South Carolina mom Stephanie Greene was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Friday after a jury found her guilty of homicide by child abuse, involuntary manslaughter and unlawful conduct toward a child.
In 2010, Ms. Greene's 6-week-old daughter Alexis died, reportedly due to an overdose of morphine delivered through her breast milk. Toxicology reports revealed that the level of morphine found in the infant's system was enough to potentially kill an adult. Investigators revealed that they found dozens of pill bottles and painkiller patches in Ms. Greene's bedroom, well within reach of her then 4-year-old son.
The 39-year-old former nurse has been taking a variety of painkillers since a 1998 car accident that left her with a fractured skull and pelvis. Her lawyer Rauch Wise says that Ms. Greene, who has three other children, lives in "chronic pain." In 2004, she lost her nursing license after it was found that she'd tried to illegally call in medication prescriptions and also refused a drug test.
When she discovered she was expecting her fourth child in 2010, Ms. Greene hid the pregnancy from doctors so that she could continue to get painkillers, but baby Alexis was born healthy, weighing 7lbs, 2oz.
Ms. Greene's husband and other family members insist that she was a hands-on, devoted mother in the weeks after Alexis' birth. She took her to her 4-week checkup and also to a pediatric ophthalmologist appointment. When Alexis came down with a stuffy nose, she called her pediatrician for advice. She chose to breastfeed, but says that she talked to a lactation consultant about the possible impact of the painkillers. She was directed to an NIH web site, which reportedly advised that morphine was relatively safe for nursing moms.
Early in the morning of November 13, 2010, Ms. Greene breastfed Alexis in bed when she awoke, the two of them then falling back asleep. A few hours later her husband woke up and noticed that the baby "felt cold." When they realized she wasn't breathing, Ms. Greene began infant CPR and called 911, though according to reports sounded "groggy and unfocused." The paramedics soon arrived, but they weren't able to revive Alexis. Nine months later Ms. Greene was arrested.
Even before this week's conviction, the case has been a very controversial one, debated by moms here at BabyCenter and well beyond. Indeed, it raises several difficult questions, not the least of which is, what are the true risks of breastfeeding while taking medication? How much morphine can be transmitted via nursing? According to the defense lawyer in this case, not much.
While his client's drug use is not being disputed — "She needed those meds to get up in the morning and function," he says — Mr. Wise notes, "What's scary to me is that the state thinks enough of a drug can be distributed through breast milk to kill a baby."
The state, however, paints a very different picture: "This is not an indictment on breast feeding," says prosecutor Barry Barnette. "She loved her drugs more than she loved her baby."
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