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D.A. Charges Pittsburgh Mom After Toddler’s Mysterious Death from Fentanyl in Sippy Cup

Despite looming questions about what happened, Jhenea Pratt is now facing life without parole.

Photo illustration by Anagraph / Photo by David Galloway/Getty

D.A. Charges Pittsburgh Mom After Toddler’s Mysterious Death from Fentanyl in Sippy Cup

Despite looming questions about what happened, Jhenea Pratt is now facing life without parole.

On April 5, Jhenea Pratt called 911 from her Pittsburgh home. Her 17-month-old daughter wasn’t breathing.

First responders took the child to a nearby hospital where the girl was pronounced dead. While at the hospital, police said Pratt became “hostile” and “combative” and told them she felt like they were treating her like a criminal.

They were.

In August, Pittsburgh police arrested Pratt and charged her with criminal homicide, which carries a maximum possible sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Lab results determined her daughter died of a fentanyl overdose, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed by Pittsburgh police.

The circumstances around how the child ingested the fentanyl, however, are murky and raise questions about why Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala charged her with criminal homicide, a broadly defined offense.

According to police, the child was in the care of a man they identified as Pratt’s boyfriend, who gave the girl a sippy cup filled with a red sugary drink. When Pratt arrived home from attending classes at a community college, she put the child to bed and placed the cup in the crib.

Pratt told the police that she then smoked marijuana and, about an hour later, went to check on the child. That is when she found her child was not breathing and called for help.

The liquid in the sippy cup was tested and came back positive for fentanyl. It is unclear how the fentanyl got there. According to the police report, Pratt denied putting anything in the cup. “How did the fentanyl get in the cup? I mean, we have some idea,” Zappala told KDKA in August in an interview where he described Pratt as “not helpful.”

Police blamed Pratt, arguing through circumstantial logic that had the child ingested drugs earlier in the day while she was in the care of someone else, she would have died sooner.

The man who acknowledged giving the child the sippy cup has not been charged in this case.

As of late October, Pratt was being held without bail, awaiting a preliminary hearing to determine if there was enough evidence for her case to move forward.

The Appeal contacted Zappala’s office but was told by a spokesperson that the office could not speak about the case beyond what was in the affidavit.

“If you put fentanyl in play and somebody dies, I want to see you go to jail,” Zappala told KDKA.

Such cases—in which a seemingly accidental overdose leads to charges against a friend or relative—are increasingly common. “Amidst broader criminalization of accidental overdose in general through drug-induced homicide prosecutions, there has been renewed vigor in prosecuting pregnant and parenting women with criminal conduct related to tragic deaths of their children from a drug overdose,” Leo Beletsky, a Northeastern University law professor, told The Appeal.

The district attorney’s office, like others in Pennsylvania, charges all homicide cases under the general criminal homicide offense, which includes five separate offenses ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. Sorting out which offense actually fits the facts of the case is left to a jury, said Michael Manko, spokesperson for Zappala. This can result in defendants like Pratt sitting in jail for months or years. It also gives prosecutors more bargaining leverage in plea negotiations. Facing a threat of life without parole, at least on paper, Pratt may be more likely to accept a lesser charge.

The Appeal reviewed charging records in Allegheny County and found Zappala charged more than 100 people with criminal homicide between 2016 and 2017. So far, only seven cases have resulted in a conviction for first- or second-degree murderthe only offenses that actually carry a life without parole sentence.

Fourteen people had their cases either dropped or were found not guilty, four were convicted of misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter, and another 37 were convicted of third-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.

It’s noteworthy that Pratt was not also charged with Pennsylvania’s drug-induced homicide charge, called “drug delivery resulting in death.” Allegheny County used that charge 11 times last year alone. Manko said the district attorney’s office believed criminal homicide was the more appropriate charge in this case, which could suggest the office believes the death was accidental because the other charge requires that someone intentionally gave or administered drugs to someone who died of an overdose.

Beletsky said cases like this and a recent case near Philadelphia in which a nursing mother was charged with criminal homicide after allegedly causing her child’s overdose death through breast milk are the result of a panic around fentanyl and other drugs.

They are also counterproductive from a public safety standpoint, he said, because they may dissuade people who use drugs from seeking help when a tragedy strikes, Beletsky said.

While it’s unclear whether Pratt used opioids, her prosecution mirrors a broader trend, Beletsky said. “People who use drugs—especially people of color—have long been dehumanized by the assumption that they do not or cannot adequately provide for their children,” Beletsky said, citing the “crack baby” phenomenon, drug testing of pregnant women, and the termination of parental rights for cannabis use.

“The Pratt case fits into this line of wrong-headed and often racist law enforcement actions that seek to punish grieving parents for accidents involving their children,” he said.

Medical examiners and cover-ups

Medical examiners and cover-ups

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Medical examiners and cover-ups

  • Baltimore’s ‘eye in the sky’ plane is back with a new pitch: surveil the police

  • An execution scheduled in South Dakota today makes a mockery of constitutional protections

  • A sheriff blocks get-out-the-vote efforts

  • Prison Legal News seeks Supreme Court review of Florida’s ban

  • Detroit police seized cars last year from nearly 400 people who weren’t charged with crimes

In the Spotlight

Medical examiners and cover-ups

In 2012, Darren Rainey died a gruesome death at the hands of Florida state corrections officers. Rainey, who was incarcerated at Dade Correctional Institution and had schizophrenia, was forced into a scalding hot shower after he defecated in his cell. In the years after Rainey’s death, after another incarcerated person inside fought to tell the story and the Miami Herald battled to unearth it, it became known that guards at Dade Correctional used dangerously hot showers, with the temperature controls outside the locked door, as a form of control against people with mental illness. That day, a guard locked Rainey in a blistering hot shower and walked away. When the guard returned two hours later, Rainey was unconscious on the floor. In 2014, another man incarcerated at the prison told the Miami Herald that he heard Rainey’s screams and several guards’ taunts, and that when he was ordered to clean up the shower cell he discovered strips of Rainey’s skin on the floor. [Julie K. Brown / Miami Herald]

Three years after Rainey’s death, the medical examiner, Dr. Emma Lew, concluded that Rainey’s death was an “accident” and he had died from “complications from schizophrenia, heart disease and confinement to a shower.’’ Lew also said she saw no burns and no evidence of trauma on Rainey’s body—conclusions that were in direct contradiction to the photographs of Rainey’s body, the recorded observations of others who saw Rainey’s body the night he died, and the opinions of other experts. The state’s attorney, when explaining her decision not to bring charges in the case, later said the autopsy formed the foundation of her decision. Her office’s report summarizing the investigation cited the absence of burns as making it impossible to prove that a crime had been committed, as it meant the shower was not dangerously hot. The state’s attorney also, according to the Herald, “emphasized that ‘science’ showed that Rainey did not die from the actions of the corrections officers.” [Julie K. Brown / Miami Herald]

When the Miami Herald reviewed the state’s attorney report it “identified numerous contradictions and omissions regarding both the autopsy findings and other evidence and statements used as the basis to clear the corrections officers.” One expert the paper consulted pointed to Lew’s failure to examine more than one skin tissue sample. “You have to assume from the start that these are burns until proven otherwise, not the other way around,” he said, pointing to the first responders’ description of burns on Rainey’s body.   [Julie K. Brown / Miami Herald]

Last week, the Miami New Times reported that a review of Lew’s personnel file shows that in the years since Rainey’s death and her findings exonerating the prison staff, Lew received a promotion, an award for which the state’s attorney recommended her, and a raise. Four months after she completed Darren Rainey’s autopsy report, she was appointed interim director of the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department. Lew’s willingness to overlook the signs of Rainey’s killing certainly didn’t hinder, and may have helped, her continued professional advancement. [Meg O’Connor / Miami New Times]

Two years ago, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising was an occasion to remember a very different set of actions by a medical examiner. In 1971, after the violent retaking of Attica by state troopers that resulted in 40 people dead, 10 of them hostages, Dr. John Edland, the chief medical examiner of Monroe County, New York, performed the autopsies. Rumors spread by local officials and law enforcement alleged that incarcerated people had murdered the dead. But what Edland discovered was that they died from gunshot wounds, which could only have been inflicted by the state troopers since those involved in the uprising had no guns. Edland’s findings made it impossible to ignore that the deaths had come at the hands of the state troopers. [Radley Balko / Washington Post]

Edland, a registered Republican who had voted for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, knew that his findings might be buried. He called a news conference and contacted local Black clergy to attend with him. As he anticipated, many refused to accept Edland’s autopsy results. He was vilified across the state and became the target of a harassment campaign that included threats of violence against him and his family. [Gary Craig / Democrat and Chronicle]

Edland’s role in unmasking the events at Attica showed how a cover-up would have required the complicity of everyone involved. By refusing to be complicit, he exposed the truth about what happened. But it is still rare to see medical examiners expose violence committed by corrections officers. As Radley Balko of the Washington Post wrote, “In recent years, we’ve seen example after example of forensic experts too willing to compromise their ethics in the face of pressure from police and prosecutors.”

Stories From The Appeal

Persistent Surveillance Systems

Baltimore’s ‘Eye in the Sky’ Plane Is Back With a New Pitch: Surveil the Police. Dismal police accountability has made communities vulnerable to private vendors. [Brandon Soderberg and Raven Rakia]

Stories From Around the Country

An execution scheduled in South Dakota today makes a mockery of constitutional protections: When Rodney Berget was 9 years old, a psychologist evaluated him and assigned him an IQ score of 90. “This boy appears to be quite immature and to be suffering from borderline mental retardation.” the psychologist wrote. Decades after that evaluation, South Dakota plans to execute Rodney Berget today at 1:30 p.m. local time despite substantial evidence of intellectual disability that should make him ineligible for the death penalty under the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. Much of the information about Berget’s disability was available to his trial attorney but little of it was followed up on or presented to the sentencing jury in 2012. Berget’s case “reveals a disturbing breakdown in the constitutional protections that are supposed to be in place for people facing the death penalty,” writes Liliana Segura. Berget’s own brother was one of three other people who have been executed by South Dakota in recent decades—like Berget, he dropped his appeals, “volunteering” for execution.  Social workers interviewed for Berget’s case described a childhood home marked by alcoholism and physical abuse. [Liliana Segura / The Intercept]

A sheriff blocks get-out-the-vote efforts: Approximately 6,000 people locked up in the Orange County jail are estimated to be eligible to vote. Volunteers with the ACLU of Southern California have been trying to register them but the sheriff’s office, led by Sandra Hutchens, has made their work harder. Volunteers cannot enter the jail to talk about voting. Instead, HuffPost reports, they must wait across the street and approach people after they’re released to ask them to register. In California, people with felony convictions can vote as long as they are not currently incarcerated, on parole, or in jail on a parole violation. People in jail who are eligible to vote can vote by mail. The restriction Orange County is placing on get out the vote efforts is not the norm—”[j]ust north of Orange County, the ACLU has been allowed inside the Los Angeles County jail to register inmates. They estimate they’ve registered about 4,000 people there.”  [Sam Levine / HuffPost] See also The Appeal: Political Report looks at what’s at stake in the Orange County sheriff’s race this year. After a tenure marked by hostility to the state sanctuary law and by cooperation with ICE, Sheriff Hutchens is not seeking re-election.

Prison Legal News seeks Supreme Court review of Florida’s ban: Prison Legal News, an award-winning publication for incarcerated people, has been banned by the Florida prisons department and is seeking review by the Supreme Court after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban. PLN has many friends in its First Amendment fight—over 100 groups and individuals have signed on to 8 amicus briefs, an unusually high number at this early stage according to reporting by Bloomberg Law. They include former prison officials, media groups, faith organizations, and even book clubs. While other states have seized issues of PLN at different times, no prison system has enacted a total ban like Florida. Florida officials have argued that the publication was banned because of ads that encourage escape attempts and not because of the content that includes legal updates and reporting on abuses in prisons. PLN is represented by former Solicitor General Paul D. Clement. [Jordan S. Rubin / Bloomberg Law] See also Our June 13, 2018 newsletter looked at the Florida prison system’s ban on Prison Legal News.

Detroit police seized cars last year from nearly 400 people who weren’t charged with crimes: In 2017, law enforcement in Wayne County, Michigan, which includes Detroit, seized 380 cars from people who were not charged with crimes. Statewide, police seized 736 vehicles from people not charged with crimes. Nearly all the vehicles seized in Wayne County were valued at less than $1,000, and one expert suggested that the forfeitures had targeted low-income people who were less likely to have the assistance of a lawyer with getting their property back. Unlike some other states, Michigan law allows property seized through civil asset forfeiture to be transferred to the government regardless of whether a person is convicted or even charged. This year, three individuals filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that Wayne County forces people to wait months or even years for asset forfeiture hearings, in violation of the plaintiffs’ right to due process. [Tyler Arnold / Michigan Capitol Confidential]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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Louisiana Judge Threatens To Appoint Every Eligible Lawyer To Death Penalty Case

After the state cut funds for capital defense, there’s a growing wait list of people in jail without a lawyer.

The Caddo Parish Courthouse

Louisiana Judge Threatens To Appoint Every Eligible Lawyer To Death Penalty Case

After the state cut funds for capital defense, there’s a growing wait list of people in jail without a lawyer.

Sitting in Caddo Parish District Court on Sept. 17, nearly three months after he learned he faced death for allegedly killing his ex-girlfriend on Facebook Live, Johnathan Robinson, 37, still didn’t have a lawyer certified to try capital cases.

My impression was that he was frustrated by all of this argument of who would represent him,” recalled John Landis, outside counsel for Jay Dixon, the director of the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

Landis was in court that day to explain to Judge Ramona Emanuel that the board did not have the monetary resources to immediately provide capital defense for Robinson as required by the U.S. Constitution. Such representation requires special certification in Louisiana. As is customary, Landis provided Judge Emanuel with a list of 48 certified lawyers across the state who could potentially serve as Robinson’s legal team. Rather than select a few from the list, she declared that all qualified attorneys, public and private, would be appointed and ordered to appear. Robinson’s next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

“I’ve been called into a number of courts on this issue,” Dixon said. “Calling in every available lawyer? That we haven’t seen.”

This unprecedented move would not address the root issue, public defenders say, which is grossly inadequate funding for capital defense—and public defense in general—across the state. Louisiana is the only state in the country that primarily relies on fines and fees, including traffic tickets, to pay for constitutionally mandated public defense. As traffic ticket revenue declined over the years, public defenders’ offices were thrown into crisis. “The joke in Louisiana is your Sixth Amendment rights depend on how many traffic citations are issued by the local law enforcement,” said Orleans Parish Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton. “And it’s actually not a joke.”

The wait list for capital defense representation has been growing for a year and a half, since the state legislature diverted $3 million from the board’s $8.5 million capital defense fund to local public defender offices, a move Dixon describes as “basically rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Currently seven people facing the death penalty are in jail indefinitely because they can’t afford a lawyer—a situation that Bunton calls the “worst kind of limbo” for defendants, as well as victims’ families. Robinson is first on the list, according to the board.  

Multiple Louisiana capital defenders told The Appeal that they have yet to be subpoenaed to appear for the Robinson case. Shreveport, in the northwest corner of the state, is a four- to five-hour drive for the majority of the qualified attorneys, who are based in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. According to Dixon, attorneys are already taking measures to avoid the potential trip for a complex case without guaranteed compensation. “We’ve had a couple people basically contact us and ask to be taken off of the list,” he says. “Revoking their certification permanently. It exacerbates the problem.”

Because the U.S. Supreme Court has articulated strict constitutional standards for the death penalty, capital cases require far more resources than a typical felony case. People facing execution are entitled to multiple appeals in state and federal court, which means years of investigation and litigation for both the defense and prosecution.

Louisiana’s requirements for lead trial attorney on capital cases, instated in 2010, include a submission of writing samples, a personal statement, and multiple references; completion of the board’s training program; and at least five years of criminal trial experience, including prior experience on at least two cases where the death penalty was at least sought, if not brought to trial.

Capital defenders point to Louisiana’s above-average reversal rate on death penalty cases—82 percent according to a 2016 study by researchers from the University of North Carolina and Northeastern University—as proof that the public defender board’s standards are merited. Several capital defense attorneys have lost their certification or been suspended for misconduct that included being drunk in court and ignoring clients after collecting fees. One capital defense office lost funding after a string of their clients in Caddo Parish received the death penalty. “We are trying to impose these standards so that the bottom of the barrel isn’t representing these people,” says Ben Cohen, a capital defense lawyer with the Promise of Justice Initiative.

Yet district attorneys accuse the board of setting superfluous standards for capital defense and creating an attorney shortage.

“These are murder cases. That’s all they are. They are not that much more complicated,” says Hugo Holland, a former assistant district attorney in Caddo Parish. Holland was forced out of the office in 2012 for falsifying documents to procure M16 rifles from the federal government. Since then, he has become a prosecutor-for-hire with a specialty in death penalty cases. He has also lobbied on behalf of various district attorneys, and in 2016 testified in favor of the legislation that would slash capital defense funding 30 percent.

Although the expense of capital litigation has drawn criticism in Louisiana in recent years, two death penalty abolition bills faltered this year. Public defenders say this is largely because of Holland’s lobbying.

Holland, who described himself to The Appeal as “just a grunt assistant DA working on my cases,” acknowledged his commitment to preserving the death penalty. “As long as I can keep breathing and going to Baton Rouge, I’m going to try to keep it the law of the state,” he told The Appeal.

He insisted that the public defender board is on a mission to abolish capital punishment. “Does the garbage man get to say, ‘We’re full up today, I can’t pick up the garbage?’” he added. “Just do your job.”

Holland “does not want to have an adversary that’s fully funded,” countered Cohen of the Promise of Justice Initiative. “He’d rather practice law against people who are incapable of defending their clients. It’s tactically sophisticated but morally bankrupt.”

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, told The Appeal that though he did not want to comment on the Robinson case specifically, “Part of the suspicion is that [the board] might have the ability to try this case, but every time there’s a case it’s used as an excuse for the public defenders to discuss the lack of funding.” (A spokesperson for Caddo Parish District Attorney James Stewart declined to comment on the pending case.)

Amid this debate, capital defenders say they are unsure what Judge Emanuel’s decision will mean for Robinson in the short term. “My grandfather has an expression: You can’t get blood out of a stone,” Cohen says. On Tuesday, “I don’t know what she’s going to get these lawyers to do.”

Richard Bourke is director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, which contracts with the state public defender board. In the Robinson representation debate, he sees parallels to the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. Unable to find a defense attorney for the boys, the judge appointed two lawyers the morning of the trial. Eight of the boys were sentenced to death. A year later, the Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. Alabama that the boys, who ultimately were not executed, had been denied their constitutional right not just to representation in a capital case, but adequate representation.  

“Eighty years on from Powell,” he says, “we’re still not able to provide the minimum representation the Constitution requires.”

Update: The Louisiana Public Defender Board received a ruling and modified order on Friday, in which Judge Emanuel retracts her request for all qualified attorneys to appear to possibly represent Robinson. It remains unclear who will represent Robinson in his capital trial. The judge stated in the Oct. 25 ruling that, “At present, the determination of all relevant issues is a work in progress.” 

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