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Defense argues intent in fetal abduction case (UPDATE)

Annette Morales-Rodriguez sits next to her attorneys in a Milwaukee court for the start of her trial Monday. She's accused of killing a young mother by cutting her full-term fetus from her womb last October. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)

By DINESH RAMDE
Associated Press

MILWAUKEE (AP) – A woman accused of killing a pregnant Milwaukee woman and trying to steal her full-term fetus never meant for the mother or her unborn child to die, a defense attorney said Tuesday.

In opening statements, defense lawyer Debra Patterson acknowledged that evidence shows her client, 34-year-old Annette Morales-Rodriguez, found a young woman in the late stages of pregnancy and used a blade to slice out the fetus. But Patterson said the key legal question was whether Morales-Rodriguez intended to kill 23-year-old Maritza Ramirez-Cruz or her unborn son.

“We submit to you that Annette engaged in criminally reckless conduct, but she did not intend to kill Maritza,” Patterson said.

Morales-Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree intentional homicide, including homicide of an unborn child. A conviction on either count carries a mandatory life sentence, although a judge could allow for the possibility of parole. Wisconsin does not have the death penalty.

Last week, her lawyers switched from an insanity defense after a court-appointed doctor did not find evidence to support such a plea.

In his opening statement, prosecutor Mark Williams sketched a grisly summary that he said explained how Ramirez-Cruz died in 2011. He told jurors they would see video footage of the defendant and victim together, first at a community center that provides social services to Hispanics and later at a drugstore. He also promised to play a 90-minute videotape of the defendant’s statement to police, in which he says she provided details that matched what police later found.

Williams also showed a number of graphic pictures, including an autopsy photo of Ramirez-Cruz’s disemboweled lower torso.

Morales-Rodriguez sat in silence throughout the morning proceedings, her eyes fixed on the table where she sat and her expression unchanged.

Prosecutors allege Morales-Rodriguez was so desperate to have a fourth child that she lied three times about being pregnant. The first two times, she fabricated stories about miscarriages. The third time, she plotted to steal a baby by kidnapping a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, Williams said.

The defense acknowledged many of those details. But Patterson argued Morales-Rodriguez was blinded with desperation as her supposed due date approached. Morales-Rodriguez considered a number of options: telling her boyfriend the truth, faking another miscarriage, taking a baby from a pregnant woman, committing suicide, Patterson said.

But those were thoughts, she said. Morales-Rodriguez really didn’t know what to do.

Patterson acknowledged that Morales-Rodriguez offered Ramirez-Cruz a ride, thinking about stealing her baby but feeling so petrified during the car ride that she considered just taking the young woman home.

Morales-Rodriguez first stopped off at her own home to change her shoes, leaving Ramirez-Cruz alone in the car. Moments later, when Ramirez-Cruz knocked on the door to use the bathroom, “it was at that point she acted on an extreme desire to acquire a baby,” Patterson said.

Investigators say Morales-Rodriguez bludgeoned Ramirez-Cruz with a baseball bat, then choked her until she passed out. She then bound Ramirez-Cruz’s feet and hands with duct tape and also taped over her mouth and nose, according to the criminal complaint.

Morales-Rodriguez sliced out the baby with an X-Acto knife but the boy wasn’t breathing, the complaint said. In a panic, she called 911 and told the dispatcher she just delivered a baby in the shower even though she didn’t know she was pregnant.

Prosecutors played the seven-minute 911 recording in court. One female juror appeared to be near tears as Morales-Rodriguez could be heard sobbing that the baby wasn’t breathing.

Authorities grew suspicious when the medical examiner found evidence that the baby wasn’t the product of a natural birth. A subsequent examination verified Morales-Rodriguez hadn’t given birth.

Police later found Ramirez-Cruz’s body in Moralez-Rodriguez’s basement, according to the complaint.

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