MADISON, Neb. (CN) — Before handing down a two-year prison sentence to a Nebraska mother in connection to her teen daughter’s late-term abortion, a federal judge lambasted Jessica Burgess for lying to investigators and to her probation officer, and for trying to hide the burned remains of the fetus.
“While you do not have any criminal history, throughout this entire event you have displayed criminal thinking to the extent I have not seen,” District Court Judge Mark Johnson told Burgess during her sentencing Friday morning at the Madison County Courthouse.
“And I have been in the practice of criminal law, including on the bench, for more than 40 years,” the judge added.
The 42-year-old Burgess, who pleaded guilty to felony charges of concealing or abandoning a dead body and performing an abortion beyond 20 weeks, plus a misdemeanor charge of false reporting, was sentenced Tuesday to one year per charge.
Burgess will serve the false information and dead body charges concurrently, but the abortion charge is to be served consecutively. Factoring in Nebraska’s "good time" law, Burgess will likely spend a year in prison.
After Johnson pronounced the sentence, Madison County Sheriff Todd Volk placed handcuffs on Burgess and led her away. Her 19-year-old daughter Celeste Burgess, who had the abortion, leaned against a loved one and sobbed, joined by a handful of supporters in the courtroom.
It was a grim end to a case that received national attention in the summer of 2022, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, overturning the Roe v. Wade ruling that had guaranteed abortion rights prior to fetal viability.
Another judge on July 20 sentenced Celeste Burgess to 90 days in jail and two years of probation — but with good time, she had been released by Friday's hearing.
Prosecutors say 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 had 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, 2022. Sometime before 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 them with apple-flavored charcoal briquettes, Smith said. The fetus was buried, moved and then reburied.
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.
Smith has said he doesn't know why the abortion of what he has described as a "baby boy" took place so late in the pregnancy.
During Friday's sentencing hearing, Smith described Jessica Burgess as the person who had ordered the abortion medication “off of eBay, that probably came from India, or someplace."
"Those are drugs a doctor could not prescribe. Not prescribe them after the first 10 weeks,” Smith said in court.
An abortion, he said, would have been perfectly legal under Nebraska law at the time if it occurred prior to 20 weeks of pregnancy, though a law signed by Governor Jim Pillen in May prohibits abortion at 12 weeks. That law is being challenged in court.
“This is not an abortion rights case,” Smith said. “That right still exists. This case is about violations of the laws — three sets of laws, actually.”
At least one other young person had helped to hide the fetus, Smith said, then lied to investigators and later to a probation officer.
“There was a lot of lying that went on to police in this case. A lot of lying that did not have to happen,” he said.
Jessica Burgess’ attorney Bradley Ewalt pointed out that Burgess had no criminal history, and among the reasons she pleaded guilty was that she realized she was the adult in the situation, though she disputes some of the allegations.
“She has indicated she had a much more passive role to play in some of these matters," he said. “She has been having a very difficult time with this case. It has exacted a very serious mental, physical and emotional toll on her.”
In the end, she still accepted responsibility, he said.
“She understands she is looking at some serious penalties here but she is accepting of that,” he said. “If the court wants her in jail, she will go to jail.”
He asked for a sentence of, at most, a short stint behind bars.
Johnson went over a checklist from the bench, looking at circumstances like whether Burgess had contemplated if her actions would cause serious harm, whether she induced the commission of a crime and if had she led a law-abiding life. Each offered the judge the opportunity to comment on the case's sordid details.
“The court also finds that you willfully participated in that, the acquiring of the abortion drug … from a foreign country, not knowing the effect this drug would have, on even your daughter,” the judge said.
Johnson acknowledged Burgess' lack of a history of criminal activity leading up to this. But lying to investigators and attempting to conceal the fetus was exceptional, “to the point of, the court finds, to lie to your probation officer during your probation interview that you don’t remember any of those things.”
He noted Burgess has disputed ordering the abortion pills and denied any involvement in the burning of human remains when interviewed by the probation office, and portrayed herself as being treated unfairly.
“I don’t think you recognize the extent of your actions on everyone else. Only to yourself,” Johnson said.
“I shudder to think, Ms. Burgess, that you have such disrespect — call it a human fetus, call it a child — that you would treat it as yesterday’s trash and not give it some respect in its treatment and disposal.”
Society demands more: “You were the adult throughout this entire time, and you failed miserably,” he said, just before imposing the sentence.
After the hearing, Smith said the sentence was what he expected. Ewalt declined to comment.Follow @nelson_aj
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