Friday, July 11, 2008

Police digging Galena Park backyard for fetus

Texas is a wonderful place to live, but we sue do have some sick folks here as well. Now this is the kind of Mama everyone dreams of having.

The fetus fit easily into the palm of a hand, but it had already developed arms and legs, fingers and toes.

Carla Perez told her aunt the fingers and toes lay still when she gave birth in June, five months into her pregnancy.

The 16-year-old wanted to carry the baby to term, said her aunt, Alma Perez, but the teen's mother forced her to induce an abortion on June 10, by taking pills. Then, the would-be grandmother buried the fetus in the backyard, Perez said.

Late Thursday, police said cadaver dogs had picked up the scent of a decomposing body in the backyard of the Galena Park home. But authorities would not confirm if any remains had been found.

No charges had been filed against the girl or her mother, Leticia Zamora, but police said Zamora, a nurse in a private doctor's office, had contacted an attorney.

Galena Park Police Chief Robert Pruett said he had hoped to charge Zamora with abuse of a corpse. Even if the teen had a miscarriage, he said, it's not legal to bury a fetus in a yard.

But without a body, he said, the Harris County District Attorney's Office declined to charge Zamora, who remained free Thursday evening.

"The DA wants us to dig more," said Pruett, referring to acting District Attorney Kenneth Magidson. "He wants more proof."

Just before 8 p.m. Thursday, police had brought Zamora to her 15th Street home in a patrol car, hoping she could lead them to where the fetus was buried.

The woman led them to the same spot they had searched all afternoon, near a tree at the side of the house.

Nearly three hours later, cadaver dogs made a hit. While it was unclear late Thursday if a body was found, authorities said all evidence found in the yard was taken by the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office for analysis.

Although Zamora hadn't confessed to any wrongdoing and wouldn't discuss specifics, she did tell police to look for the fetus there, Chief Pruett said.

"The mother swears up and down the baby is buried here," he said as dusk fell Thursday. "We don't know if she's telling the truth or not."

Pruett said the case had posed challenges because of conflicting stories from family members. The chief said he believes Carla's story.

"There's no doubt it happened," he said.

To verify her claims, police brought the teen to Texas Children's Hospital late Thursday for exams that would determine whether she had given birth.

If a fetus is found, Pruett said, the Medical Examiner's Office will determine the cause of death, and that will determine what charges are filed.

Under Texas law, the teen will likely not face criminal charges. But if the story is true, the mother could be charged with capital murder, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a criminal law professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

"Technically it's capital murder if it's an intentional killing and it's a child under the age of 6," Thompson said.

The law exempts pregnant mothers from criminal charges for harm to their unborn children. It also exempts medical professionals who perform abortions at a patient's request.

Carla had confided in relatives about the birth, and when word reached her aunt Thursday, she called police.

"I told them. I had to," Alma Perez said as homicide investigators sifted freshly-disturbed dirt in the yard. "I didn't think it was right."

Alma Perez said Carla's mother bullied the teen into terminating her pregnancy.

"She said she was ashamed of her daughter being 16 years old and pregnant," said Perez. "She said, 'You know you aren't keeping it, right?' "

Perez said Carla told her she wanted to keep the child, but Zamora insisted on the abortion. She took the teen to a shop on Canal Street — "a horrible place, like a witchcraft thing," Perez said — where a proprietress gave the teen six pills. Carla said she took the pills over several hours and began to have contractions.

After she delivered the fetus, Perez said Carla didn't want to look at it, but she caught a glimpse before her mother removed the umbilical cord and carried the tiny body outside.

The teen told her aunt she saw her mother digging a hole.

In 2003, the Legislature enacted a state law allowing prosecution for anyone other than the child's mother or an abortion provider who causes the death of an unborn child. The fetal protection law has led to convictions such as that of a Lufkin teen who in 2004 stomped his pregnant girlfriend's stomach to induce a miscarriage. The teenage mother was not charged, even though she testified she had asked to be stomped.

Cases like these weren't the intent of the law, which was meant to cover crimes like drunken driving and domestic abuse in which a fetus was lost as a result, said Elizabeth Graham. Graham is the director of Texas Right to Life, one of the bill's proponents.

"I can see where shades of this case may fall under the law, but there are so many other egregious aspects to this case," Graham said. "I'll grant that the end result was murder, but I'll leave the charges up to prosecutors who know the law better."

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