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USC Student Faces Trial in Newborn's Death

Holly Ashcraft, 22, is accused of abandoning her son in a trash bin outside her apartment.

September 26, 2006|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

A USC student will stand trial on suspicion of murder and child endangerment for allegedly abandoning her newborn son in a trash bin last year, a judge ruled Monday.

Holly Ashcraft, 22, was arrested and charged in October after her baby was found in a trash bin outside her apartment near campus.

At a hearing to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to bring her to trial, Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner Ronald Rose held that the law "requires parents to provide treatment and care" to a newborn, and failure to do so can be the basis for a murder trial.

Rose rejected arguments by Ashcraft's lawyer, Mark Geragos, that his client could not be charged with murder because the baby's death was not an intentional act.

Deputy Dist. Atty Franco A. Barrata countered: "If I take my son, my newborn, and refuse to feed him because I want him to die [and] I just sit there and watch him, watch him die, that is an intentional act."

Ashcraft, who has been suspended from USC, was a junior majoring in architecture.

A homeless man gathering recyclables found the cardboard box containing the baby, initially identified as John Doe 171 by the county coroner's office, in the trash bin.

Michael Lee Walker testified Friday that he had been fishing through the rubbish around midnight Oct. 9 when he found the box. Walker said he spent about a minute peeling the layers of tape off, thinking it might contain valuables. When he opened the cover, he saw a bundled towel, which he unwrapped.

"I saw two little things sticking up. I thought somebody put an animal in there.... It looked like two little feet," he said. In the darkness, "I touched the little feet, then I saw the baby's head in the corner.

"I backed up and hollered for the girl I was with," said Walker, who called police from a pay phone.

Police said they found envelopes addressed to Ashcraft in the box.

It was the second time Ashcraft was linked to the death of a baby. In April 2004, she showed up at a Los Angeles hospital bleeding after having apparently given birth. She told investigators that the child -- whose body has never been found -- had been stillborn and that she had disposed of it on her own.

Ashcraft was not charged with any crime in that incident. But during last week's hearing, Det. Moses Castillo of the Los Angeles Police Department testified that officers had told Ashcraft during the investigation that a baby could be left at a hospital or fire station with no questions asked.

Commissioner Rose, in ordering Ashcraft to trial, said the woman lived "less than half a mile from a fire station. I presume her residence is where the baby was born. A phone call could have been made, the baby could have been taken to the fire station, aid could have been provided."

During the hearing, Geragos questioned whether the baby was born alive. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy, David Whiteman, determined that the death was a homicide, caused by prematurity and other, unspecified factors.

Whiteman testified several factors led him to conclude that the baby was alive at birth, including the presence of air in the child's lungs. Whiteman said the baby had not been fed.

Geragos cited medical evidence that stillborn babies can have air in their lungs.

Outside the courtroom, Geragos told reporters the finding that the baby was born alive was Whiteman's "conclusion, not what the evidence shows." Geragos said he will move to have the murder charge dismissed before trial.

Ashcraft's arraignment was set for Oct. 10. If convicted, she could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

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peter.hong@latimes.com

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