Two prosecutors in the Ector County District Attorney’s Office shared how they recently secured a murder conviction in the case of a five-week-old unborn child under Texas’ version of the fetal homicide law, which is among the broadest state laws of its kind.
The account, written by assistant district attorneys Elizabeth Howard and Kortney Williams, begins with the background of the homicide.
The case originated with domestic issues between Odessa residents Amanda and Joel Luna.
Prosecutors detailed a history of domestic violence in the relationship, with Joel having strangled and abused Amanda on multiple occasions. Eventually, the couple split up before reconnecting.
It was during this phase that another abusive episode occurred, per testimony. When Amanda attempted to gather her kids to leave, Joel carried out a horrific attack.
Knowing Amanda was pregnant with another man’s child, he proceeded to strangle her again and put his knee into her stomach, saying he was going to kill the unborn child.
Joel refused to call emergency services. It wasn’t until he left the house the next day for work that Amanda’s daughter was able to call 911.
The account detailed the severity of the injuries that left Amanda hospitalized for six weeks, resulting in her suffering a traumatic miscarriage.
The prosecutors then detailed how they decided to proceed with criminal charges in the case.
In the Texas Penal Code, capital murder occurs when someone causes the intentional death of an individual under the age of 10. The prosecutors also describe how Texas law defines an “individual” as “a human being who is alive, including an unborn child at every stage of gestation from fertilization until birth.”
In preparing for the trial, the prosecutors described how they first had to ensure the jury agreed on the definition of an “individual” as defined by Texas law.
From there, the prosecutors called a variety of witnesses, including domestic violence expert Judy Drury, who they say was critical in explaining why Amanda would blame herself for Joel’s abusive behavior.
The doctor who saved Amanda’s life when she was initially brought to the hospital testified to the extent of her “life-threatening” injuries, and explained that Joel’s knee caused severe internal injuries to Amanda that “could have caused her baby to die.”
The jury ultimately agreed with the arguments brought forth by the state and convicted Joel of capital murder in the death of the unborn child, a conviction that carries a life sentence, as well as 36 years for the assault on Amanda.
The Ector County case isn’t the first example of a conviction obtained under the state’s fetal homicide laws.
In 2007, a Texas Appellate Court upheld the murder conviction of Gerardo Flores in the death of unborn twins after the constitutionality of the law was challenged by Flores and other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
Flores had an abusive relationship with his girlfriend who, after being assaulted by Flores, asked him to induce an abortion by stepping on her, causing the deaths of her unborn twins.
Texas law exempts the mother of an unborn child from homicide charges as well as doctors who perform abortions to save the life of the mother.
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Matt Stringer is a journalist who writes about all things government, politics, and public policy in West Texas. He graduated summa cum laude from Odessa College with an Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies and is presently finishing a Bachelor’s Degree in Management and Leadership. In his free time, you will find him in the great outdoors, usually in the Davis Mountains and Big Bend region of Southwest Texas.