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Wis. woman convicted in fetal-abduction case

SHARE Wis. woman convicted in fetal-abduction case

MILWAUKEE — A Milwaukee woman who confessed to attacking a pregnant woman last year and slicing out her full-term fetus in hopes of passing off the boy as her own was convicted Thursday of killing them both.

Jurors deliberated for less than two hours before finding Annette Morales-Rodriguez guilty of two counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the October 2011 deaths of the mother and fetus. Morales-Rodriguez, 34, faces a mandatory life sentence when she's sentenced Dec. 14, though a judge could allow for the possibility of parole. Wisconsin does not have the death penalty.

A key piece of evidence during the trial was a videotaped police interview in which Morales-Rodriguez described her attack on 23-year-old Maritza Ramirez-Cruz. She admitted luring Ramirez-Cruz to her home, bludgeoning and choking her into unconsciousness and using a small blade to carve out the fetus. She told investigators she was desperate to have a son, that she had faked a pregnancy and that she devised a plan to steal an unborn baby as her supposed due date approached.

Ramirez-Cruz died due to a combination of blood loss, blunt trauma and asphyxiation, and the male fetus died as a result of her death, a medical examiner testified.

Morales-Rodriguez did not testify, and her attorneys did not call any witnesses. They also did not deny that she attacked Ramirez-Cruz, instead arguing that the deaths were reckless but not intentional. They urged jurors to convict her of the lesser charge of first-degree reckless homicide, which carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison.

"We never said she didn't do it. She told the cops she did," public defender Reyna Morales told the jury of six men and six women during closing statements. "But the evidence ... from the very beginning all the way to the last minutes, reckless, reckless, reckless."

Morales argued that if her client meant for the victim to die, she would have had a plan for disposing of the body instead of stashing it in the basement. She also said Morales-Rodriguez wanted the baby to live so she could raise him as her own.

In the police interview, Morales-Rodriguez explained that she was desperate to give her boyfriend a son but that she couldn't "stay pregnant." She said she twice pretended to be pregnant, only to claim each time that she miscarried. The third time she considered another scenario: stealing the fetus from a pregnant Hispanic woman, she said.

She described how she went to a Latino community center and found Ramirez-Cruz, a mother of three in her 40th week of pregnancy.

Morales-Rodriguez told police she offered Ramirez-Cruz a ride and brought her to Morales-Rodriguez's home. There, she bashed Ramirez-Cruz in the head with a baseball bat and choked her until she passed out. She said she then put duct tape over the younger woman's mouth and nose and wrapped a plastic bag around her head. She then used a small blade to slice the victim open from hip to hip and pulled out a stillborn boy.

In a 911 call played for jurors, she told a dispatcher that she had just given birth to a baby who wasn't breathing.

In the ensuing investigation and autopsy, a 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 disemboweled body in Morales-Rodriguez's basement.

Prosecutor Mark Williams told jurors that every detail in the case pointed to deliberate intent. Morales-Rodriguez had plenty of opportunities to stop short of killing Ramirez-Cruz, he said, but at every turn she made the decision to press on.

Williams emphasized that Ramirez-Cruz must have gasped for air and pleaded for mercy as she was choked, with her killer likely looking her in the eye. He also discussed how Morales-Rodriguez admitted taping the victim's mouth and nose and cinching a plastic bag over her head.

"Now what did she think was going to happen when she did that?" he asked.

Morales-Rodriguez told investigators she thought Ramirez-Cruz was dead before she began slicing out the fetus. But a medical examiner testified that blood found in Ramirez-Cruz's abdomen suggested her heart was still beating.

Morales-Rodriguez sat in silence throughout the three days of testimony. She kept her head down and eyes open as she listened through headphones to an interpreter translating English into Spanish.

The victim's husband, Christian Mercado, brought his family to Wisconsin from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, about two years ago. After the trial, he said little to reporters. A family friend, Penelope Solis, said the trial had been challenging for Mercado, because of graphic autopsy photos as well as surveillance video that showed his wife and Morales-Rodriguez shopping at a drugstore hours before the slaying.

"It's been up and down for him. It's been hard," she said. "Some of the videos, the pictures, he's never seen before. There's no words to describe it."

Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.