Danielle Edwards, a Caldwell County, Texas resident, was a bad mother during her nine-month pregnancy between October 2016 and June 2017. She ingested cocaine during the pregnancy. The child was born with symptoms of drug addiction.
Again, in 2018, Edwards was using cocaine. She admitted as much to a child protective services agent that year after the State’s Child Protective Services (CPS) agency opened an investigation into possible abuse of the child born in June 2017.
After Edwards tested positive for the use of cocaine, CPS removed the child from the mother’s care. The agency then requested that the child’s hair follicles be tested to determine if the child had been exposed to cocaine. The test revealed that the child had significant amounts of cocaine and cocaine metabolites.
The Caldwell County District Attorney’s Office sought and secured an indictment against Edwards for injury to a child under Texas Penal Code § 22.04(a)(2). The indictment charged Edwards with reckless injury to her child by allowing the infant “access to cocaine and the infant was able to ingest the cocaine.”
Edwards was put on trial in October 2019. The State’s case was circumstantial at best. A drug screening and assessment center owner testified that he was “shocked” by the level of cocaine in the child’s system—a level “indicative of an addict doing it all the time.” He said that level would cause withdrawal systems that could lead to short-term physical effects (like heart racing) and long-term physical and psychological effects that could both delay mental and physical development.
The child’s aunt, who became its guardian in June 2018, testified that while the infant was “small for her age … very clingy [and] very fussy,” the child did not exhibit any developmental delays that either she or the child’s pediatrician could detect. The aunt specifically testified that she had not noticed any developmental delays.
The State’s final witness, the child’s father, testified that he, Edwards, and a friend lived in a shared household before CPS removed the child.
The father’s testimony made two points: Edwards was the child’s primary caregiver who breastfed the child, and the third person did not take care of the child or expose it to cocaine.
Based on this evidence, a jury convicted Edwards of the crime charged, and the trial judge imposed a 12-year prison sentence.
On direct appeal, counsel for Edwards presented the sole legal challenge that the evidence was insufficient to base a conviction for the offense charged.
Counsel’s challenge did not contest the sufficiency of the evidence that Edwards breastfed the child when she was using cocaine.
Counsel’s challenge instead zeroed in on a singular issue: to secure a conviction under § 22.04(a)(2), the State had the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the child suffered some “mental deficiency, impairment or injury” as a result of Edwards’ allowing the child to access and ingest cocaine.
The Third District Court of Appeal on July 1, 2021 rejected this challenge, saying:
“… we believe that the evidence in this case demonstrating that [the child] became addicted to cocaine and experienced withdrawal is sufficient to establish that [the child] suffered from a serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury.”
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) granted discretionary review in the case to decide one issue contrary to the appeals court’s finding:
“Can a mother who repeatedly uses cocaine while breastfeeding her baby be found guilty of reckless injury to a child for causing serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury when the baby becomes addicted to cocaine and suffers withdrawals?”
The CCA answered this question in the negative on February 15, 2023, in Edwards v. State.
As detailed by the CCA, the State, in this case, had one witness, the father, who confirmed that Edwards’ breastfed the child while using cocaine—a fact stipulated by counsel on appeal. The State’s second witness, the aunt, testified that neither she nor the child’s pediatrician saw any developmental delays that could reasonably constitute “serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury.”
The CCA concluded that “there is no Texas Penal Code definition for ‘serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury,’ so the jury was free to use the common and ordinary meanings of the terms” to reach its verdict.
That legal conclusion drawn and the power of the jury set forth to define on its own meanings of “serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury,” the CCA had to resolve the weight of the testimony that could be given to the owner of the drug screening company, particularly as it related to the parameters of “drug addiction.”
The CCA gave credence to this expert’s testimony that the child ingested cocaine, that it was in the amount indicative of addiction, and that it would result in withdrawals. However, the court pointed out that the expert’s testimony beyond that was based on “hypothetical[s]” and “potential” harm the child could have suffered from the drug ingestion.
The CCA then compared the expert’s uncertain testimony to the certainty of the testimony by the child’s aunt, who saw no developmental deficiencies or physical harm suffered by the child.
The State tried to undercut the distinct differences in this witness testimony by saying that the common understanding of drug addiction and its withdrawals were sufficient for the jury to infer “serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury.” The CCA disagreed, saying: “… While jurors may have some degree of personal knowledge regarding drug addiction, under these circumstances, and on these facts, the juror would have had to speculate in finding that [the child’s] exposure to cocaine and any resulting withdrawal symptoms caused her to suffer ‘serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury.’
That is to say, the average juror does not have a common-sense understanding of precisely how drug addiction and withdrawal affect a child’s development, cognitive functioning, or mental health. Therefore, the jurors could not, merely from the evidence presented at trial, draw a reasonable inference about the existence of a “serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury.”
The legislature, with the enactment of § 22.04(a)(2), did not make it a “crime” for a mother to ingest cocaine (or any other addictive drug) drug during pregnancy. To be a crime, drug ingestion during pregnancy must result in the baby suffering some “serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury.” That means that mental deficiency, impairment, or injury alone is insufficient to be a crime under the law. The State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt with sufficient evidence that any drug ingestion and its resulting addiction/withdrawal must have a “serious” impact on a “child’s development, cognitive functioning, or mental health.”
The State failed to carry that burden in this case.