Formerly Incarcerated Women in Tennessee Win Reforms Ending Shackled Births

Truthout

June 26, 2022

BY

Within 30 days, abortion will become a Class C felony in the state of Tennessee. This is happening because Tennessee is one of the 13 states with a trigger law crafted to ban abortion as soon as the protections offered under Roe v. Wade were overturned. Following the United States Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to strike down Roe v. Wade, the ban is now in the process of being implemented in Tennessee.

But the ban on abortion is only the latest form of state violence that Tennessee, which already has a high maternal mortality rate and the country’s lowest rate of food assistance for families, has been deploying against its pregnant residents.

In 2014, Tennessee became the first state to directly allow women to be prosecuted for drug use during pregnancy. That bill included what’s known as a sunset clause, allowing the law to expire in 2016, but lawmakers have subsequently reintroduced similar bills targeting pregnant people and reproductive rights with permanent implementation. In fact, in early May of this year, Gov. Bill Lee signed a law criminalizing the distribution of abortion medications by mail.

Even while legal in the state, abortion access for incarcerated people has already been massively obstructed. In 2015, Maury County Sheriff Bucky Rowland refused to allow a woman to have an abortion. The woman’s attorney attempted to have a court lower her bond, which would allow her release from jail, but by the time it was lowered, she was too far along in her pregnancy to access the procedure. The woman gave birth three months after her release. In 2016, she filed federal suit against the sheriff for denying her abortion access. A federal court later dismissed her lawsuit.

Until recently, pregnant Tennesseans behind bars suffered an additional indignity — the threat of being handcuffed and chained at the belly and ankles during pregnancy, including while in labor or shortly after having their baby. It’s a practice known as shackling and, as late as 2020, 18 states, including Tennessee, had no statewide restriction on shackling pregnant people.

That last indignity was struck down in mid-May when Tennessee passed a law prohibiting jails and prisons from shackling and restraining pregnant people. Now, only 11 states lack legal protections against the practice.

In states like Tennessee, this legislative win came after years of organizing by reproductive justice advocates, including formerly incarcerated women who had experienced the humiliation and trauma of being restrained throughout pregnancy and sometimes even while in labor.

Laboring in Cuffs

In 2008, Juana Villegas was nine months pregnant when police asked for her driver’s license during a routine traffic stop. When Villegas, who was undocumented, could not produce one, police took her to Nashville’s Davidson County Jail and detained her under the 287(g) program that allowed police to detain people on federal immigration violations.

Three days later, while in jail, Villegas went into labor. Officers cuffed her hands and ankles before allowing an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Two male officers accompanied her. At the hospital, at the request of hospital staff, the officers removed the cuffs while she changed into a hospital gown but re-cuffed her after she had changed.

A third officer, who relieved the two male officers, removed the handcuffs, but kept one of Villegas’s legs cuffed to the bed. A fourth officer removed all restraints two hours before Villegas gave birth; six hours after she gave birth, officers shackled her, by her ankle, to the bed. The baby was sent home with family. Hospital staff gave her a breast pump to take back to the jail, but jail staff refused to let her keep it. Unable to pump, she developed a breast infection. Days later, she was released from the jail and able to rejoin him and her other children.

In 2009, Villegas filed a lawsuit charging the jail with deliberate indifference. In 2013, Nashville officials agreed to a $490,000 settlement. The judge also urged immigration officials to give Villegas a U-visa, usually reserved for immigrants who are crime victims, because her civil rights had been violated. The visa allowed Villegas to remain in the U.S. with her four children, including the son she gave birth to while jailed.

By the time Villegas filed suit, the Davidson County jail had changed its policy on restraining pregnant people in custody. This meant that, when Jawharrah Bahar was at the jail in 2010, she was taken to her doctor’s appointments in handcuffs but not in leg irons. But Bahar does recall that other times jail officers did shackle her feet together, making it nearly impossible to walk without stumbling.

Even when her legs remained unrestrained, she feared falling and being unable to catch herself while handcuffed. The jail-issued shoes never fit properly. “They flopped off my feet,” she told Truthout. “I always had in the back of my mind: I hope I don’t fall.”

When she went into labor, jail officials handcuffed her wrist to a bar in the ambulance. “That was ridiculous,” she said. “Where the hell am I going to go? I’m in labor.” Once she arrived at the hospital, however, she was allowed to give birth to her son unrestrained.

No law, however, prevented other jail and prison officials from shackling pregnant people. In Clay County, two hours northeast of Nashville, jail officials chained women, including pregnant ones, to chairs as late as 2019.

That’s what happened to Shauna Scott, who was 11 weeks pregnant when she was arrested for a probation violation. The woman next to her, Mackenzie Melton, was also pregnant and, while chained to a chair for six days, developed a blood clot. (Melton was transferred to a treatment facility after those six days.)

Advocating for Pregnant People Behind Bars

Dawn Harrington has never been pregnant behind bars. But she spent nearly a year on Rikers Island, New York City’s island-jail complex, in 2008. There, she was surrounded by mothers struggling to parent through 15-minute calls and one-hour visits, to navigate family court proceedings, and to maintain their legal parental rights.

Upon her release, she returned to her home state of Tennessee and co-founded Free Hearts, a local nonprofit by and for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. They provided support and services to women and children impacted by incarceration. They also fought to restore in-person visiting to local jails and helped pass the Primary Caretakers Act, which allows community-based alternatives to incarceration for people who have primary caretaking responsibilities.

Bahar joined Free Hearts in 2016. She had never engaged in advocacy before, but she recalls that, while in jail and then prison, she filed multiple grievances about abusive conditions. “I used to always be fussing about the injustices that [jail and prison officials] were doing,” she said. “I grieved everybody. I wanted to stand up for what’s right.”

With Free Hearts, she started by canvassing Rutherford County (middle Tennessee), where Civil Rights Corp had won a settlement from private probation company Providence Community Corporation (PCC) for extorting fees from people placed under its supervision. They alerted people who had been on probation under PCC that they were eligible for the settlement. Then, she shared her story about giving birth behind bars and being separated from her newborn for over three years. Bahar’s public sharing of her story helped pass the Primary Caretakers Act.

“I never thought I’d be doing no activism or helping pass laws,” Bahar recalled. But now, she is Free Hearts’s outreach director.

In 2017, Harrington attended a convening focused on efforts to end shackling during pregnancy hosted by Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an organization which had passed anti-shackling legislation in California. There, she met formerly incarcerated organizers who had succeeded in passing laws prohibiting shackling during pregnancy in their states. She also met organizers from Oklahoma and Georgia who were still trying to pass similar protections. (They did so in 2018 and 2019 respectively.) Harrington returned home ready to fight for similar protections in Tennessee.

Free Hearts partnered with Healthy and Free Tennessee, a statewide reproductive justice network, to push a package of bills to not only prohibit shackling but also provide minimal standards of prenatal care behind bars and provide breast pumps for new mothers. The package also included a proposal to ban solitary confinement for all pregnant people, since Tennessee has no restrictions against subjecting pregnant people to this practice, which has been proven to negatively affect people’s physical and mental health. For pregnant people, isolation and the inability to walk or exercise also carry negative effects on the development of the fetus.

In 2019, these bills were introduced in both Tennessee state houses. Bahar and other Free Hearts members who had been pregnant behind bars shared their experiences with media and lawmakers. Meanwhile, Healthy and Free Tennessee rallied medical professionals, often alerting them to the practice.

“We work with nursing associations, the Tennessee Medical Association, [groups that have] traditionally not gotten involved in these types of issues,” Nina Gurak, policy director at Healthy and Free Tennessee, told Truthout.

Healthy and Free Tennessee has long worked with anti-violence advocates and organizations across the state. The bill allowed them not only to engage with them about shackling, but also, Gurak recalled, “to pivot from the carceral nature of anti-violence work and build connections. We can all agree shackling is bad.” From there, she said, they expanded their conversations to talk about the ways in which criminalization impacts abuse survivors, including their risk of being arrested when police are called for domestic violence or for physically defending themselves against abusive partners, and why both organizations centered abolition rather than increased policing and imprisonment to stop gender-based violence.

Despite their combined efforts, however, the bills were defeated in legislative subcommittee. In 2020, lawmakers reintroduced them — this time each issue had in its own bill. This time, too, organizers were broadening their strategies.

By then, Free Hearts was launching its Tennessee Regional Organizing Fellowship to develop leadership and organizing skills of formerly incarcerated women throughout the state, particularly in areas where Free Hearts previously had no presence. “We’re from Nashville, we’re mostly Black women,” Harrington told Truthout. “We can’t be the ones to go into some of these communities and organize. The majority of our state is rural, so it has to be people in those communities.” The fellowship enabled them to reach formerly incarcerated women in rural areas, bringing them into the organizing.

Healthy and Free Tennessee reached out to groups tackling intersecting issues. For the prenatal care bill, which includes HIV screening among its minimal standards, the coalition joined with the Tennessee AIDS Action Network to lobby at the capitol. Then the pandemic hit the U.S., shuttering legislative offices and moving advocacy and policy-making online.

As a statewide coalition, Healthy and Free Tennessee was already used to convening online with its partner organizations and advocates in various parts of the state. Members quickly pivoted online, participating in Zoom video conferences not only about these bills but also reaching out to advocates focused on other reproductive and health justice issues, such as abortion access and expanding Medicaid.

Free Hearts, however, was not accustomed to online organizing. Some members struggled with learning the technology while others lived in rural areas without internet or solid phone reception, preventing them from even phoning into Zoom meetings.

Both organizations rejoiced when lawmakers passed the prenatal care bill in June. Although the other bills failed to pass, they vowed to keep pushing until those too became law.

In 2021, the anti-shackling and anti-solitary bills were introduced again alongside a the new Senate Bill 1423, to prohibit staff from conducting body cavity searches on pregnant or postpartum people without authorization from higher-ranking jail or prison officials. All three failed to pass.

“We’re Just Going to Keep Fighting”

In 2022, lawmakers once again introduced bills to prohibit shackling and body cavity searches of pregnant people in jails and prisons.

Free Hearts embarked on a text message campaign, first asking recipients to sign a petition supporting the anti-shackling bill, then asking them to contact their legislators about supporting the bill. The third text asked if they would come to Nashville for the annual lobby day.

“From those, we identified thousands of people that supported this legislation,” Harrington recalled. “Being able to identify over 3,000 people in the heart of rural Tennessee, in very conservative counties, through a text campaign is invaluable. That’s also something we can translate to in-person [organizing].”

This year, they were able to convene at the state capitol again for in-person lobbying. Among them were formerly incarcerated women who had recently been pregnant and in jail. Harrington recalled one woman, who had recently been part of Free Hearts’s jail program and was nearly ready to give birth, sharing her experiences with legislators. She had never been involved in organizing before and the experience, she said, felt powerful. “It’s so important to get a taste of our own power so that we can come together and actually change things,” Harrington said.

The bill was opposed by the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association. At a corrections subcommittee hearing, Jeff Bledsoe, the association’s executive director, testified against the bill. He asserted that jailers sometimes find it necessary to shackle a pregnant woman, giving the example of a 14-bed jail that lacked female cells. When a pregnant woman entered, she was shackled to a chair in the hallway. The woman, he added, had been jailed repeatedly for violating probation by using drugs. “They’re not only putting themselves at harm, but [also] their unborn child,” he told lawmakers.

His logic, noted Gurak, is part of the larger surveillance and policing of pregnant people, ranging from physically restraining pregnant people to jailing them for the supposed safety of the fetus to criminalizing abortion.

Despite the sheriffs’ opposition, lawmakers voted to pass the anti-shackling bill from the committee onto the floor for a vote. This time, it passed and, on May 25, the governor signed it into law. It goes into effect on July 1.

“It’s a reminder that everything that we do has taken multiple years. Every legislation we’ve been able to pass, it’s never been a one-year thing,” Harrington said.

What’s more, she added, it showed formerly incarcerated women, many of whom had never been involved in organizing or activism before, that, “If we could do this, we could do anything. Organizing to build power works and we’re just going to keep fighting until all the things that hold us back are taken down.”

Harrington’s words are worth reflecting on as people across the U.S. now contend with the reality of limited and scattered abortion access. The far right’s slashing of reproductive rights took place over years, and reversing their victories won’t be a “one-year thing.” But mass organizing to build power, particularly by those who are most impacted and have long been marginalized, has proven, again and again, that it is possible to challenge and change reproductive (and other) injustices.

As Gurak stated in a press release minutes after the Supreme Court decision, “While we are heartbroken, we have also been preparing for this possibility, and will continue to center abolition in the fight for reproductive justice for all Tennesseans. We will always oppose laws that punish people for pregnancy outcomes and will always work to provide accurate resources and information, fight for increased resources for pregnant people and families, and advocate for the rights of pregnant people in Tennessee.”

Victims of Forced Sterilization in California Are Fighting for Reparations

Truthout

June 8, 2022

By Ray Levy-Uyeda

Op-Ed Reproductive Rights

In the mid-2000s, Moonlight Pulido experienced a bout of hot flashes, emotional ups-and-downs, and other symptoms of menopause that confused her — after all, she was in her 30s and far too young to be experiencing these kinds of hormonal changes. Days before the symptoms set in, she had undergone what she believed to be a procedure to remove cancerous growths on her internal reproductive organs at the hospital at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California, where she was incarcerated. Instead, she had been forcibly sterilized.

Pulido, who now lives in a reentry program home located in Los Angeles, told Truthout that she didn’t even find out what had happened to her until she returned to the hospital for a postoperative dressing change. She asked the nurse what kind of procedure had been done on her. “She was like, ‘Oh, you had a full hysterectomy’,” Pulido said.

“[He] was a doctor and he worked in a prison, so I didn’t feel like I needed to worry about anything,” Pulido said. “So, when it came for surgery time, I didn’t read the paperwork. I just signed it. I didn’t know I was signing up for a full hysterectomy.”

Though the medical abuse that Pulido endured took place over a decade ago, it’s only recently that she’s been offered an apology for what was done to her and allowed reparative action on behalf of the state agencies that facilitated forced sterilizations. At the end of 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-California) signed legislation into law that established a $4.5 million compensation fund for victims of forced sterilizations. Through December 2023, the California Victim Compensation Board will review applications for reparations filed by people who were forcibly sterilized during two periods of time in which state employees were empowered to decide whether thousands of people were worthy of bodily autonomy and the right to reproduce. The first period was between 1909 and 1979, when eugenics sterilization was legal in the state, and the second was during the time period after, including when Pulido was sterilized.

“It is a victory to even get this type of an acknowledgement, but then the implementation falls way short of what we are hoping for,” said Diana Block, a founding member of the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners. “In this case already we can see that there are many, many obstacles to people actually getting the compensation.”

The number of people who ultimately end up applying for funds is dependent on three factors — if grassroots organizations can let people know that there are funds to be had, if people who are currently or formerly incarcerated can gain access to their own medical records, and if the California Victim Compensation Board can respond with haste to let applicants know about the standing of their application.

Now, Pulido has the opportunity to collect up to $25,000 from the state as a means of a formal recognition of what she survived, but she’s still waiting to hear whether her application has been approved. Advocates for compensation fear that the state may act as negligently with the applications as it did toward systemic medical abuse of incarcerated women and others held in state facilities.

A 2013 Center for Investigative Reporting article first broke the story of forced sterilizations taking place in California’s state-run facilities and prisons, finding that at least 148 incarcerated women were subjected to sterilizations. Shortly after the article’s publication, state legislators called for an audit of sterilizations performed in prison health care facilities, which later identified 144 incarcerated women who had undergone bilateral tubal ligation — a procedure that serves no medical purpose but to prevent pregnancy.

Of those 144 patients, at least 39 were not offered informed consent or underwent procedures that were completed without the appropriate physician signatures on consent forms. The audit found that all but one of the 144 tubal ligation procedures lacked the necessary signatures, and cited the failure as “systemic.”

“I didn’t read the paperwork. I just signed it. I didn’t know I was signing up for a full hysterectomy.”

Of those 144 patients, at least 39 were not offered informed consent or underwent procedures that were completed without the appropriate physician signatures on consent forms. The audit found that all but one of the 144 tubal ligation procedures lacked the necessary signatures, and cited the failure as “systemic.”

Even still, the government audit acknowledges that this is merely an estimate of how many people treated at prison hospitals were forcibly sterilized, seeing as, “the true number of cases in which Corrections or the Receiver’s Office did not ensure that consent was lawfully obtained prior to sterilization may be higher.” In fact, the audit says that data from the California Correctional Health Care Services Receiver’s Office shows that nearly 800 incarcerated women underwent procedures that “could have resulted in sterilization” in the years between 2005 and 2013.

The total number of potential survivors differs depending on who’s asked. The creators of Belly of the Beast, the 2020 documentary that helped propel the compensation legislation to the governor’s desk and shed light on the fact that sterilizations occurred in California as recently as 2011, identified as many as 1,400 survivors eligible for compensation. The California Victim Compensation Board says that they anticipate 600 people will come forward. According to the board, as of June 1, 62 applications have been filed and four have been approved.

“They [the state] have no record in one place of everyone who has been sterilized,” Block said. So, it’s a matter of people basically self-identifying and applying.” And now, “the clock is ticking.”

Chryl LaMar, a coordinator with the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners (CCWP) who is formerly incarcerated, is helping survivors apply for compensation. She first reaches out through email to let survivors know about the funds and then walks them through the application, which CCWP worked with the California Victim Compensation Board to formulate.

But LaMar says that survivors are “running up against a wall.” Not only are survivors having a difficult time accessing their own medical records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), but in many cases hospitals do not keep records for more than 10 years. It’s the kind of hurdle that can make gaining a small kind of justice for a traumatic event even more cumbersome. “CDCR should be giving ladies their documents inside of the system,” LaMar said.

The California Victim Compensation Board form asks that applicants provide proof of their sterilization or “suspected” sterilization (in the case that there is no official documentation), and in these cases LaMar is having to think creatively about how to demonstrate the medical abuse. She explains that in the case where someone can’t provide the medical records, they can provide a different record indicating that they were discharged from the prison to the hospital overnight, indicating that they underwent a procedure.

Gaining justice for survivors and reckoning with the state’s history of abuse is “not only a reproductive health issue [it’s a] racial justice issue,” said Lorena García Zermeño, the policy and communications coordinator at California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, one of the organizations that fought for the passage of the compensation bill. “It’s a matter of ensuring that our communities are not criminalized and upholding folks’ bodily autonomy.”

California conducted more than double the number of sterilizations of states like North Carolina and Virginia, which sterilized a recorded 7,600 and 8,000 people respectively.

Eugenics practices and forced sterilizations have long been weapons wielded against Indigenous, Black and Latinx people, as well as immigrants, low-wealth and disabled people. In 1909, California enacted a eugenics law that allowed doctors working in state-run hospitals, homes and institutions to sterilize anyone classified as mentally ill, feebleminded, epileptic or syphilitic, using what eugenicists believe to be a crude immunization against a so-called predisposition for criminality. Latinx, Black and Indigenous women were disproportionately sterilized due to what scholars have called “deep-seated preoccupations about gender norms and female sexuality.”

During the 20th century about 60,000 recorded sterilizations took place across the U.S., with a third of those occurring in California. Even while the majority of sterilizations in the state took place between 1920 and 1950, the pathologization of mental ability, neuro non-normativity, race and queerness lasted well until 1979, when the state finally outlawed sterilizations for eugenics purposes. After the audit in 2014, the state banned sterilizations in prisons as a means of birth control. In 2016, there were an estimated 831 survivors of eugenics sterilizations with an average age of 87.9. As of 2021, there are only 383 living survivors of eugenics sterilization who would be eligible for reparations, according to Zermeño.

The legacy of eugenics is alive in the systemic failure to uphold the reproductive freedom of incarcerated people, most notably in the belief that low-income people, people of color — specifically Latinx, Indigenous and Black people — and disabled people drain state economies. Pulido says she experienced this firsthand from the doctor who performed an illegal hysterectomy on her: “I’m so sick of you guys coming in and out of the prison,” Pulido said the doctor told her when she returned for a dressing change. “You get pregnant and you end up back in jail and I have to pay for the care of your children through government aid, because you can’t stay home and be decent.” Pulido is Native American.

California conducted more than double the number of sterilizations of states like North Carolina and Virginia, which sterilized a recorded 7,600 and 8,000 people respectively. But California lags far behind those states in reckoning with its history, and it hasn’t sought to offer reparation payments until this year. Zermeño said that when crafting the compensation legislation, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and other organizations modeled the language and expectations after similar programs in North Carolina and Virginia, estimating that 25 percent of the eligible survivors will apply for compensation. Zermeño wants the state to remember that issues of injustice are interconnected, and hopes she can draw people’s attention to the fact that racism and prejudice are baked into all parts of the system, not just those that facilitate the sterilization of people without their consent.

For Pulido, who’s rebuilding her life and community after so many years since her medical trauma, her survival is a testament to her strength. “Even though I went through what I went through, and I was told what I was told by that doctor, I still fought for my freedom,” she said.

She was jailed for losing a pregnancy. Her nightmare could become more common.

theguardian.com 

June 5, 2022

By Sam Levin 

On 4 November 2019, TV stations across California blasted Chelsea Becker’s photo on their news editions. The “search was on” for a “troubled” 25-year-old woman wanted for the “murder of her unborn baby”, news anchors said, warning viewers not to approach if they spotted her but to call the authorities.

The next day, Becker was asleep at the home she was staying in when officers with the Hanford police department arrived.

“The officer had a large automatic weapon pointed at me and a K-9 [dog],” Becker, now 28, recalled in a recent interview. “I walked out and surrendered.”

Two months before, Becker had had a stillbirth at a California hospital, losing a baby boy at eight months pregnant. The King’s county prosecutor in the central valley charged her with “murder of a human fetus”, alleging she had acted with “malice” because she had been struggling with drug addiction and the hospital reported meth in her system.

Becker’s attorneys argued there was no evidence that substance use caused the stillbirth and California law did not allow for this type of prosecution in the first place. Still, she spent 16 months in jail awaiting trial before a judge dismissed the charges.

Becker’s nightmare offers a preview of the kinds of criminal cases that could become commonplace in the US if the supreme court, as expected after the leak of a draft opinion last month, officially overturns Roe v Wade. In the states that outlaw abortion, advocates warn, pregnancy losses more broadly will be treated as potential crimes, including in cases of wanted pregnancies. Even with Roe in effect, women have repeatedly faced arrest and charges for their pregnancy outcomes.

“These prosecutions will escalate at an extremely rapid clip if Roe is reversed,” said Emma Roth, staff attorney with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), a non-profit group that supported Becker in her legal battle. “A lot of people don’t realize that pregnant people are already facing criminalization all across the country, including in blue states like California. All it takes is a rogue district attorney.”

‘Why did the hospital call police?’

Becker grew up in an agricultural region 200 miles north-west of Los Angeles. The area has an unemployment rate twice the California average, and more than 15% of its residents live in poverty. Authorities say it has long been a hub for meth distribution, and access to drug rehabilitation, reproductive healthcare and other services is limited.

Becker had struggled with addiction and at the time of her stillbirth was also battling homelessness, occasionally forced to sleep on a motel stairwell.

On 9 September 2019, she had been preparing for the birth of her fourth child, a baby boy whom she had already named, when her family had to call an ambulance to rush her to the hospital.

She was uncontrollably bleeding when she arrived at the Adventist Health Hanford hospital, a faith-based organization, and roughly two hours later lost the child.

Staff treated her with suspicion, Becker said. Her mother learned before her that the baby had not survived, Becker recalled in an email interview. “I was in shock, physically from the blood loss and mentally from the news,” she said.

She briefly held her baby, she said, and wondered whether he could have survived if the hospital had done an emergency C-section. She also wondered why she received blood transfusions only hours after she had arrived in distress.

The next morning, she said, she discovered that the hospital had left her baby on a table at the other end of the room for hours on end. She also learned that hospital staff had called the police.

“Why the hospital staff called the police to take my baby away is still so troubling. That image of me lying in the hospital bed with my deceased son left on a table, seemingly abandoned, is an image I will never forget,” she said.

‘I suffered alone’

Police records show that hospital staff reported the stillbirth as “suspicious” to police and found Becker tested positive for meth, though her attorneys say she never consented to a drug test.

Later, Becker agreed to meet police at her mother’s house where an officer interrogated her about her drug use. The police recommended she be prosecuted for murder, and weeks later, took her to jail.

Becker was prosecuted by the Kings county district attorney, Keith Fagundes, the only prosecutor in California who has filed charges for a stillbirth in the last three decades. The year before, Fagundes had also filed a murder case against Adora Perez, after she delivered a stillborn baby at the same hospital in Hanford and police also alleged that meth use had caused the loss.

Becker awaited trial in jail while struggling to process her grief. Behind bars, she was unable to receive proper counseling, she said in a recent statement to lawmakers: “I was afraid anything I might have said to any of them would be used against me in court, so I suffered alone.”

While in jail, she lost custody of her son, who was adopted. Her two other children were already in the custody of a relative.

Becker was prosecuted under Section 187 of the California penal code, which defines murder as “the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought”. Lawmakers added “fetus” to the statute in 1970 in response to the case of a man who had attacked a pregnant woman, causing a stillbirth. The law does not apply to an act “consented to by the mother of the fetus”, and the primary author of the legislation, a Republican lawmaker, later testified that the mention of fetus was solely intended for prosecuting “a third party’s willful assault on a pregnant woman”.

But Fagundes, and the police officials who investigated Perez and Becker, have used it to argue that women, in some cases, should be jailed.

Becker’s lawyers argued that she could not legally be prosecuted under Section 187. They also noted that at the time of the stillbirth, Becker had three separate reproductive infections, all of which can cause stillbirth. The pathologist who concluded Becker’s stillbirth was due to “acute methamphetamine toxicity” admitted in court that he was not aware of the infections when he conducted the autopsy and had not reviewed her medical records before his determination.

A judge dismissed the case in May 2021.

Adora Perez, the other woman prosecuted by Fagundes, spent four years behind bars before her case was dismissed earlier this year.

“The DA’s extraordinarily broad and very dangerous interpretation of the statute means that if a woman does any kind of activity that could be considered reckless while she’s pregnant, and she loses her fetus, she’s up for murder,” said Mary McNamara, Perez’s lawyer. “If she works at a dangerous factory while she’s pregnant and loses her child, that’s murder. If she is ill and needs cancer treatment that could harm her fetus, that’s murder.”

‘Women are afraid to seek help’

Although Becker’s case was unusual in California, it is not unique in the US.

The 1973 Roe decision established the constitutional right to abortion. But NAPW has tracked more than 1,700 cases between 1973 and 2020 in which pregnant people have been criminalized often based on the notion of “fetal personhood” – that a fetus is, in effect, a person with rights. That estimate, probably an undercount, includes a wide range of cases in which pregnant people faced arrest, prosecution or other criminal or civil consequences based on some action or behavior that law enforcement claimed caused harm to the fetus.

Pregnant women have been criminalized for falling down stairs; giving birth at home; exposing a fetus to dangerous “fumes”; having HIV; not resting enough during the pregnancy; not getting to a hospital fast enough while in labor; being the victim of a shooting; and self-inducing an abortion.

“Once prosecutors decide they want to punish somebody for ending a pregnancy, they will figure out a way to do so,” said Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel and legal director of If/When/How, a reproductive justice group.

Substance use is one of the most common allegations, with mothers facing charges even when there’s no evidence of harm to the fetus and in some instances, even after they have given birth to a healthy baby.

Two physician experts testified that Becker’s arrest was rooted in “medical misinformation” and that the claims that meth use causes stillbirths were unfounded. At least 20% of all pregnancies in the US end in miscarriages and stillbirths, often with unknown causes, the doctors wrote, and if the courts treat stillbirths as potential crimes, it will require a dramatic expansion of the role of law enforcement in pregnancy.

A coalition of major medical associations, public health and reproductive rights groups also filed a brief supporting Becker, noting the research consensus that the threat of prosecutions does not protect pregnancies, but rather endangers them by leading people to avoid care. “It is in no way pro-life or in the interest of the health of a fetus that we criminalize the negative outcomes of pregnancy,” added Jacqueline Goodman, one of Becker’s attorneys.

Becker said women who are addicted and pregnant are afraid to seek help, whether in the form of drug treatment or prenatal care. “Women wonder, ‘How can I fix this on my own without anyone else finding out, and in time before the baby comes?’” Becker said. “And many times, as we have seen, it’s much too difficult a battle to fight alone, and many women are unable to kick their addiction by themselves without professional help.”

The fight to protect others

When Becker’s case was dismissed last year, she was in the middle of completing a drug treatment program. “There was a small part of me that said, ‘I don’t have to be here any more. I can leave and go home, and nothing will happen to me.’ But I knew better than to abandon that commitment,” Becker recalled.

After completing treatment, she enrolled in college and is now working toward a community health worker certificate and public health degree.

She also recently advocated for state legislation meant to explicitly block these kinds of prosecutions.

“I hope that in the future, no woman will ever be prosecuted for losing a pregnancy,” she told legislators. “I was punished for something that could have happened to anybody.”

Brian Johnson, an Adventist Health spokesperson, declined to comment on Becker’s case, but said it was hospital policy to notify the coroner’s office in a stillbirth after 20 weeks, and that it follows reporting requirements of child protective services.

The Hanford police department did not respond to inquiries.

Fagundes, the prosecutor, dismissed the medical associations’ arguments as a “political position”.. He said he could not cite research to support his claims that prosecution was the right approach to addiction, but noted that the women did not use drugs behind bars.

Asked why he was the only DA in the state prosecuting women for stillbirths, he said, “Others are fearful of the liberal media machine, the attorney general and the governor and our legislature.”

He added he could in the future refile cases against Becker and Perez, but said he had no immediate plans to do so. “It really depends on how these two women proceed in life. If they’re successful and sober and don’t harm more children, then they probably deserve some credit for that,” he said.

Aging in Prison: How Older Generations Fight for Dignity and Release

Rafu Reports    rafu.com

May 28, 2022

By Annakai Hayakawa Geshlider, Rafu Contributor

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the Archstone Foundation.

Reader advisory: This story contains accounts of rape.

 

As prison sentences have lengthened, the population of elderly has dramatically increased over the past decades. (Illustration by MAGGI ZHENG)

Chyrl Lamar is an advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an organization with chapters in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Lamar was incarcerated in September 1986. For the next 34 years she lived at the Central California Women’s Facility, a prison in Central Valley’s Madera County. Lamar was released December 2020, at age 69. On Jan. 17, 2022, she was discharged off parole.

On top of the difficulties of prison life, as Lamar got older she began experiencing the particular difficulties of aging behind bars. One was the requirement that elders continue working, despite their mounting physical challenges and getting sick more often.

While in prison, “there’s no such thing as retirement,” Lamar said. She added the only way people at Central California Women’s Facility could get out of work was through a medical reason. Without an explicit medical reason, many had to continue working into their older years. “If you can push a broom, if you can wipe a window, you’re working.”

Lamar worked for nearly her entire time in prison, from 1990 to 2020. She was an older adult for 19 of those years. “Why should you have to do that, when you’re of age?” she asked.

While age 65 conventionally defines the beginning of older age in the U.S. population outside of prison, old age in prison is typically marked at age 50 or 55, the Epidemiological Review reports. This is because inadequate healthcare in prisons accelerates the onset and progression of many chronic conditions associated with aging.

Lamar is part of a growing population of seniors who have experienced life in U.S. prisons and jails. Since her release, she keeps in touch with other women, some older than she, who are still completing their sentences.

While Lamar is now celebrating a year and a half since her release, many older adults remain inside.

According to the Bureau of Justice, between 1993 and 2013 the number of people aged 55 or older in U.S. state prisons who were sentenced to more than one year increased by 400 percent, from 26,300 in 1993 to 131,500 in 2013. In 2020, there were around 274,000 older adults incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, the Washington, D.C.-based organization Sentencing Project reports.

In the last 40 years, changes in sentencing law and policy have created a 500 percent increase in the number of people in the prison system. The country now incarcerates more people than any country in the world. 2 million people are currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails.

The aging of the country’s prison population is largely due to the increase in sentence lengths over the past several decades, said Diana Block, a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners since 1996.

The number of people serving life sentences increased from 34,000 in 1984 to nearly 204,000 in 2020, the Sentencing Project reports. 30 percent of people serving life sentences in 2020 were age 55 or older. A report by the Osbourne Foundation projects the number of older adults living behind bars will surpass 400,000 by 2030, largely due to the fact many people are serving sentences that will carry them into their elder years.

“Imagine growing old inside a prison — that is the worst thing you could do if you want to have a healthy older age,” Block said. “All the challenges of aging are so incredibly exacerbated.” Examining the structure of sentencing is critical, she added. “You really have to talk about the fact that sentences have become more and more extreme.” With the steady rise in longer sentences over the past three decades, the population of incarcerated elders has increased drastically.

The U.S. prison system continues to insist on caging elders, despite extensive research showing low rates of recidivism among older people — the tendency of someone already convicted to be convicted again. Unlike countries that invest in support programs for people in prison to prevent reoffending, the U.S. insists on increasing sentencing lengths as a means of prevention, according to a 2021 report by the Sentencing Project.

In the U.S., “few policymakers question the logic of simply increasing lengths of incarceration rather than investing in programming and training to prepare incarcerated people to return safely to the community,” the report states. “Most American officials falsely conclude that recidivism is the result of not enough punishment and so more is applied. In contrast, the science on the efficacy of applying additional punishment as an effective deterrence is straightforward: more punishment does not lead to less crime.”

The report, authored by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project, looks at the reoffending rates of people released from prison after a violent crime conviction. Nellis is also co-author of “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences,” a 2018 book featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. The report includes research in both the U.S. and internationally, as well as testimonies from people formerly incarcerated. Organizing has gained momentum in recent years to transform the narrative around people convicted for higher-level offenses.

The report also looks into mainstream media portrayals of people convicted of more serious offenses. Such portrayals reinforce public perception of these individuals as hardened criminals incapable of change — and often neglect to examine the systemic racism embedded in the court system, which frequently leads to unjust convictions. They also ignore societal factors at play in the individual’s life and at the moment of the crime, and the possibility of a person to transform over time.

Most people in the U.S. who commit homicide are unlikely to do so again, the report finds. Overall rates of violent offending of any type among people released after a life sentence are also rare. People with violent crime convictions “are depicted as the most dangerous if released, but ample evidence refutes this.”

The report examines relationships between age and conviction for a crime, finding that “violent conduct occurs in somewhat predictable ways over the life course,” concentrating in the span of years between adolescence to mid-20s “and dropping precipitously after.” University of Maryland and Harvard researchers John Laub and Robert Sampson found that among people convicted of reoffenses, the “vast majority will stop committing crime by their 40s.”

New York state has the most elderly prison population in the country. A study published in The Crime Report found that out of 368 people convicted of murder and granted parole in New York between 1999 and 2003, 1.6 percent returned to prison within three years for a new felony conviction — none of them a violent offense. A separate study of persons released between 1985 and 2012 found fewer than 2 percent returned to custody.

“Individuals who are released on parole after serving sentences for murder consistently have the lowest recidivism rate of any offenders,” said John Carner, former spokesperson for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

“Some people released from prison will recidivate, and sometimes their crime will include violence,” writes the Sentencing Project. “When people released from prison commit crime — especially violent crime — there are good reasons to question what went wrong and who is responsible. For the most part these questions are not delved into deeply enough and the system of correction itself is rarely held accountable for its contribution.”

***

According to a report by the Bay Area-based organization Prisoners with Children, life in prison poses particularly harsh conditions for the elderly. Of the over 100 older women interviewed for the report, the majority reported prison medical staff were not sensitive to their needs as aging people. Additionally, prison rules and layouts make life difficult for the elderly: people are often required to drop to the ground for alarms, climb onto top bunks, move through cells without handrails, and walk long distances to dining halls.

More than half of those interviewed reported falling at least once during the span of a year, and two out of five respondents reported being injured while performing a daily prison routine.

The general conditions of confinement and limited exercise pose health risks to older people in prison, Block said. A lack of nutritional food and frequently backed-up and understaffed medical systems also make aging difficult. Time-sensitive care and access to surgeries — which become more necessary with age — are also lacking.

If an incarcerated person questions a directive by an officer they think doesn’t make sense — which has happened throughout the pandemic, due to often irrational and arbitrary rules, Block said — it is not uncommon for the prison or jail to deny the person a medical appointment as punishment.

52-year-old Ajimani Henderson is currently incarcerated in a facility in Northern California. She works as a teacher’s aide in the prison’s education department. She enjoys reading, and is training to become a peer literary mentor. Henderson is currently on a waiting list to attend college while in prison.

“I’ve been incarcerated for 26 years,” Henderson said. “Hopefully within the next year or so, I’ll be able to go home. This is my year to strive for freedom.”

Henderson is part of a weekly discussion group called Guiding Rage Into Power, “which is a very positive group,” she said. “We deal with a variety of subjects, from violence to grief. That group is one of the best groups I’ve ever been in. Tears are shed.” At the start of each session, members meditate for 10-15 minutes. “I really do like meditating,” Henderson said. “It relieves a lot of stress. As time goes on, I will get more and more into meditation.”

Henderson is a trans woman, and described the difficulties of aging while transgender in prison. She has faced beatings and rape. She was “humiliated, disrespected, and shamed.” She recalls being “disrespected by police,” who called her “faggots, punks, queers, whatever came to their mind at the time.”

Henderson remembers being “transferred from prison to prison, placed with cellies that overpowered you, and raped you. If you would go tell the police, you are considered a snitch, and you could get stabbed or even killed.” She added: “As I continued to grow older, there was so much discrimination.” She has had to “fight with the administration for protection, and to be treated fairly.”

“I would like the people on the outside to know this — being incarcerated and aging at the same time isn’t an easy task,” said Henderson. “Believe me, this journey wasn’t easy, and it’s still not over yet. You have to choose your battles; some may be easy, and some are very hard. Let them know I’m still standing!”

***

As Chyrl Lamar grew older in prison, she began to advocate for the needs of her elder community, who were often treated by prison officials as though in the same physical shape as younger people. She taught a curriculum to prison wardens on forms of elder abuse she witnessed.

As they navigated daily life, elders were made to withstand extreme outdoor temperatures. Lamar recalls when the weather was extremely cold or hot, prison staff would not let people come inside for shelter during scheduled times when everyone was supposed to be outside — except those who used psychiatric medication.

Chryl Lamar

Similarly, after being treated at the medical building, which could only hold around 12 people, over 200 others from the same dormitory would be made to wait outside until everyone had been treated. The long wait times were particularly tough on seniors. “In extreme cold, they still wouldn’t let you in,” Lamar said. “Don’t break me down while I’m in prison.”

She also remembers how fellow women sentenced to life and life without parole continued working despite the toll it took on them as they aged — for fear of being written up by prison officials if they did not show up for work.

Lamar was incarcerated from age 35 to 69, originally on a life-without-parole sentence. “As I grew older in prison, it takes its wear and tear on you — watching people come and go, and you’re still there. It was a great challenge. Through prayers, I was able to sustain my sanity. I fell back onto my grandmother always telling me to be strong.”

Lamar said participating in programs in prison helped give her strength and support throughout her time. “As far as looking on the outside, you’d say, ‘Oh, she’s doing her time well.’ But on the inside, it was tearing me up.”

***

The pandemic posed an array of new risks to incarcerated elders.

At the Central California Women’s Facility, Lamar shared a room with eight others. While her roommates wore masks and washed hands, ventilation was poor.

Even when one person tested positive for COVID-19 and got transferred to a separate room to isolate, the isolations were inconsistent. Prison officials would transfer people from separate buildings to new rooms, infecting new groups of people, Lamar said. After the transfer of a COVID-positive person to a new room, a fellow older woman passed away from complications of the virus.  

“It’s almost impossible to create a safe environment when you have people who are unable to social distance,” Block said. She added that a lack of hygiene supplies, as well as noncompliance by prison staff of social distancing rules, contributed to the virus’ spread. “People inside are always telling us that the guards wear their masks around their chins.”
During the pandemic, demand mounted to release incarcerated elders.

In California, the Elder Parole Program allows people over the age of 50 who have been incarcerated for over 20 years the possibility of a parole hearing, regardless of if they were originally sentenced to life without parole. According to the Department of Corrections, a federal court required the implementation of this process due to overcrowding in the state’s prisons.

In October 2020, Lamar received a commutation of her life-without-parole sentence from Gov. Gavin Newson, meaning her sentence could be reduced from its original length. She went before the parole board. Lamar “put in a package to the governor defining what happened, my life crime, and how I had changed my life during the whole time of my incarceration,” she said. The governor commuted her sentence two months later — meaning Lamar was then eligible to go to the parole board. The parole board granted her parole so that instead of dying in prison, she would be released.

While Newsom’s office used its executive power to release people during the pandemic, the majority were people who would have been released within two to three months, and many more must still be released to prevent sickness, death, and the brutalities of prison life, Block said. She said these early releases, while great, differed from the demands of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which has been focusing on the release of people in their old age. Often, these people have medical conditions making them especially  vulnerable to COVID-19. Many have been sentenced to life or life without parole.

In the spring of 2020, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners launched Care Not Cages, an online campaign highlighting the stories of several incarcerated women and transgender people dealing with medical conditions. Many are over the age of 50. One woman, Lucia Bravo, has been in prison for 25 years and is now 82 years old, the website reports. Bravo has leukemia, making her highly vulnerable to COVID. Bravo has family on the outside waiting to receive her.

Another woman, Elaine Wong, is 69 years old. She has been in prison for 40 years. She is in touch with her family of children and grandchildren, who have been advocating for her release since the early months of the pandemic, due to her vulnerability as an older person. A petition for her release has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures.

Lamar wants to continue to fight for incarcerated elders. “The majority of us have places we can go. We have family that would take us in. They would love to see us. Come home, spend whatever little time we have left with our kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. We wouldn’t be a threat to society.”

For those without a place to go, programs exist “to take care of you,” said Lamar. Such programs support elders in finding housing, income, and coping with the difficulties of reentry.

The Sentencing Project’s 2021 report also calls for examining the factors at play in a person’s life after release from prison. Is the person receiving social, physical, and emotional support as they acclimate to a new life, sometimes after decades in prison? Are they receiving help in finding employment and housing?  These questions can offer a deeper picture than looking solely at reoffending rates as a measure of people’s “success” after release.

“We  incarcerate people far too long, way into their elderly years, beyond reason,” said Sam Tubiolo, a visual arts instructor at California Medical Facility, a prison in Northern California’s Vacaville. Tubiolo has taught art in California prisons since the nineties, and currently  facilitates classes in drawing and painting. Tubiolo also teaches a class in the prison’s hospice center, where students often have three to six months left to  live. Some of the people in hospice spend time tending vegetables and succulents in an outdoor meditation garden; others draw, paint, make music and write. Tubiolo said California Medical Facility  has been actively seeking for hospice patients to be released to hospice centers outside of the prison.

Years-long prison sentences punish people for a single moment in their lives, said Tubiolo. “Human beings should not be judged by the worst thing they’ve done. We all have made mistakes, and oftentimes the people who are incarcerated made their mistakes when they were 18 years old, when their brains are barely formulated to make good judgments, and wound up in prison —  in many cases for life, in some cases to Death Row.”

For Tubiolo, the arts offer ways for people in prison to work on creative problem-solving and self-expression.  “My experiences over these decades is that yes, people do rehabilitate, people do change,” he said. “That is the one thing we so often miss in the concept of prison. The concept is a very cut-and-dried one, where if a mistake is made, a person must pay. Where does that end?”

***

Since her release in December 2020, Chyrl Lamar has worked with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners to advocate for the release of others. She keeps in touch with friends who are waiting to be released.

One friend, who is currently incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility, organized a group of other women facing life sentences.“They sit down and talk about their true feelings, about being left behind” while others are allowed to leave the prison, Lamar said. Lamar lets them know she understands what the women are going through. “I never gave up hope,” she tells them.

She spoke of one friend, a woman who entered prison long before she did. She is older than Lamar, and is still inside. The Governor’s Office has the power to revise her initial sentence, as it did for Lamar.

“Give the elderly a chance,” she said. “At least let them die in dignity at home.”  

***

  • The U.S. currently incarcerates 2 million people in prisons and jails, more than any country in the world. In the last 40 years, changes in sentencing law and policy have created a 500% increase in the number of people in the prison system.
  • In 2020, there were around 274,000 older adults incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. The number is projected to surpass 400,000 by 2030.
  • While 65 conventionally defines the start of older age in the U.S. population outside of prison, old age in prison is typically marked at age 50 or 55 because inadequate healthcare accelerates chronic conditions associated with aging.
  • Between 1993 and 2013 the number of people aged 55+ in the nation’s state prisons who were sentenced to more than one year increased by 400%, from 26,300 in 1993 to 131,500 in 2013. 
  • The number of people serving life sentences increased from 34,000 in 1984 to nearly 204,000 in 2020.
  • 30 percent of people serving life sentences in 2020 were age 55 or older.

‘IT’S FINALLY OVER.’ SAN DIEGO DA DROPS 22-YEAR-OLD MURDER CASE AGAINST JANE DOROTIK

sandiegouniontribune.com

May 16, 2022 

Greg Moran   

The San Diego District Attorney’s Office on Monday abruptly dropped murder charges on the eve of a second trial of Jane Dorotik, two decades after a Vista jury had convicted her of killing her husband, Robert, near their Valley Center home.

The stunning announcement came at the very last minute, just after a jury had been summoned last week; selection of a final panel was set for Monday. Some 75 jurors were waiting outside the courtroom to begin the process of selection as Superior Court Judge Robert Kearney granted a motion by prosecutors to dismiss the case.

Dorotik, who has steadfastly maintained her innocence since her husband’s bludgeoned body was found in February 2000, reflected on the toll the case took on her family, and what her case said about the criminal justice system.

“This has been a tortuous journey for 22 years, and it’s finally over,” Dorotik, 75, said outside of court minutes after the case was dropped. “And that’s huge relief. But I also want to say it has been a horrendous hurricane for my whole family, and I hope now we have an opportunity for some healing and reconciliation.

“When I say that, I mean healing for everybody, for the criminal justice system too. There has been so much misinformation and inaccurate representation of evidence that I hope the system begins to look at what is truth and justice, as opposed to a zeal to maintain a conviction.”

In a motion dismissing the case, prosecutors Kurt Mechals and Chris Campbell said they had concluded that “the evidence is now insufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The prosecutors said rulings by Kearney on evidence that defense lawyers had challenged influenced their decision. Those rulings excluded or limited how much would be admissible at trial, including key evidence consisting of blood stain pattern analysis, crime scene reconstruction and other forensics.

Key among those rulings was one last week that limited how much evidence would be admitted about tire tracks near where Robert Dorotik’s body was found. Prosecutors had long maintained the tire tracks were unique, and belonged to a pickup truck owned by the Dorotiks.

The ruling scaling back how much of that evidence could be presented was apparently the final blow. “This is a circumstantial evidence case in which the People’s ability to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt depends upon the admission of the full range of evidence,” the dismissal motion said.

At 5:10 p.m. Friday, Mechals emailed defense attorney Michael Cavalluzzi that the case would be dismissed.

Dorotik spent 20 years in prison before being released in April 2020, as her lawyers successfully argued the then-73-year-old was at risk of contracting the coronavirus then racing through the state prison system. Her bid for a new trial was based on new evidence developed by a team of lawyers at the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, which took on her case in 2015.

Dorotik was convicted of murdering her husband in February 2000. His body was found off a roadside near the family’s Valley Center ranch. She had reported him missing on the evening of Feb. 13, 2000, telling authorities that the last time she saw him was earlier that day as he prepared to go running. She was arrested two days later.

At the time, she was a successful high-level executive for a mental-health services company who raised and trained horses at the family’s Valley Center ranch. She has long insisted she is innocent.

Jane Dorotik (left) and defense attorney Cole Casey listen to testimony during a sentencing hearing at Vista Court in 2001. (Eduardo Contreras/Union-Tribune)

At the trial, prosecutors argued that she had bludgeoned and strangled Robert Dorotik in their bedroom, moved his body from the bedroom downstairs and out the door to a pickup truck, then drove some distance away and dumped the body.

The case against her was nearly entirely circumstantial. There were no eyewitnesses.

After years of unsuccessful appeals by Dorotik, lawyers with the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent took on her case, and soon focused on the forensic work. In 2019, a judge ruled that the blood analysis and DNA evidence used at her trial was erroneous and ordered a hearing to determine if her conviction should be thrown out.

Then in July 2020, prosecutors took the unusual step of acknowledging they could no longer defend the original conviction. They cited new DNA findings as well as problems in the crime lab. Months later, however, the office announced it would again seek to put her on trial.

The lawyers from the Project for the Innocent methodically took apart nearly every aspect of the case that convicted Dorotik, from DNA evidence to blood analysis, blood-spatter evidence, and analysis of tire-track impressions at the crime scene by a California Highway Patrol expert.

That scrutiny revealed errors in forensic work in the case, troubling work records of some criminalists in the San Diego County Regional Crime Lab that were never previously revealed, and allegations that the San Diego District Attorney’s office had suppressed evidence over the years.

Defense lawyers showed that some evidence had been poorly handled, other evidence incompetently analyzed, and contended there had been misconduct and incomplete investigation by law enforcement at the time. Complicating matters: The DA’s office said they lost the original case file, which made dissecting the evidence used in the original case more arduous for the defense.

Lawyers had long criticized the district attorney’s decision to again try the case, using the same evidence from two decades before — and after conceding that the conviction earned from that evidence was something they could no longer defend.

Paula Mitchell, legal director of the innocence project, was harshly critical of the DA’s office, noting that defense lawyers more than a year ago had laid out in detail the problems with the evidence, but were ignored. The defense had requested Kearney dismiss the case “with prejudice,” meaning charges could not be refiled again. But Campbell said prosecutors opposed that, and Kearney declined to follow the defense request.

“While we are really happy they have finally reached this decision to dismiss this case,” Mitchell said, “we are disappointed they are asking for it to be dismissed without prejudice. So this is sort of hanging over her head, so someday she could face murder charges again.

“I think it is a little disingenuous now for them to come and say, ‘Oh, well, we just couldn’t quite make the case work right now, but we might be back.’”

Dorotik said she plans to visit her daughter in Florida and continue advocating for people in prison.

“I always knew, I always believed from the very beginning that at some point the truth would come out, and I would be exonerated,” Dorotik said. “I never for a moment thought it would take 22 years.”