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Woman Whose Baby Died of Meth Gets Life; D.A. Calls It a Message

A murder case is considered ammunition against Riverside County's drug abuse trend.

October 31, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

A Riverside County judge on Thursday sentenced Amy Leanne Prien of Perris to life in prison for murdering her infant son by allowing him to ingest a lethal dose of methamphetamine, possibly through her breast milk.

The mother of four, convicted of second-degree murder and child endangerment in early September, did not take the stand to plead for mercy, nor did any members of her family. Prien, 31, will be eligible for parole in 15 years.

Prien's 3-month-old son, Jacob Wesley Smith, was found dead in Prien's bed Jan. 19, 2002. The Riverside County coroner initially determined that the boy had died of sudden infant death syndrome, but toxicology tests later found traces of methamphetamine in the boy's stomach and blood system.

Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask made Prien's prosecution a top priority, saying he wanted her case to serve as a deterrent for other drug abusers and to help change the county's reputation as the nation's "methamphetamine capital."

During the three-week trial, prosecution witnesses described Prien's home -- then in Mead Valley -- as a squalid drug den frequented by users and dealers. Afterward, one juror said Prien might have loved her son, but "she loved that meth more."

"She shows no remorse and no attention to the consequences of her actions," said Allison Nelson, the Riverside County supervising deputy district attorney who prosecuted Prien. "The only way to protect society and her children was imposing a life sentence."

Superior Court Judge Charles W. Morgan handed down the sentence after dismissing a motion for a new trial by Prien's attorney, Stephen Yagman.

Yagman said he would file an appeal, contending that Prien was erroneously convicted of second-degree murder based on faulty jury instructions that felony child endangerment could be considered an inherently dangerous crime.

Throughout the sentencing hearing, Prien sat expressionless in court. Yagman said he did not see any benefit to calling Prien or her family members to the stand.

"We decided not to do that for two reasons: We firmly believe the conviction will be reversed, and there was no point to do it," Yagman said. "I told the judge my view of reality was that he was going to do what he wanted to do notwithstanding anything that anyone would say. I thought it'd be futile."

The prosecutor argued that Prien deserved a tough sentence and said letting her out early would put her other three children at risk.

During the trial, Nelson argued that the boy's death was probably caused by Prien's drug-tainted breast milk. She said the boy also might have ingested the methamphetamine from baby bottle liners, which were used to package the drug in Prien's home.

"This was a very aggravated situation, in that Amy was very aware of the danger she was subjecting upon Jacob, to the point where a month earlier she had fallen asleep on top of him and nearly killed him then," Nelson said.

Nelson urged the judge to consider a recent probation report on Prien in which she denied using methamphetamine.

"Even though she tested dirty four times, and witnesses saw her doing it?" Nelson said. "My point to the judge was that she just doesn't get it, and that her surviving and future children would still be in danger if she were to receive a light sentence.

In recent months, three Riverside County mothers accused of methamphetamine use have been charged with felony child endangerment and drug use or possession, and have struck plea bargains.

Yvonne Roman accepted a two-year state prison term. Sherlynn Michelle Essman received a 120-day jail term and probation through 2007. Narda Herrera was sentenced to 150 days in jail, ordered to take parenting classes for one year and fined $1,000.

"[Prien's conviction] was an amazing accomplishment, and I think it's serious enough for many others to start taking this issue very seriously," said Vicki Hightower, the county deputy district attorney who prosecuted Essman and Herrera.

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