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‘Horrible facts’: Experts weigh in on case of woman charged with burying body after late-term abortion

“There is a national narrative that people get abortions for frivolous reasons, that they take the issue very lightly, which I think is almost never the case," one legal expert said of the case.

MADISON, Neb. (CN) — A Nebraska judge on Monday scheduled a January trial for an 18-year-old woman accused of having a late-term medication abortion and burying the body of the fetus.

Celeste Burgess, 18, will go to trial Jan. 10 in Madison County District Court in northeast Nebraska on Jan. 10, 2023, on charges of removing, concealing and/or abandoning a dead human body, concealing the death of another person, and false reporting. The first charge is a felony and this past summer she pleaded not guilty to all three.

Her mother, Jessica Burgess, 41, faces charges of performing an abortion at more than 20 weeks, performing an abortion without being a licensed doctor, and removing, concealing, and/or abandoning a dead body, plus two misdemeanors, according to court records. She has also pleaded not guilty and is currently scheduled to go to trial Dec. 12.

Celeste Burgess appeared Monday morning at the Madison County Courthouse in northeast Nebraska for a pretrial hearing that her attorney Chelsey Hartner asked to be continued. Hartner asked that the trial be continued as well. It had been scheduled for November.

“There is a lot of discovery and a lot of discussions between the county attorney and myself,” she told Judge James Kube in court.

Matthew Kiernan, the prosecutor, did not object.

Standing in front of the judge, Celeste Burgess was clad all in black — black long-sleeved shirt, black boots, skinny black jeans, black face mask and black hair that stretched past the top of her shoulders. When Kube asked if she understood the continuance would not count toward a speedy trial calculation, she answered in a quiet but clear voice that she did.

She left immediately after the hearing in the passenger seat of a maroon minivan that sped out of the courthouse parking lot. She remains free on $20,000 bond.

Court documents filed by prosecutors indicate Celeste was just over 23 weeks pregnant during a doctor’s visit on March 8, 2022, and had a due date of July 3.

Sometime prior to the week of April 29, the fetus was delivered or miscarried, according to court documents. This would put her in roughly the 29th week of her pregnancy.

Initially mother and daughter told investigators Celeste gave birth unexpectedly to a stillborn baby in the shower. They said they put the fetus in a bag, placed it in a box in the back of their van, and later drove several miles north of town, where they buried the body with the help of a 22-year-old man, according to The Associated Press. He was sentenced to probation in August for helping to conceal the remains of the fetus.

Authorities arrested Burgess and her mother in June after investigators uncovered Facebook messages indicating the two discussed using medication to end the pregnancy. Abortion pills are usually used much earlier in pregnancy.

In one of the Facebook messages, Jessica Burgess told Celeste, then 17, that she has obtained abortion pills for her and gave her instructions on how to take them, the AP reported.

The daughter, meanwhile, "talks about how she can't wait to get the 'thing' out of her body," a detective wrote in court documents. "I will finally be able to wear jeans," she said in one of the messages.

Mailyn Fidler, an assistant professor of law at the University of Nebraska, said the details of the case would probably not sit well when the Burgesses face separate juries.

“The facts of this case are not very good,” she said. “They were horrible facts.”

But investigators and prosecutors may have cherrypicked the text messages to put Celeste Burgess in an unfavorable light, said Professor Katherine Franke of the Columbia Law School in New York.

“There is a national narrative that people get abortions for frivolous reasons, that they take the issue very lightly, which I think is almost never the case," she said. “Reading these sorts of texts out of context can be helpful for the prosecution as portraying this young woman as being sort of frivolous and making this kind of decision.”

Those not directly involved don't really know why the pregnancy was terminated so far into it, Franke said, which put Celeste Burgess in jeopardy both medically and legally.

"It wouldn't surprise me to hear that because of the politicized nature of this issue in Nebraska that she wasn't able to access or didn't feel comfortable accessing health care and abortion at an earlier stage," she said,

Nebraska’s ban on abortions after 20 weeks could be considered constitutional even before the Dobbs decision this past June that overturned Roe v. Wade, Fidler said. Some federal courts had found that similar laws violated Roe, but those decisions involved the East Coast and not Nebraska, she said.

And Nebraska’s ban on self-managed abortion was permitted during the Roe v. Wade era, she said.

“People are trying to make this out as sort of the first post-Dobbs prosecution,” Fidler said. “But I’m pretty sure this would have happened regardless.”

Appealing a criminal conviction on constitutional grounds would be tricky in a post-Dobbs landscape, she said.

The felonies in both cases are Class 4 , Nebraska’s least serious, and can lead to a maximum of two years in prison. There is no minimum sentence.

“That might incentivize them to reach a plea deal,” Fidler said, stressing she does not know the defense teams' plans. “It has the markings of something like that.”

The case has also highlighted how social media companies like Meta are trying to trying to forge a path ahead in this new world of restricted abortion rights.

“The application to Facebook was a fairly standard request for this kind of information. I’ve seen a lot of these; this one looks fairly in line,” Fidler said of social media companies. “Complying with these kinds of requests gives them scope to operate and do things they want to do without facing regulatory pressure from states and the federal government.”

Franke, the Columbia Law professor, bemoaned the hyper-politicized climate when it comes to reproductive health.

“The case is a tragic one all the way around. And I’m just sorry that it’s taking place in such a politicized environment, where the complexity of these sorts of decisions gets distorted by the interests of the criminal justice system or the political objectives of the prosecutor," she said.

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