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Two women were charged with murder after having stillbirths. The cases are rocking this conservative corner of California

San Francisco Chronicle 6/4/2022 By Lauren Hepler

HANFORD — In early 2018, a 29-year-old Central Valley woman became the first person in decades to be jailed in California for the death of her stillborn infant.

In late 2019, it happened again. Another pregnant woman who struggled with addiction delivered a stillborn baby who tested positive for methamphetamine at Adventist Health hospital in the Kings County seat of Hanford. She was also flagged by doctors, investigated by local law enforcement and charged with murder by District Attorney Keith Fagundes.

The cases sparked national backlash from civil rights groups, which successfully fought to overturn the convictions. But now, as Gov. Gavin Newsom positions California as a reproductive rights sanctuary ahead of the Supreme Court’s anticipated reversal of Roe v. Wade, the cases are once again dividing residents in a bitter district attorney’s race in this corner of California’s heartland.

It’s a contest that outside legal advocates say reflects a national trend toward more frequent prosecutions of pregnant people, which California lawmakers are now trying to ban at the state level. For the candidates and voters in 152,000-person Kings County, the Republican-on-Republican June 7 election is also about corruption allegations and differing views on how conservative rural communities fit into a deep blue state.

“Those two cases, they’re a symptom of the disease,” said Sarah Hacker, a Hanford lawyer challenging Fagundes. “And the disease that has infected our criminal justice system here in Kings County is preferential treatment.”

For the incumbent Fagundes, it’s “not an abortion discussion,” but a matter of two drug cases that spiraled into a reproductive rights lightning rod — a sequence of events that he said he did not plan for, but which he has embraced.

“You know,” he said, “somebody’s gotta be a voice for that fetus.”

The anti-San Francisco

The road into Hanford doubles as a condensed tour of the sprawling and diverse San Joaquin Valley. Cows and a mini-horse ranch fly by alongside the Sikh Center of the Pacific Coast, signs telling the governor to “stop stealing our dam water!” and a Farmers Mini Mart advertising hot meals and liquor. The radio plays fire-and-brimstone preachers, Mexican rancheras and hip-hop beamed in from Fresno.

Hacker grew up 40 miles north in Clovis and interned in Washington, D.C., during the George W. Bush years for former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). She came back to the Central Valley and worked alongside Fagundes as a deputy district attorney, then said she quit shortly after he was sworn into the top office in 2015.

“Being a prosecutor wasn’t about public safety or doing what’s right for the public good,” Hacker said of her decision to leave for private practice. “It became swearing an oath of allegiance and doing what was right to the currently elected D.A.”

Fagundes grew up in Kings County, the youngest of seven children in a farming family before his father was elected county supervisor in 2008. Today, the younger Fagundes is outspoken and fond of blaming “urban dwellers” for state laws like sentencing reform measure Proposition 47, which he says has hurt towns like Hanford by allowing drug crimes to fester.

“I haven’t been to San Francisco in years, because the last time I was there it was disgusting,” Fagundes said. “And I don’t want my community to be like San Francisco.”

Video: 3 family members charged in toddler's 'exorcism' death (CBS SF Bay Area)

3 family members charged in toddler's 'exorcism' death

Still, Fagundes said he didn’t set out looking for cases involving stillbirths. He now calls himself “the only prosecutor” willing to stand up to Democratic politicians like Attorney General Rob Bonta, who later advised counties that the fetal murder cases were a “misuse” of state laws that advocates say are designed to protect women attacked while pregnant. But Fagundes said he only heard about the case of Hanford mother of nine Adora Perez after local law enforcement got involved.

Perez, whose family declined to comment through an attorney but previously told the Los Angeles Times that sexual abuse and domestic violence contributed to her struggles, served four years in prison before a manslaughter plea deal was thrown out by a judge last month. Chelsea Becker, a 26-year-old woman jailed in 2019 under similar circumstances, was freed in March 2021.

Becker’s attorney, Samantha Lee of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said the isolated California cases are part of a national trend toward criminalizing pregnant people. The advocacy group identified more than 1,330 prosecutions nationwide from 2006 to 2020, more than triple the 413 cases prosecuted from 1973 to 2005.

“When that door is opened, then anything someone does or doesn’t do during their pregnancy could be charged similarly,” Lee said. “We’re already seeing it, and we expect it to only get worse.”

To Fagundes’ challenger Hacker, who emphasized that “I’m not a liberal” and declined to state her own views on reproductive rights, the issue is twofold. First, the cases open Kings County up to potentially costly legal disputes with the state, where East Bay Assembly Member Buffy Wicks is now moving to explicitly bar pregnancy-related prosecutions with bill AB2223. Hacker also said the cases undermine the concept of “justice for all.”

But at two dueling pickup trucks blanketed in Hacker and Fagundes campaign signs parked outside the busy Superior Dairy ice cream shop in downtown Hanford, it’s not the stillbirth cases that she’s stressing to voters. Instead, a folder taped to the window of the truck offered printed copies of a lawsuit filed last year by former Kings County District Attorney Chief Investigator Robert Waggle.

The lawsuit, which was filed against the county in September, alleged that Fagundes harassed and retaliated against Waggle, including claims that Fagundes touched Waggle “in a sexual manner” and kept “blackmail folders” on employees. The complaint is one of several that Fagundes has attempted to fight off in recent months, including two county-approved settlements with other former employees, one who accused the district attorney of “unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”

“It’s a bunch of false information that is designed to embarrass me and my family,” Fagundes said. Attorneys for Waggle said their client’s claims “will be proved at the time of trial” in the case that has been transferred to San Bernardino County.

The home stretch

The last time Fagundes faced a challenger for district attorney in a June primary election, five months after Perez was arrested in 2018, less than one-third of Kings County’s 51,000 registered voters cast a vote for the office. Fagundes trounced his opponent. This time around, Hacker was outspending the incumbent as of late May by about $77,000 to $45,000, county records show.

Even with all the campaign signs dotting local lawns, voters had mixed opinions and levels of awareness a few days before the election on a sweltering afternoon in Hanford’s grassy central square.

One family eating ice cream near a fountain “doesn’t really vote.” Xavier Robbledo, 26, just moved back to the Valley from San Jose for a new job and plans to vote but was still evaluating which candidate would do more to advance criminal justice reform. One woman leaving a crowded orientation for new Del Monte hires had made up her mind: She’d be voting Hacker, she said, because “ella es honesta” (she’s honest).

On Thursday evening, as the line started to grow for Beto's Roasted Corn & Potatoes at a weekly local pop-up market, Barbara Hill was busy registering Democratic voters under a blue tent. The 25-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was less enthused about the district attorney’s race; she didn’t think either candidate would do enough to fight for women, especially after her own experience with a miscarriage.

“I don’t want to vote for either,” Hill said. “It’s like between a rock and a hard place.”

Behind a folding table stacked with fliers for other candidates, Hill’s 16-year-old MaryKathryn Norris had her own opinion. It all reminded the local Girl Scout leader, who downed a shaved ice while draped in a rainbow flag, of an argument she’d had recently with protesters outside a nearby antiabortion crisis pregnancy center.

“I would like to not die of sepsis,” Norris said, referring to potential infections after medical procedures. “If I end up getting into a situation where I need an abortion, I don’t want to have to, like, go into an alleyway.”

As voters prepare to mail their ballots or go to the polls, Perez’s lawyer Mary McNamara said her client remains at a Bay Area rehabilitation facility. Becker is back in school, which Fagundes said he takes “some credit for” — a notion that Becker’s lawyer Lee called “very troubling” and instead credited to her client’s resilience.

Another way Becker has worked to overcome “a lot of trauma” from the case: backing the state bill to ensure that prosecutions like hers don’t happen again in Kings County, or elsewhere in California. This spring, she wrote in a letter to state lawmakers about how another child was taken from her custody while she was jailed — then adopted by the time she was released.

“I suffered alone,” she wrote.

Lauren Hepler (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @LAHepler

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