updated 12/30/2008 6:53:31 PM ET 2008-12-30T23:53:31

Federal prosecutors in New Mexico believe they may be the first to use a 2004 law to charge someone with killing a fetus while causing the death or injury of the mother.

Charges against Frederick Beach, accused of beating his pregnant girlfriend to death, include one under the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. U.S. Attorney Greg Fouratt said his office's research found "no other case in the country in which that section (of law) has been charged," the Albuquerque Journal reported Tuesday.

Attorneys for Beach, 37, said they expect to pursue any available legal challenges.

"We may be breaking ground on a new area of law," said defense attorney Amy Sirignano. "We're not sure where that will lead us."

Beach pleaded not guilty last week to killing a fetus and to first-degree murder and child abuse charges.

He is accused of beating to death Verlinda Kinsel, 29, in September and killing the fetus she had said was his. Authorities say the victim's 9-year-old son witnessed the assault.

If convicted, Beach faces life in prison.

The case is being prosecuted in federal court because Kinsel was killed on the Navajo reservation.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act stemmed from the abduction and murder of a pregnant woman, Laci Peterson, in California in 2003. The law makes it a crime to kill a fetus in utero at any stage of development while committing another federal crime; it does not require the perpetrator to know the woman was pregnant.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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