SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — A young rape victim whose miscarried baby died at birth was found not guilty of first-degree murder Monday in El Salvador, which prosecutes miscarriages as homicides. Prosecutors in her retrial sought a sentence of 40 years.
Evelyn Beatriz Hernández, who says she had no idea she was pregnant when she miscarried in an outhouse, served 33 months of her original 30-year sentence when the Supreme Court overturned the ruling against her in February and ordered a new trial, with a new judge.
In her retrial Monday, the judge found that she was unable to provide assistance to the newborn because she had become unconscious during the obstetric emergency and did not have any intent to abort.
The verdict was celebrated by dozens of supporters who had gathered outside the courthouse.
“This day we celebrate that justice has been done for Evelyn,” Salvadoran women’s rights activist Morena Herrera said. “This is a sign of hope for all women who remain in jail for crimes they did not commit, for health problems that should never have been brought to court. … No woman should go through the ordeal that Evelyn did.”
Salvadoran prosecutors impute intention to abort in cases of miscarriage of late-term pregnancies. Abortion is illegal in all cases, notwithstanding rape, incest, the health of the mother or fetal abnormalities.
“Thank God, justice has been done,” Hernández said on the steps of the courthouse after trial Monday. Hernández, 21, intends to pursue plans to study nursing. Her attorney, Bertha Maria Deleon, said she hoped Hernández’s case would help some of the dozens of other women serving time in Salvadoran prisons for the “crime” of having suffered miscarriages.
The retrial also focused attention on the country’s new progressive president, Nayib Bukele, who ran for election this year saying he is “completely against” criminalizing women who have miscarriages.
“If a poor woman has a miscarriage, she’s immediately suspected of having had an abortion,” Bukele said during his campaign. “We can’t assume guilt when what a woman needs is immediate assistance.”
Abortion is punishable by up to 8 years in prison in El Salvador, for the woman and for medical practitioners who assist them. However, aggressive prosecutors frequently upgrade the charges to aggravated homicide, which carries a maximum 40-year sentence.
The Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador has tracked 146 prosecutions against women for abortion since 2014. Of those cases, 60 women were sentenced to jail, with 24 convicted of aggravated homicide. Some insist they suffered miscarriages and did not intentionally terminate their pregnancies.
(Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.)