Video: Co-ed charged in baby's death

By MSNBC Senior Legal Analyst
updated 10/10/2006 4:55:49 PM ET 2006-10-10T20:55:49
LEGAL ANALYSIS

Holly Aschcraft is a 22-year-old college student facing trial for murdering her newborn son, who was born prematurely—about 8 months old—and weighed about four pounds.  

Michael Lee Walker, a homeless man picking through a dumpster near Ashcroft’s Los Angeles apartment last year, found the baby in a box covered with layers of tape.  According to Walker’s court testimony, he spent minutes peeling off the tape, thinking he would find something valuable inside.  Instead, he found a navy blue bundled towel.   When he unwrapped the towel, he saw “two little things sticking up.”  He thought it was an animal at first, but when he touched it, he saw little feet and a baby’s head in the corner.    Inside the box, police found envelopes addressed to Ashcraft.

The autopsy report determined the baby’s death to be a homicide due to “caretaker neglect” and noted that intentional asphyxia could not be ruled out as a cause of death.   Deputy Medical Examiner David Whiteman concluded that the baby was born alive after a 32 week pregnancy. 

Ashcraft’s defense attorney, Mark Geragos, is going to argue that Holly Ashcraft is not guilty of murder because her baby was not born alive and if he was, she did not have the requisite intent to murder him.   I do not think the medical testimony will support Geragos’ theory that the baby was stillborn.  The medical examiner found that the baby was born alive based on the presence of air in the baby’s lungs.   The baby had never been fed.  The coroner’s investigator who responded to the scene found the child covered in blood and birth discharge.   About ten inches of a three-vessel umbilical cord with a clean cut were still attached.  A two vessel cord would raise concerns about birth defects, not so with a three vessel cord.

As for Geragos’ argument that Ashcraft lacked the intent to commit murder, intent can be inferred from one’s action.   Clearly Ashcraft did not intend to nurture or care for this child.  Had he been born in a hospital, his chance of survival was 100%.  Her failure to seek medical attention contributed to his death, as well as his not being fed. But being placed in a taped shut cardboard box and disposed of in a dumpster sealed Ashcraft’s  fate.  Not only did she fail to act on his behalf, she took an affirmative step that led to his death.  But for her placing him in a dumpster, this baby would have lived.   If you take a newborn, refuse to feed him, and dump him in the trash, that is an intentional act, and that is murder.  Ashcraft clearly did not intend for him to live.   She intended for him to die and she caused his death. 

In California, murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought.  Malice may be expressed or implied.  Malice is expressed when there is a deliberate intent to unlawfully take the life of a fellow creature.  Malice is implied when the killing shows an abandoned and malignant heart.

Ashcraft was examined at the USC Medical Center where a female nurse found evidence Ashcraft had recently given birth.   Ashcraft’s DNA is a match to the baby.  Yet Ashcraft told police she was not responsible for her son’s death.  She said she had been at her house all weekend long, but then contradicted herself almost in the same sentence and said she was at the beach and at the library.   If she is lying about where she was that weekend, what else is she lying about?

The court found probable cause to bind Ashcraft over for trial.  The court found that Ashcraft lived less than half a mile from a fire station.  California has a safe haven law which allows a person to anonymously drop off a baby at a designated location, such as a hospital or fire station within 72 hours of birth.  The fire station on Jefferson Boulevard was a two minute drive from Ashcraft’s apartment.

Speaking of a malignant and abandoned heart, Ashcraft does not seem to have much of one when it comes to her children.  This is the second time Ashcraft was linked to the death of a baby.  In April 2004, she claimed she gave birth to a stillborn baby and disposed of the child on her own.  She showed up at a Los Angeles hospital bleeding after she apparently gave birth.  The baby’s body was never found and Ashcraft was never arrested or charged in connection with that incident.I think the jury will hear about this even though Geragos will fight to keep it from them.  It is probably admissible to show pattern and to show motive.   Ashcraft’s motive is to avoid motherhood but there are clearly other ways to do this including safe sex, abortion, adoption, and the safe haven law.  Murder to avoid motherhood is a sure ticket to life in prison.

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