Breast Milk Morphine Death: Mom Gets 20 Years; Appeal Likely

By Jenny Tsay, Esq. on April 04, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A South Carolina woman has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing her infant daughter by an overdose of morphine that was transmitted through breast milk.

Stephanie Greene, 39, a former nurse, was found guilty of homicide by child abuse. Greene apparently had a history of using painkillers to combat chronic pain caused by a car accident and other health issues, reports The Associated Press.

Greene's lawyer says she plans to appeal her conviction, but on what grounds?

How Did This Happen?

Prosecutors say ex-nurse Stephanie Greene was aware of the dangers of taking painkillers while pregnant, but intentionally hid her pregnancy from doctors so she could continue to receive her prescription drugs.

An autopsy report on Greene's 6-week-old daughter showed a high level of morphine in the baby's body that may have been lethal even for an adult.

Since no needle marks were found on the infant's body, authorities concluded that the morphine must have gotten into her through her mother's breast milk, according to the AP. The case was apparently convincing enough for jurors to find Greene guilty of homicide by child abuse beyond a reasonable doubt.

Greene's lawyer, however, remains unconvinced and has vowed to appeal.

Criminal Appeal

Greene's attorney told the AP that prosecutors didn't conclusively prove that the morphine came from Greene's breast milk. In fact, there's little scientific evidence that a lethal amount of morphine can gather in breast milk to cause death to an infant, the lawyer insisted.

As for Greene's lengthy sentence, "The court can't punish her any more than she already has been by losing a child," Greene's lawyer told the AP.

Individuals who've been convicted of a crime can appeal their case if they believe there were prosecutorial errors or errors in sentencing. But unlike the initial criminal trial, an appeals court doesn't consider any new evidence and only bases its decision on the record of the proceedings in the original court.

That means Greene and her attorney will likely file a brief arguing why the court made the wrong decision, but won't be able to introduce any new evidence that wasn't presented at trial.

Not the First Time...

One final note on this case: Although the AP's report on Greene's sentencing states that "no mother has ever been prosecuted in the United States for killing her child through a substance transmitted in breast milk," a quick search of the AP's own archives proves otherwise.

In 2011, a California mom was charged with murdering her 6-week-old son by methamphetamine-tainted breast milk; as part of a deal with prosecutors, Maggie Jean Wortman pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison, the AP reported in 2012.

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