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Meth Infant's Mother Fails to Take Stand

Perris woman feels the case wasn't made that her son died by tainted breast milk, lawyer says.

September 04, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

The attorney for the Perris woman accused of murdering her infant son, allegedly by allowing him to ingest methamphetamine-tainted breast milk, wrapped up his defense Wednesday without calling his client to the witness stand.

Attorney Stephen Yagman announced last week that Amy Leanne Prien would testify in her own behalf, but on Wednesday changed his mind. He said Prien, 31, decided her testimony was not necessary because the prosecutor had failed to prove she killed her son, 3-month-old Jacob Wesley Smith.

Riverside County Supervising Deputy Dist. Atty. Allison Nelson had said the day before that she was looking forward to questioning Prien.

Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan ruled Wednesday that the jury will also be allowed to consider convicting Prien of a lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter. Prien also faces four felony child-endangerment charges that, Morgan ruled, jurors can also reduce to misdemeanors.

On Jan. 19, 2002, Prien found her youngest child dead in her bed. She was charged with murder after toxicology tests by the county coroner's officer determined that Jacob had methamphetamine in his system, possibly ingested through her breast milk.

Prien also was charged with child endangerment for allegedly placing her four children in an environment that included methamphetamine use and sales from her home.

Following closing statements, expected to be completed today, the jury will weigh three weeks of testimony and consider options ranging from acquittal to a 15-year-to-life prison term on the murder charge.

Yagman said his client decided not to testify Wednesday morning. Yagman said that the judge had "flustered" him in court Tuesday by suggesting Prien take the stand early, before Yagman called on another witness Wednesday.

"[Prien] decided it wasn't necessary for her to take the stand," Yagman said. "She didn't believe there was evidence to support the idea of transmission of methamphetamine from her to baby Jacob, and there was no evidence the baby's death was by methamphetamine intoxication."

Yagman said the judge's decision to allow the jury to consider the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter could be beneficial to his client. That charge carries a maximum prison sentence of four years -- and Prien already has served more than 13 months in Riverside County Jail.

"Involuntary manslaughter is an ocean and a continent away from murder," Yagman said. "This has been built as a murder case."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Kevin Ruddy said Prien remains subject to "substantial" prison time even with an involuntary manslaughter ruling because the four child-endangerment felonies each carry a maximum sentence of six years.

But the judge's ruling allows the jury to reduce the child-endangerment counts to misdemeanors punishable to six months in jail for each count.

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