SPARTANBURG, S.C. – A judge sentenced a South Carolina woman to 20 years in prison Friday for killing her 6-week-old daughter with what prosecutors say was an overdose of morphine delivered through her breast milk.
A prosecutor said Stephanie Greene, 39, was a nurse and knew the dangers of taking painkillers while pregnant and breast feeding, instead choosing to conceal her pregnancy from doctors so she could keep getting her prescriptions. She lost her nursing license in 2004 for trying to get drugs illegally.
Greene’s lawyer said she was only trying to stop debilitating pain from a car crash more than a decade before and relied on her own judgment and medical research on the Internet instead of the advice of doctors and is still overwhelmed with grief from the loss of her child.
The 20-year sentence was the minimum after a Spartanburg County jury found Greene guilty of homicide by child abuse Friday. She could have faced up to life behind bars. Greene will have to serve 16 years before she is eligible for parole. She said nothing in court and quietly shuffled out of the courtroom, her hands and feet shackled, after she was sentenced.
Her lawyer said she will appeal and it’s likely the case will be tied up for years to come. Both the prosecutor and Greene’s lawyer agree no mother has ever been prosecuted in the United States for killing her child through a substance transmitted in breast milk. Also, prosecutors didn’t prove how the baby got the morphine and there is little scientific evidence that enough morphine can gather in breast milk to kill an infant, Greene’s lawyer Rauch Wise said.
“The court can’t punish her any more than she already has been by losing a child,” Wise said.
Greene’s husband did not talk to reporters. Wise said he supported his wife and was devastated as he prepared to raise their 7-year-old son alone.
Greene’s fourth pregnancy in 2010 was unplanned, but she and her husband of 10 years joyously accepted the surprise, her lawyer Rauch Wise said. She has two children from a previous marriage.
Alexis was born healthy, and her mother chose to breast feed. Forty-six days later, Greene called 911 to report her baby was unconscious in her bed. On a recording of the call, she sounds groggy and unfocused. The former nurse first tries to do CPR compressions on the baby’s back and has trouble counting to keep pace. Investigators at the scene found dozens of pill bottles and painkiller patches on her nightstand where the couple’s then 4-year-old son could get to them.
A toxicology report from the baby’s autopsy found a level of morphine in the child’s body that a pathologist testified could have been lethal for an adult, prosecutor Barry Barnette said.
A review of her medical records showed Greene carefully hid her pregnancy from her primary doctor. After a home pregnancy test showed she was pregnant, she told her doctor she needed to go to a gynecologist for a birth control. She then got prenatal care from that doctor while not telling her all the painkillers she was taking, Barnette said.
“She was a nurse. She knew how to work the system,” Barnette said. “She caused the loss of that child.”
But that is an unfair characterization of a woman who remains racked with chronic pain from a 1998 wreck where she fractured her skull and pelvis, Wise said.
“She needed those meds to get up in the morning and function,” Wise said. “She was on total disability because of her pain, her fibromyalgia and all the other things wrong with her.”
Greene still faces 38 counts of obtaining prescription drugs through fraud, and Barnette said he is still deciding whether to take those cases to court.
Greene had her nursing license suspended in South Carolina in 2004 because she was irrational at work, tried to call in a prescription illegally and refused a drug test, according to an order from the state’s Nursing Board.
Barnette doesn’t want his prosecution to stop women from breastfeeding. He took this case personally because his wife had a miscarriage in 1989. She is a nurse and personally reviewed the case.
“We make sacrifices every day for our children,” Barnette said. “She decided she was going to have her drugs and sacrifice the health, and ultimately the life, of her child.”