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Mother's Murder Retrial Starts

Prosecutors say the Mead Valley drug user's baby died from meth- tainted breast milk.

April 13, 2006|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

A Riverside County woman being retried on charges of killing her infant son with methamphetamine-tainted breast milk knew her drug use could be lethal and tried to cover up his death, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.

Amy Leanne Prien's murder trial comes seven months after a state appeals court overturned her second-degree murder conviction in 2003, ruling the trial judge had erred when he instructed the jury.

In the new trial, Deputy Dist. Atty. Allison Nelson is focusing on trying to prove that Prien, of Mead Valley, knew her chronic methamphetamine use could kill her 3-month-old son, Jacob Wesley Smith, but continued using the drug regardless. The appeals court had ruled that the prosecutor would have to prove this "implied malice" to win a second-degree murder conviction.

"There's no doubt the defendant is a meth addict and that she transmitted meth to her child through the method of breast milk," prosecutor Allison Nelson told jurors at Riverside County Superior Court in Corona.

Stephen Yagman, Prien's attorney, argued in his short opening statement that prosecutors lacked the evidence to show Prien caused her son's death by breast-feeding and said that Prien's roommate might have been responsible.

"This baby was weaned a long time before this occurred," Yagman told jurors. "The only one thing that matters is causation of death, and there's no evidence that breast milk caused that baby to die."

Yagman also told jurors it was suspicious that the Riverside County coroner lost a baby bottle that was near Prien's bed when the infant died.

"You will find -- to your shock -- that the coroner didn't test that bottle, and lost that bottle," Yagman said.

Yagman contends that Prien's roommate at the time, Donald Fox, was dealing drugs from their home and sometimes packaged meth in baby bottle liners as a way to deliver the drug to his buyers.

During Prien's first trial, Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask said he hoped the aggressive prosecution would be a deterrent methamphetamine use in the region, which he said was rampant.

Nelson told jurors in her opening statement that Prien would often smoke meth in her bedroom, then breast-feed Jacob.

Prien found the baby dead on her bed the morning of Jan. 19, 2002. The prosecutor said Prien didn't call 911 for an hour, so she had time to escort a pair of drug buyers from Corona out of her home and clean up drugs and drug paraphernalia in the home.

"You don't want police to find your drug stash," Nelson told jurors.

Judge Patrick F. Magers, who did not hear the previous case, this week ruled that the prosecutor could introduce evidence of Prien's previous arrests and drug use. Nelson told jurors of Prien's 2000 arrest on suspicion of methamphetamine possession, her positive drug test from the day of Jacob's death, and a later April 2002 positive drug test.

Nelson said that when Prien was asked by the Sheriff's Department how the meth got into the baby, first "she said she had quit breast-feeding," then "came up with a story of meth being slipped into her coffee."

Nelson told jurors she planned to call about 40 witnesses, including Prien's fellow drug users and a paternal grandmother who Nelson said had told Prien before Jacob's death, "Drugs and kids don't mix."

Fox, the first prosecution witness, said he saw Prien breast-feeding Jacob "a couple days prior to him dying" and telling her, "What are you doing, Amy? You're high on meth." Fox testified, "She told me to mind my own ... business."

In a transcript of the first trial, however, Fox testified he last saw Prien nursing Jacob a month before the death.

A state appeals court in September reversed Prien's 2003 sentence of 15 years to life in prison, throwing out the murder conviction and three other felony child endangerment charges relating to Prien's handling of her three surviving children.

The court upheld her conviction of felony child endangerment relating to Jacob's death but ruled that Prien must be resentenced for that crime.

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