FRIDAY March 12, 2004

Mother is charged in stillborn son's death

Melissa Ann Rowland

By Pamela Manson
The Salt Lake Tribune

    Salt Lake County prosecutors on Thursday charged a West Jordan woman with criminal homicide in the death of her stillborn baby. Prosecutors claim the woman ignored repeated warnings in the last few weeks of pregnancy that the twins she was carrying could die or suffer brain damage unless she had an immediate Caesarean section.
    Melissa Ann Rowland, 28, had refused medical treatment, saying she would rather die than go to either of the two recommended hospitals, and that being cut "from breast bone to pubic bone" would ruin her life, the county District Attorney's Office alleges in a probable-cause statement filed in 3rd District Court.
    Rowland, also known as Melissa Hrosik, faces up to life in prison if convicted of the first-degree felony. Her attorney, Michael Sikora, said she has been in jail since shortly after giving birth in mid-January on a child endangerment charge involving the surviving twin, a girl who has been adopted.
    Sikora, a public defender, said Rowland has a long history of mental illness and was first committed to a hospital at age 12.
    What makes the prosecution's case extraordinary is it presumes the state can second-guess an expectant mother's choice on major medical care.
    "This is nothing if not a very novel legal theory," Sikora said. "If it prevails, it raises questions about what a mother can or cannot do with respect to the safety of her unborn child. If a doctor says this will be a very difficult pregnancy and you should get complete bed rest for the last three months and the mother doesn't and the baby is stillborn, is she guilty of murder? If she smokes, is it murder? If she doesn't eat right, is it murder?"
    But Kent Morgan, deputy Salt Lake County prosecutor and a spokesman for District Attorney David Yocom, said Rowland's crime stems from the depraved indifference and utter callousness she showed toward her unborn twins.
    "It's not just the conduct, it's the knowledge, the state of mind," he said.
    The probable cause statement claims that Rowland was told numerous times from Dec. 25, 2003, to Jan. 9, 2004, that her twins faced life-threatening conditions and could die unless she pursued immediate medical attention.
    Rowland told a nurse at LDS Hospital on Christmas Day that she had not felt the babies move. The nurse recommended that Rowland go at once to either Jordan Valley or Pioneer Valley Hospital, according to the probable-cause statement. But it says the nurse said Rowland told her "she would rather have both of her babies die before she went to either of those hospitals."
    An obstetrician-gynecologist who saw Rowland at LDS Hospital on Jan. 2 recommended an immediate Caesarean section because of problems with the fetal heart rate and an ultrasound that indicated low amniotic fluid, the statement says. However, Rowland left after signing a statement indicating that she understood that leaving the hospital could result in death or significant brain injury to the babies, according to the statement.
    Later the same day, Rowland showed up at Salt Lake Regional Hospital and told a nurse that she left LDS Hospital because a doctor there wanted to cut her "from breast bone to pubic bone" and this would "ruin her life," according to court records. In addition, she allegedly told the nurse that she would rather "lose one of the babies than be cut like that."
    On Jan. 9, Rowland went to Pioneer Valley Hospital, the statement says. A nurse was unable to verify a fetal heart rate on one of the twins and told Rowland that she should remain for monitoring, but Rowland left anyway.
    Sikora said child protection authorities were told of the situation when Rowland was still pregnant, but took no action.
    "We have not been granted authority to intervene in the life of an unborn child," said Carol Sisco, a spokeswoman for the Division of Child and Family Services. "We don't have jurisdictional authority."
    The only agency with authority would have been a hospital, who could have petitioned to have a guardian appointed for the child. That guardian could have then petitioned a judge to force the medical procedure on Rowland.
    A nurse who assisted in delivery of the twins at Pioneer Valley Hospital in West Valley City told investigators that Rowland arrived in labor on Jan. 13. A hospital staff member told Rowland that one of the babies was dead and the other was in distress, the nurse said.
    She said Rowland resisted the recommendation that she deliver by C-section and insisted on going outside to smoke before eventually giving her consent for the operation. The boy was stillborn and the girl was in respiratory distress, the nurse said. A doctor reported that the girl also tested positive for cocaine and alcohol in her blood.
    Edward Leis of the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner, who performed an autopsy on the boy, said the unborn child died two days before his sister was born "and further stated that if the defendant had delivered Baby Boy Rowland when her doctors had urged her to, the baby would have survived," the probable cause statement says.
    Rowland was booked into jail on Jan. 14 -- just one day after delivering her twins -- on an endangerment charge for allegedly taking drugs that harmed Hannah, the girl. Bail for that count was set at $50,000. For the homicide charge, bail was set at $250,000.
    The charges are another sad event in a life marked with mental problems, Sikora said.
    He said Rowland, herself a twin, was born to a mentally retarded mother. She was placed in foster care almost immediately and adopted before her first birthday. Her twin brother had serious medical problems and died when he was 7, Sikora said.
    Rowland was committed to a Pennsylvania mental hospital when she was 12, weighing almost 200 pounds, and diagnosed with "oppositional defiant disorder," Sikora said. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry defines the condition as an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant and hostile behavior toward authority figures that seriously interferes with day-to-day functioning.
    His client was hospitalized in a mental facility at least one other time and told him she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Sikora said. The defense attorney is waiting for records to confirm that.
    Rowland's statements to doctors and nurses, says Vicki Cottrell, the executive director of the Utah chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, seem to confirm a mental illness.
    "All I can say is there's no question this is not rational thinking," Cottrell said. "There are so many things going on in a [mentally ill] person's mind, it really is not clearly black-and-white disobedience."
    Rowland moved to Utah with a boyfriend and is either divorced or estranged from her husband, Sikora said. Court records show she was living on Social Security disability benefits and that managers of her apartment complex began eviction proceedings in late January after her arrest.
    "This is major surgery," Sikora said of the Caesarian. "It would come as no surprise that a woman with major mental illness would fear it."
    But Morgan said a determination of her mental state will have to be made during criminal proceedings and nothing has been proven yet.
    "What we're trying to send is the message that someone has to stand up for a child who could have been alive," he said.
    Tribune reporter Jacob Santini contributed to this story.
   * Melissa Ann Rowland could face up to life in prison if convicted of first-degree homicide for killing her unborn baby.

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