutors presented evidence at trial that Usnick sent text messages the evening of the birth and an ambulance substation was three-quarters of a mile away.

Phillip Zeeck, one of Usnick's attorneys, said in an email to the newspaper Tuesday that the defense argument in its court briefs was its statement on the case.

"Emily's unattended birth was not recklessness; it was beyond her control," the brief states. "She did not choose to go into labor when no one else was home. This argument effectively criminalizes having an unattended birth."

Usnick was sentenced to five years in prison for the involuntary manslaughter conviction and a concurrent five-year sentence for drug possession. She didn't appeal her drug conviction and is still in prison.

The state Attorney General's Office, which handled the appeal, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com