Murder Conviction Upheld in Death of Unborn Child

An attempt to withdraw a guilty plea was denied by the Minnesota Appellate Court in a decision filed July 5, 2011. See State of Minnesota vs. Paul Andrew Peterson.

Appellant Paul Andrew Peterson attempted to withdraw a plea he entered to second-degree murder. The basis of his request was that he intended to cause the death of a fetus and not the death of a child. Peterson also challenges the upward sentencing departure arguing that the upward departure was not justified because it was based solely on the parties’ plea agreement.

Peterson was paid by the father of an unborn child to punch the father’s pregnant girlfriend in the stomach to cause her to miscarry. On April 21, 2007, Peterson went to the pregnant girlfriend’s apartment and was able to get her to come out in the hallway. When the pregnant girlfriend came out, Peterson punched her in the stomach and ran away. The mother gave birth to a baby girl by C-section shortly thereafter. However, the baby girl died on May 1, 2007.

Peterson was charged with first-degree murder and second-degree murder for the death of the baby girl, and first-degree assault against the baby’s mother. Peterson entered into a plea agreement whereby he plead guilty to the second-degree murder and first-degree assault. He also agreed to an upward durational sentencing departure, meaning that he agreed that because of the vulnerability of the unborn baby girl and particular cruelty with which he acted toward her, the court could sentence him to prison time in excess of the state sentencing guidelines. When entering his guilty plea before the district court, Peterson answered affirmatively to all questioning about his intention to kill the “child.” Peterson was sentenced to 40-years in prison.

To protect criminal defendants from pleading guilty to a charge that is not supported by facts, when a guilty plea is entered it must be accurate, voluntary, and intelligent. For the plea to be “accurate” there must be a factual basis on the record that supports the plea to the crime charged. Peterson claimed that he should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea on the grounds that it was not accurate because he did not have the requisite intent for second-degree murder.

Under Minnesota law, a person is guilty of second-degree murder if he or she “causes the death of another human being with the intent to effect the death of that person or another, but without premeditation.” Minnesota law regarding the unlawful killing of an unborn child is extremely similar, and states that a person “is guilty of murder of an unborn child in the second degree” if the person “causes the death of an unborn child with intent to effect the death of that unborn child or another, but without premeditation.” The punishment for violation of either law is imprisonment for not more than 40 years. So, the Court of Appeals reasoned, the legislature intended for the crimes to be equal in severity.

At the plea hearing, Peterson admitted he was trying to kill a “child.” Therefore, Peterson’s arguments that a factual basis to support second-degree murder did not exist because he did not intend to murder a person, but rather an unborn child were not found to be persuasive. The Court of Appeals was also not swayed by Peterson’s challenge to the upward sentencing departure. As a record was made to support the upward departure and Peterson agreed to it, it was upheld. Therefore, Peterson’s conviction and 40-year prison sentence stand.

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Categories: Felonies