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Woman Is Accused of Murder After Breast-Fed Son Is Found to Have Meth in His System

The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO — A Northern California woman has been accused of knowingly killing her infant son by breast-feeding him shortly after ingesting large amounts of methamphetamine, which rendered her milk toxic.

The woman, Maggie Jean Wortmon, 26, was arraigned on Wednesday in Humboldt County Superior Court on charges of second-degree murder — punishable by 15 years to life — along with child abuse and involuntary manslaughter. The arraignment stems from the death of her 6-week-old son, Michael, who was found unresponsive one November morning last year in the town of Loleta, Calif., north of San Francisco.

The baby was pronounced dead at a local hospital, and was later discovered to have methamphetamine in his system. This year, Ms. Wortmon was charged with child endangerment and involuntary manslaughter.

But on Wednesday, a charge of murder was added after prosecutors said that they had determined that Ms. Wortmon had shown "conscious disregard" for her child by using drugs and then nursing.

"I think that her conduct is, or was, so intentionally reckless that it rises to the level of implied malice," said Ben McLaughlin, a deputy district attorney in Humboldt County. "And I think that a mother who is breast-feeding using the quantity of methamphetamine she did, I think that rises to a second-degree murder charge."

M. C. Bruce, a lawyer for Ms. Wortmon, rejected that accusation, saying that she was innocent and that the accusation of murder was excessive.

"This is an overcharge," Mr. Bruce said, adding that Ms. Wortmon was an addict, not a killer. "It makes her out to be a terrible, horrible person who needs to be locked away for the rest of her life. And my client is not that person."

While methamphetamine abuse is a common problem — particularly in California's rural areas — such charges are extremely rare. In 2003, a mother in Southern California, Amy Prien, was convicted of second-degree murder after breast-feeding a baby with her methamphetamine-laced milk. That conviction was overturned, though Ms. Prien eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

In the Humboldt case, Mr. McLaughlin said that Ms. Wortmon had been warned by friends and others to feed the baby formula if she was going to use methamphetamine. Nonetheless, he says Ms. Wortmon admitted to using "a lot of meth" the night before her child died.

Mr. Bruce contested that version of events, saying that Ms. Wortmon — "an impoverished Native American woman" who was already on parole for another drug-related offense — had not used the drug the day before Michael's death.

Mr. McLaughlin acknowledged that it could be a challenge to convince a jury of intent, but said he believed that the charges could be proved.

There was also a secondary goal, he said. "Does it give one meth-addicted mother pause before she breast-feeds?" he asked. "As trite as it sounds, if it does, then it is a success."