Baby's death accident, not criminal act, court told

By Josh Price

The death of a 6-week-old baby has been described as an accident and not a criminal action in the High Court at New Plymouth today.

The trial of a 39-year-old Taranaki woman, accused of the manslaughter of her daughter in February last year, continued this morning.

The Crown has alleged the woman consumed alcohol and prescription medication, before becoming unconscious and smothering her daughter as she attempted to breastfeed her.

The defence, today beginning its case, questioned paediatrician Professor Dawn Elder.

She told the court it was very possible the mother fell asleep as a result of her exhaustion and pneumonia, and not as a result of alcohol and prescription medication.

The defence, led by Susan Hughes QC, has argued throughout the case that the mother was extremely exhausted and suffering from pneumonia at the time the baby died.Ms Hughes said these factors, which caused the mother to fall asleep, were out of her control, meaning she didn't fail to provide the necessaries of life.

Earlier in the day, a statement from the mother given weeks after her daughter died was read to the court.

In it she described how she was exhausted and ill at the time her daughter died, but refused to ask for help in caring for her two daughters.

She said she knew she was struggling to stay awake, but didn't think she would fall asleep while breastfeeding.

The defence and the Crown have now wrapped up their cases and the court has been adjourned until tomorrow morning, when closing arguments will begin.

Yesterday, the mother broke into tears several times, at one point removing herself from proceedings as details of her daughter's death were described.

Throughout the day a witness, who has name suppression, described finding the mother and the baby the day she died.

The witness told the court she went to make a routine visit only to find the mother crouched over and asleep in her home.

The witness said the mother's other young daughter had to wake her up, and when the mother sat up she noticed the baby was underneath her, had turned yellow and wasn't breathing.

The witness said she immediately called an ambulance, but the baby was unable to be revived.

Forensic scientist Helen Poulsen told the court that based on a blood sample taken hours after the baby's death she believed the woman's alcohol level could have been three times the legal drink-driving limit.

She also said the woman's blood contained the drugs zopiclone and methadone, which are known to make consumers sleepy.

A different witness, who also has name suppression, described her interaction with the mother after the baby was born.

She told the court the mother had confessed to her that she had consumed some prescription medication and breastfed the baby days after she was born.

The witness said she emphasised to the mother the importance of avoiding alcohol or taking the drugs while breastfeeding.

On further visits to the mother the witness said it was apparent she had continued to drink alcohol and take the medication before she breastfed.

- Newstalk ZB

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