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Trial in Baby's Meth Demise Begins

Witnesses in Riverside County's murder case against the mother describe a drug culture in the home, including a delay in calling 911.

August 14, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

The sad, pervasive culture of Inland Empire methamphetamine use was laid bare in a Riverside courtroom Wednesday, as the murder trial of Amy Prien finally began.

Prien, 31, is charged with killing her infant son by allowing him to ingest methamphetamine, possibly through drug-tainted breast milk. She was so addicted that when she would "crash" after being high for several days, Prien's other children could not wake her, even by trying to pry her eyelids open, supervising Deputy Dist. Atty. Allison Nelson told jurors in her opening statement.

"At the time of his death," Nelson said, 3-month-old Jacob Wesley Smith "had significant amounts of methamphetamine in his body.... The mother also had methamphetamine in her body, and the evidence will

Defense attorney Stephen Yagman made no opening argument, reserving his right to do so later in a trial that has seen many delays. In the hallway outside Judge W. Charles Morgan's courtroom in Superior Court, Yagman said his client had weaned Jacob onto a baby bottle months before his death, discounting the allegation that drug-tainted breast milk might be responsible for the tragedy.

"They've got no case," he said.

In response to Yagman's comments, Nelson said, "We'll let the jury decide."

In July, Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask said he hoped the aggressive prosecution of Prien would send a strong message to drug abusers and help stem the rampant methamphetamine use in the county.

Prien, pale and exhausted-looking, sat quietly, her long hair in a neat ponytail as witnesses described a succession of homes, including trailers, a shed and a modest Mead Valley house, where she lived with her children and allegedly sold and smoked methamphetamine.

One witness testified that after Prien awoke and discovered Jacob's tiny, motionless body on Jan. 19, 2002, no one called 911 until after a bulky safe used to hold Prien's drug supply and money was lugged down the hall to her daughters' room.

The witness, Elizabeth King, 18, a friend of the defendant's younger daughter, testified that she had slept at Prien's house in Mead Valley that night. She said she and the daughter were awakened by a roommate of Prien, Don Fox, who shoved the safe under an ironing board in the girls' room, then called 911 while Prien lay on the living room floor, sobbing.

The original cause of death for the baby was given as sudden infant death syndrome. After toxicology reports showed traces of methamphetamine in Jacob's system, Riverside County chief pathologist Joseph Cohen declared the death cardiac arrhythmia from methamphetamine intoxication.

All three witnesses Wednesday said Prien would keep the bedroom door closed when using or selling drugs, while her three older children were in other rooms or outdoors playing.

The prosecution's first witness, Daniel Bleam, an admitted addict who said he used the drug to stay awake on a night-shift mechanic's job, testified that she regularly sold him methamphetamine packaged in disposable baby bottle liners.

Bleam had told investigators that he recalled seeing Prien breastfeed her infant twice, but on Wednesday he provided a different version of events. In court, Bream said he saw her holding the baby to her chest when he was fussy but that he couldn't see through a baby blanket over Jacob's head to discern whether he was breastfeeding.

Defense attorney Yagman said the charge that Prien had sold the drug in bottle liners was "not true. The witness has no credibility. Look at him."

Prien's mother, Janelle Dzik, said outside the courtroom that her daughter had weaned the child after a few weeks.

"Whatever they do to her, it won't be any worse than what she's already suffered" by losing Jacob, said Dzik, who is now raising Prien's other three children.

The last witness of the day, Eddy Loverso, said in a low voice that she was a good friend of Prien's and that they used methamphetamine daily in the bathroom and bedroom of Prien's home while she was pregnant with Jacob and after he was born.

She said she and Prien had talked about how "we don't want our children to grow up to be like us, using drugs. We wanted them to get an education, to be someone."

King and Loverso testified that they had fed Jacob with baby bottles a few times and had seen Prien do the same.

"Did you like baby Jacob?" the prosecutor asked Loverso.

"Aw, heck, yeah, he was a cute little boy," she replied.

Prien could get life in prison if convicted of murder, up to six years each on four counts of child endangerment, and an additional five years if found guilty of child endangerment leading to death. There is also a misdemeanor drug charge.

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