Against her attorney’s advice, Jennifer Hazlett faces up to 10 years after she pleaded guilty to endangering her child’s life by using cocaine during pregnancy.
The plea, however, depends on the outcome of the Kentucky Supreme Court’s ruling on a similar 2006 case from Casey County, which the high court heard Dec. 10.
Hazlett, 22, of 301 Holmes St., could withdraw her plea if the Supreme Court rules a Casey County woman who used cocaine during pregnancy can’t be charged with wanton endangerment.
Hazlett stood solemnly next to public defender Clay Wilkey Friday and told Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd she knew the consequences of pleading guilty, namely losing her right to a trial and appeal.
Wilkey said his client went against his advice by pleading guilty.
“I think we should wait and see how the (Supreme Court) case determines this issue,” Wilkey said in court after Hazlett pleaded guilty.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Dana Todd said Hazlett had wanted to plead guilty numerous times during the case so she could get drug treatment and be reunited with her children.
“Ms. Hazlett indicated by her signature and by her mother’s support to both the commonwealth and Mr. Wilkey that she’s prepared to accept this agreement and be on her way to treatment and have her children back in her life.
“That’s what the commonwealth is prepared to do,” Todd said before Hazlett pleaded guilty.
Wilkey told The State Journal he takes issue with the nature of the charges his client pleaded guilty to Friday, primarily because a fetus isn’t considered a person under Kentucky law.
“I don’t see how it’s OK to have an abortion, but it’s not OK to do something which would hurt the fetus on the part of the mother,” Wilkey said.
“I don’t see how one could make the argument that it’s OK to kill a person, but it’s not OK to hurt a person if you consider a fetus to be a person, which the law does not.”
Wilkey also questioned charging Hazlett with wanton endangerment because the law is based on specific instances of dangerous conduct, and Hazlett was charged for the entirety of her pregnancy.
Todd, however, contends the charges are legal.
“The current state of the law is that the prosecution is authorized,” Todd told The State Journal after the Supreme Court heard arguments on the Casey County case in December. “If we did not think it was appropriate to prosecute these cases, we would not have pursued the indictment.”
The commonwealth recommends three years, but doesn’t oppose five years pretrial diversion based on several conditions, such as taking long-term birth control and completing substance abuse treatment.
If granted pretrial diversion, Hazlett would essentially be on probation, and she could have the felony charges expunged after completing her sentence.
As part of her plea agreement, Hazlett will be let out of jail before her sentencing May 14.
But that will not be until the court hears plans regarding her children and her substance abuse treatment, Shepherd said.
“I’m not sure you’re ready to be released today,” Shepherd said Friday. “I want to be sure upon your release that the court feels comfortable getting you into a setting where you’ll be successful in staying away from drugs.
“In my judgment at this time, that’s going to mean you’re going to have to be released under certain conditions.”
A hearing is scheduled for Friday in Franklin County Family Court, Todd told Shepherd.
The two sides will meet soon to discuss substance abuse treatment plans, Todd and Wilkey indicated.
Even though Hazlett went against his counsel, Wilkey understands why his client sought a quick resolution.
“While I’m disappointed Jennifer took the plea, as long as Jennifer has peace of mind, that’s what it’s all about,” he told The State Journal.
State police arrested Hazlett Oct. 29 and charged her with wanton endangerment and possession of cocaine.
Hazlett’s infant child weighed 2 pounds and 15 ounces at birth and state police say Hazlett “continually used cocaine during her pregnancy.”
Hazlett stormed out of court Jan. 22 after Shepherd denied her request for an early release from Franklin County Regional Jail, which was where she was returned Friday after her hearing.
Another case involving a Frankfort woman using cocaine during two pregnancies is moving through Franklin Circuit Court.
Samantha Johnson, 22, of 677 Comanche Trail, allegedly used cocaine while pregnant with her 1-year-old and 5-month-old sons, court documents say.
Johnson’s currently in the Volta Program, a 28-day drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Hopkinsville, court documents say.
She pleaded not guilty to charges of wanton endangerment and cocaine possession Oct. 28.
The issue of whether or not a woman who abuses substances during pregnancy could be charged with wanton endangerment attracted statewide attention with a Casey County case in 2006.
Commonwealth’s attorneys in Casey County charged Ina Cochran, 41, in 2006 with wanton endangerment for using cocaine during pregnancy, court clerks in there say.
Cochran and her newborn child tested positive for cocaine at the hospital, court documents say.
Casey Circuit Judge James Weddle dismissed the indictment in June of 2006, citing a 1993 case – Welch vs. Commonwealth – when the Supreme Court ruled a woman couldn’t be prosecuted for abusing a fetus because it wasn’t a person under Kentucky law.
The commonwealth appealed the decision July 19, 2006, and the Court of Appeals overruled the dismissal and reinstated the indictment.
The state Supreme Court is considering the matter and is under no timetable to rule.
A bill moving through the General Assembly would eliminate ambiguity in the wanton endangerment law by making drug and alcohol abuse during pregnancy explicitly illegal.
House Bill 136 is in the state House Judiciary Committee awaiting further action.
If passed, a mother could be charged with substance endangerment if a newborn tests positive for narcotics, prescribed medications in excessive amounts, or alcohol after hospital officials suspect drug abuse by the mother.
The mother could also be tested after giving birth, as could the placenta and other afterbirth materials.
Substance endangerment would be a felony charge with a penalty of 1-5 years if HB 136 passes; the penalty would increase to 5-10 years if a child were born with a serious impairment.