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Mother is acquitted of child murder

Woman thought the newborn she threw out was a large blood clot, she says. Jury deadlocks on manslaughter.

December 13, 2007|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

A Catalina Island woman was acquitted Wednesday of murdering her newborn daughter and stuffing the body into a trash container, in the second rebuff this month to Los Angeles County prosecutors seeking criminal convictions for baby dumping.

Leticia Castro sobbed loudly and thanked the jury for its decision in the 2004 case, said Jay Glaser, her attorney.

Castro, 30, gave birth on a Catalina Island ferry to a 6-pound girl, whose body was found in a trash bin at the Port of Long Beach the next afternoon. Castro said she had thought the baby was a large blood clot.

Jurors said there was insufficient evidence that the baby had been born alive to support a murder charge, but they deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction on involuntary manslaughter. Lawyers were asked to return Jan. 3 to set another trial date or to resolve the case.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Todd Hicks said murder convictions for mothers with newborns are rare, because juries and judges think women are incapable of killing their children. And "since the mother usually gives birth alone, it's hard to prove a lot of factors," he said.

The recent case of USC architecture student Holly Ashcraft is a prime example, Hicks said. Over two years, three judges have tossed out murder charges against Ashcraft, 22, accused in 2005 of hiding her pregnancy and then dumping her infant son in a trash bin near campus. Earlier this month, a Superior Court judge said Ashcraft could be prosecuted only for child abuse.

"These incidents aren't rare as a phenomenon, but it's fairly rare that they're prosecuted," said Mark Geragos, Ashcraft's attorney. "What the mothers did after the birth and what condition the babies were in are, in almost every case, what the issue comes down to."

Glaser said his client had a thyroid condition that mimicked many symptoms of pregnancy. The experience of giving birth was so traumatic that she went into a trance-like state and was shocked the next day when told she had had a baby, he said.

Glaser referenced medical records showing that Castro visited doctors twice during her eighth months of pregnancy complaining of odd symptoms. Doctors took blood tests but did not check for pregnancy.

Castro, who worked as a retail clerk on Catalina, was returning to Avalon from a Sept. 29 Chamber of Commerce dinner in the island community of Two Harbors when she gave birth in a bathroom on the express ferry.

She stuffed the baby and some bloodied paper towels into a plastic bag, left the bag in a small trash container and then barricaded herself in a stall, Hicks said.

When a nurse arrived, Castro said she had passed a blood clot and flushed it down the toilet, a story she repeated to staff at Avalon Municipal Hospital, the prosecutor said. After finding a torn umbilical cord during Castro's medical exam, hospital workers called police, Hicks said.

Several witnesses, including Castro's married boyfriend, testified that they had not realized she was pregnant, Glaser said. The boyfriend, the father of the baby, broke into tears on the stand.

Castro was described as a hard worker and model mother devoted to her 8-year-old daughter, Jasmine, by another father.

Hicks argued that Castro did not want her pregnancy and that it "did not fit her lifestyle."

Glaser said: "In this country, we do not distinguish between these types of cases and murder. They prosecuted her no differently than they would have someone who walked up to a person on Wilshire and shot him in the head."

The case was heard by L.A. County Superior Court Judge Gary Ferrari in Long Beach.

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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