MADISON, Neb. (CN) — A 19-year-old from northeast Nebraska wiped her eyes with the long sleeves of her dark shirt as she implored a state court judge to give her probation.
Celeste Burgess was about to be sentenced for the burial, exhumation, burning and reburial of a fetus following a late-term abortion that garnered national attention after Burgess and her mother, Jessica Burgess, were arrested.
“I would really want a chance to prove to everyone that I am a good person,” she said, sobbing. “I would really appreciate it if I just got probation.”
Seventh Judicial District Court Judge James G. Kube gave her probation — two years of it. But the term will begin with a 90-day jail sentence.
“What you did with the remains of that baby was wrong," Kube said. "It is a wrong decision that involved a human life, or at least a life that was living inside of you at one time.”
With time off for good behavior, the sentence could be closer to 50 days.
Burgess, now 19, pleaded guilty in May to concealing or abandoning a dead body. Prosecutors dropped charges of concealing the death of another person and false reporting against Burgess and agreed not to make a sentencing recommendation. Her mother also pleaded guilty in the case and awaits sentencing.
Before Kube issued his sentence, many details of Burgess' life were brought up in court, including that she suffers from raft of mental health issues that were not being treated at the time, and that she became pregnant while in an abusive relationship.
Burgess’ attorney Chelsey Hartner told Kube that Burgess suffered from “intellectual issues.” Hartner declined to comment to the news media before the hearing.
And four months ago, Burgess gave birth to a child has had her parental rights terminated, though she remains in the child's life.
Prosecutors have said the body of the fetus was found burned and buried in a field. Authorities arrested the Burgesses, both residents of the city of Norfolk in northeast Nebraska, in June 2022 after investigators uncovered Facebook messages indicating the two discussed using medication to end the pregnancy.
Court documents filed by prosecutors indicate Burgess' daughter was just over 23 weeks pregnant when she saw a doctor 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, putting the timing at roughly the 29th week of pregnancy.
Madison County Attorney Joseph Smith has said the baby was between 29 and 31 weeks when the abortion took place, and that the child was viable.
Mother and daughter tried to hide the remains, at one point attempting to burn the remains with apple-flavored charcoal briquettes, Smith has said. The fetus was buried, moved and reburied.
After the hearing, Smith defended how he referred to the fetus during proceedings.
“I looked at the pictures for one thing," he said. “I use ‘baby.’ I make no apologies for it. I saw the photos.”
Jessica Burgess, 42, pleaded guilty July 7 to concealing or abandoning a dead body, false reporting, and performing an abortion beyond 20 weeks. Prosecutors dropped charges of concealing the death of another person and abortion by an unlicensed doctor. Her sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 22.
The incidents took place before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, but one expert told Courthouse News that Nebraska law at the time banning abortion at 20 weeks could be allowed under Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal in the United States.
This year, the unicameral Nebraska Legislature banned abortion at 12 weeks. Republican Governor Jim Pillen signed the bill in May.
During Thursday's proceedings, Kube asked Burgess a number of questions about her life and the pregnancy. Burgess is a 2022 graduate of Norfolk High. She has a job and volunteers.
“Explain to me why, after the baby was aborted, that you buried the baby and then eventually exhumed the baby, burned its body and then reburied it," Kube said. "Tell me why you did that.”
“I was honestly scared and didn’t know what to do," said Burgess, who wore a black long- sleeve shirt with narrow dark gray horizontal stripes black slacks and black boots. “I wanted to do the right thing but I didn’t know what I was doing at the time wasn't the right thing. I do regret my decisions, very much”
A moment later, Kube asked: “Didn’t you think it was appropriate to have the baby buried or cremated in a normal fashion?”
“Financial wise it has not always been the best with my family," Burgess replied. "I didn’t know exactly how much it would be.”
Burgess went on medication for depression at the beginning of this year. She was not on medication at the time of the crime but was suffering from mental health problems, including dissociative personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
When Kube asked if there was any reason he couldn't sentence her, Burgess kept pleading her case until her attorney whispered to her. Then she said, quietly, "No, your honor."
Kube said her jail sentence would begin immediately. As the hearing ended, a Madison County sheriff's deputy walked up behind her, gently placed handcuffs on her, and guided her out of the courtroom.Follow @nelson_aj
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