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Judge Declares a Mistrial in Breast-Milk Death Case

Jury deadlocks in the murder trial of Amy Prien of Perris. Tests revealed meth in her infant son's organs.

June 23, 2006|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

A Riverside County judge declared a mistrial Thursday after a jury deadlocked on murder charges against Amy Leanne Prien, who was accused of killing her infant son by feeding him methamphetamine-tainted breast milk.

The trial was the second for the Perris woman, whose 2003 second-degree murder conviction was overturned last fall by a state appellate court because the trial judge gave the jury inaccurate instructions.

Prien, 34, was originally sentenced to life in prison, with eligibility for parole after 15 years. The 4th District Court of Appeal upheld her earlier conviction of felony child endangerment, but the 10-year sentence she received for that crime may be reconsidered by the trial judge.

Supervising Deputy Dist. Atty. Allison J. Nelson said she was disappointed by the jury's findings, but that the case had sent a strong signal to methamphetamine users that meth-related crimes would not be tolerated.

"Ms. Prien is still convicted of felony child endangerment in the death of Jacob Smith, and so we know she's doing a 10-year term on that," Nelson said.

Prien's 3-month-old son "did have a right to life and, if she couldn't control her drug addiction, then she needed to put him in a safe place where he wasn't exposed to methamphetamine."

Nelson said it would be up to Dist. Atty. Grover C. Trask II to decide whether to retry Prien.

Prien's co-counsel, Stephen Yagman, said Jacob's death was caused by pneumonia -- not methamphetamine -- and that prosecutors never had any credible evidence against his client.

"The district attorney, who said he wanted to make an example out of Amy, instead made an example out of Grover Trask for being a frivolous prosector," Yagman said.

During the trial, which was held in Superior Court Judge Patrick F. Magers' courtroom in Corona, Nelson tried to convince the jury that Prien knew her drug use could kill her son, who Nelson said died of "acute methamphetamine intoxication."

Toxicology tests showed methamphetamine in Jacob's blood, liver and stomach.

But the autopsy did not determine how the boy ingested the drug.

Prien used the drug for more than a decade, and friends testified they had used methamphetamine with her throughout her pregnancy and while she cared for Jacob. But Prien told jurors during the second trial that she did not use drugs while she was pregnant.

Yagman contended that prosecutors did not have evidence to prove that breast milk killed Jacob. He noted that Prien's breast milk was not tested at the time of his death.

Yagman also said the coroner's office lost a critical piece of evidence: a baby bottle. The prosecutor alleged that Jacob may have ingested the drug from a baby-bottle liner, since liners were being used to package and sell drugs in Prien's home. Yagman said that bottle could have proved his client did nothing wrong.

Prien said she stopped breastfeeding in November, more than two months before she found Jacob dead in her bed on Jan. 19, 2002. But Donald Fox, Prien's roommate, testified that he watched her breastfeed Jacob several days before the child's death.

Defense attorneys said that Fox might have caused the child's death because he sometimes delivered the drug to his clients in baby-bottle liners. They also noted that Fox testified during the first trial that he saw Prien breastfeed Jacob a month before he died -- not two days.

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