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Judge Overturns Homicide Conviction of El Salvador Woman Jailed After a Miscarriage

Kathy Bougher

Like dozens of other women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Maria Teresa Rivera faced criminal charges in 2012 after experiencing obstetric complications.

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

El Salvador trial court Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda on Friday overturned the 40-year prison sentence of Maria Teresa Rivera, who was convicted of aggravated homicide four years ago after experiencing a miscarriage in November 2011.

Rivera’s special session trial, which revisited her original 2012 conviction and sentence, began May 11. It resumed Friday after a weeklong recess to accommodate a key prosecution witness, a government forensic medicine specialist.

Like dozens of other women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Rivera faced criminal charges after experiencing obstetric complications. In Rivera’s case, an unattended, unexpected labor resulted in the death of the fetus; an eventual autopsy report listed its cause of death as “perinatal asphyxia.” As previously reported by Rewire, Judge José Antonio Flores “interpreted the autopsy report to mean that Rivera had carried out an intentional criminal act,” ultimately convicting her of aggravated homicide.

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Witnesses for the May 11 defense included four physicians who helped clarify a major source of confusion throughout the legal process over the use of the term “perinatal asphyxia.” In medical terms, they explained, it is a condition—the inadequate intake of oxygen by the fetus—that is an unfortunate cause of death, but which can occur naturally during the birth process. The person giving birth does not cause the death.

According to those present at the trial, the government-employed forensic medicine specialist testified Friday that there was no certainty as to how the fetus died of perinatal asphyxia or evidence that Rivera had done anything intentional to cause the death. Alberto Romero from the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Depenalization del Aborto, the Salvadoran feminist organization that has supported Rivera since her charge and conviction, noted to Rewire via phone and email the “professionalism and clarity” of the specialist.

In a courtroom packed with Salvadoran and international supporters, Rivera addressed the judge directly as part of the closing statement of her attorney, Victor Hugo Mata. According to Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, the room was absolutely silent as Rivera asked the judge to grant her freedom not just for herself, but also for her 10-year old son, whom she had not seen in three years. She showed the judge his photo and told him his name.

After a 30-minute recess, during which additional supporters outside on the streets chanted “freedom for Teresa,” the judge delivered his verdict: There was no evidence that Rivera had murdered her infant son, meaning the original verdict should be overturned.

As Rivera’s attorney Mata noted in the first part of the trial on May 11, the witness from forensic medicine who spoke Friday was also subpoenaed to appear at her original trial in 2012, but did not do so. Mata noted to the judge that if the specialist had testified at that trial, perhaps he would have been able to clarify the misconceptions about “perinatal asphyxia.”

If that had been the case, Romero said to Rewire after Friday’s trial, “perhaps Rivera would have been absolved at that time.”

According to Herrera, there are still about 25 women imprisoned in El Salvador under similar circumstances to Rivera’s. “Most of the imprisoned women experienced judicial errors similar to those that occurred in Maria’s Teresa trial,” she said.

We continue to work to change those medical and legal protocols for women already charged,” she told Rewire. However, she noted, “We also need to work to change the anti-abortion laws that criminalize abortion and also obstetric emergencies, and thereby set off the events that cause women to be unjustly imprisoned.”

After four years behind bars, Rivera left the courthouse on Friday a free woman. “Thanks so much to everyone who has helped me,” she told Rewire by phone. “What’s most important is that I’ve hugged my son again.”

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