Public Outrage May Have Helped Clear Mother of Murder Charge Over Fatal Home Birth

Kelsey Carpenter's newborn died shortly after she gave birth in 2020, and she faced life in prison until a recent deal with the local district attorney.

Public Outrage May Have Helped Clear Mother of Murder Charge Over Fatal Home Birth
Photo:Kelsey Carpenter/Facebook

Three years ago, Kelsey Carpenter, now 34, planned a home birth for her third child. She’d long battled with substance abuse problems and feared her baby would be taken from her by the state if she had a hospital birth, since she’d lost custody of her first two children after testing positive for drugs prior to this pregnancy. Carpenter prepared extensively for the home birth, consulting with a midwife and even naming her then-unborn child Kiera. But after giving birth, Carpenter passed out due to significant blood loss, and when she awoke, found her newborn unresponsive and called 911 after unsuccessfully performing CPR on the infant.

Carpenter was taken to the police station and, while still in shock and significant physical pain, was arrested and charged with homicide and felony child abuse, and would eventually face life in prison. The case has drawn national media attention, particularly after Roe v. Wade was overturned, and the mistreatment, policing, and criminalization of pregnant people in the U.S. became of even more dire concern. A county coroner deemed the newborn’s death an accident in the autopsy from 2020, and a state law that took effect this year prohibits criminal charges for pregnancy loss. Despite this, the county district attorney’s office pressed on in its case, charging Carpenter with murder “with malice.” In June, speaking to Jezebel, Carpenter’s attorney Amber Fayerberg described the then-ongoing case as both a “harbinger and a symptom” of life after Roe.

The mother of two was first released on bail in 2021, but has been in jail since January, after she missed a hearing because she checked herself into rehab. On December 4, the Guardian reported that California prosecutors dismissed the murder charge against Carpenter. She could be released in January, Fayerberg told Jezebel this week.

Fayerberg says that public pressure and outrage over the murder charge against Carpenter might have pushed the DA to drop it, but that above all, it was dropped because prosecutors’ case was “fundamentally weak.” She also emphasized that it’s an important outcome for pregnant people across the country in our precarious post-Roe reality: “[Carpenter’s] case exemplifies a problem that exists not only in California, but across the United States—that pregnant people are regularly penalized when they seek help,” Fayerberg said. “As a result, they fear Child Welfare Services, the police, hospitals, and this is ultimately to the detriment of their health and public health in general.”

Carpenter’s arrest warrant from March 2021 charged her with intrauterine drug use and having a baby at home alone. But in January, a new state law took effect: The law prohibits people from being criminally charged for behaviors during pregnancy that could lead to miscarriage or abortion. Soon after, the district attorney’s office pivoted to focusing on Carpenter’s behaviors after giving birth, arguing in July that Carpenter’s “is not a reproductive rights case,” but “a case about massive parental failure.” Fayerberg in turn argued that the new California law does protect Carpenter, whose case wouldn’t have drawn attention from law enforcement at all were it not for her behaviors during pregnancy and her home birth. Fayerberg further argued the new state law protects “any acts or omissions with respect to pregnancy, including perinatal death,” meaning it protects Carpenter’s decision to have a home birth.

Carpenter’s lawyers also cited the findings of a Yale expert who reviewed her case records and determined a rupture to be the probable cause of death for Kiera, and that there was no evidence that substance use had been a factor. Police and medical examiners ultimately conceded that it’s not illegal to have an unattended home birth and that Kiera might not have survived even if Carpenter delivered at a hospital.

The struck charge came after extensive negotiations between Carpenter’s counsel and the San Diego County district attorney’s office. And while the DA did drop the charge, Carpenter pleaded guilty to a child endangerment charge, prompting a judge to sentence her to two years in prison after prosecutors initially sought a six-year sentence. But Carpenter could be released as early as next month because the DA’s office confirmed that she’s accumulated enough jail credits through the time she’s already served. A spokesperson for the DA shared a statement with the Guardian acknowledging that Carpenter “sought to accept responsibility for endangering her newborn resulting in death,” and added that the district attorney’s office “analyzes cases individually to determine whether a particular resolution serves the interests of overall justice.”

In a new statement, Carpenter said she hopes prosecutors and Child Welfare Services (CWS) will “change the way they treat pregnant women with substance use disorders.” She continued, “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.” Fayerberg said she hopes further policy change will allow “pregnant people to be able to go to the hospital without fear,” and seek prenatal resources including support for addiction without these resources being “misused as tools for investigation and punishment.”

Even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe, criminal charges for pregnancy and perinatal outcomes—from self-managed abortion to stillbirths—were more common than they should be. In 2023 alone, Pregnancy Justice has worked on dozens of cases involving the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes, and tracked nearly 2,000 between 1973 (when Roe was decided) and June 2022 (when Roe was overturned.) As pregnant people’s rights are further dismantled, their behaviors—including behaviors that “wouldn’t otherwise be criminal, were they not pregnant”—become subject to further criminalization, Pregnancy Justice’s president Lourdes Rivera told Jezebel earlier this year.

Fayerberg said the decision is a crucial step toward unifying and healing Carpenter and her family, adding that she’s “so happy for Kelsey, that she can start to piece her life back together.” But she also emphasized the toll of pregnancy-related criminal charges is “irreversible.”

“They’re wrenched away from their families, the effect on their professional life, the financial impact, their relationships with their kids, loss of actual years of their life, the trauma,” she explained. “Even when a case is resolved favorably, that doesn’t erase or mitigate the effects of criminalizing someone in the first place.”

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