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Meth Baby Murder Trial Winds Up

Prosecutor says mother created a negligent lifestyle that led to son's death. Defense cites lack of evidence. The jury is set to deliberate today.

September 05, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

As she showed a photograph of Jacob Wesley Smith's tiny body, a Riverside County prosecutor urged a jury to convict a Perris woman of second-degree murder for allegedly allowing her 3-month-old son ingest a lethal dose of methamphetamine.

"You have seen an overwhelming amount of evidence of a mother who cared less about her child and his well-being," Supervising Deputy Dist. Atty. Allison Nelson said in a blistering closing statement. "All she cared about was herself and her selfish drug addiction. This set in motion a chain of events that led to his death, and is why that lady over there is guilty of murdering her little baby."

Amy Leanne Prien, 31, was charged with murder after her son was found dead in her Mead Valley home Jan. 19, 2002. During three weeks of testimony, the prosecutor laid out Prien's long history of drug abuse and told of the squalid home she provided for her young children. Nelson contended the boy died after ingesting a lethal dose of the drug, possibly through his mother's breast milk.

San Bernardino County medical examiner Frank Sheridan, the prosecution's final witness, concurred with the coroner's finding that the amounts of methamphetamine found in the infant's blood, liver and stomach were lethal. He also agreed with the finding that the drug entered the baby's system orally, possibly through breast-feeding or a methamphetamine-contaminated baby bottle liner.

Defense attorney Stephen Yagman, in his closing statement, stressed to jurors that the prosecution failed to determine exactly how the infant ingested the drug.

He also noted that the coroner's office lost a baby bottle found in Prien's home -- evidence he argued could have proved his client did nothing wrong. The bottle could have shown there was no methamphetamine was in the liner, he said. It also would have verified witness statements that Prien had weaned her baby from breast-feedings, disproving the allegation that drug-tainted breast milk killed the child, he said.

"It's not good enough to say, 'Dead baby. Meth mother. Jury, you connect the dots,' " Yagman said. "The dots have to be connected with evidence, and they're not."

Yagman maintained that Jacob died of sudden infant death syndrome, which is what the county coroner listed as the cause -- until toxicology tests found methamphetamine in the baby's system.

Prien, who has three other children, also faces four felony child endangerment charges for allegedly subjecting her children to a dangerous environment at home and four misdemeanor charges for allegedly using and possessing a controlled substance.

If found guilty of murder, she would be subject to a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

The jury is expected to begin deliberating today.

Jurors were instructed by Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan that they had the option of choosing to convict Prien of involuntary manslaughter instead of murder, and that they could reduce the child endangerment charges to misdemeanors.

She was dressed in a light-blue sweater top and smiled at relatives in the courtroom, including her 4-year-old daughter, Sarah, and her mother, Janelle Dzik, and Jacob's paternal grandfather. Prien did not testify.

Her daughter was carried out of the courtroom seconds after Nelson displayed a photograph of Jacob in an overhead projector. The brown-haired infant was shown lying face-down on Prien's bed, wearing a sleeper.

"You've gotten to learn about his mother and the manner she did -- or did not -- care for little Jacob," Nelson said. "You've heard evidence that proves it was his mother who was responsible for the death of little Jacob by her use of methamphetamine, her favorite drug of choice."

Nelson told jurors that Prien's drug abuse and sales inside her home created a criminally negligent lifestyle that caused the infant's death.

"The defendant in this case had choices to make," Nelson said. "She chose to take drugs, to keep having children, to take more drugs and invite [a drug dealer] into her home."

Nelson then nodded to the photograph the boy's body.

"One person didn't have choices. [Prien] made choices for him, and those choices killed him."

In response, Yagman read back the testimony of chief forensic pathologist Joseph Cohen who, when asked if the baby died of methamphetamine-laced breast milk, responded: "Maybe." Yagman also accused Cohen of altering a death certificate that changed the infant's manner of death from accidental to homicide.

" 'Maybe' is not good enough to convict," Yagman said. "They changed the rules to make this prosecution possible. They wanted to hang [Prien's] scalp on their stick."

Yagman has insisted the aggressive prosecution of his client was part of a district attorney's agenda to take hard legal stands against drug users in a county regarded as the methamphetamine capital of the world.

"They want this to be a poster case in their don't-take-meth campaign," Yagman told jurors. "But you can't do that with someone's life. You have to treat everyone fairly."

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