published Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Attorney to appeal 12-year sentence of woman who was pregnant while helping cook, sample meth

KNOXVILLE — The lawyer for a 26-year-old woman sentenced Tuesday to 12 years and seven months in federal prison because she was eight months pregnant while helping cook and sample meth said he'll appeal.

The lawyer for Lacey Weld, of Dandridge, Tenn., said he plans the appeal because U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan opted to add prison time for putting a minor -- Weld's unborn child -- at "substantial risk" while making the drugs.

Varlan ruled that the drug use "manifested itself" in actual harm after the child's birth.

Defense attorney John Eldridge told the Knoxville News Sentinel it appears to be the first time a judge has added prison time in such a circumstance. He plans to ask the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati to hear the case.

"If the guideline meant fetus, it would have said fetus," Eldridge said. "We look forward to addressing this most sensitive and important issue with the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals."

Weld was facing up to 12 years under traditional sentencing guidelines and up to 24 years under the enhancement guideline Varlan imposed. However, because Weld cooperated with federal authorities and helped secure guilty pleas from her co-defendants, her sentence was reduced.

Weld's sentencing comes a week after a Monroe County woman became the first person arrested under a new state law allowing the prosecution of mothers who give birth to babies who test positive for drugs. That law, the first of its kind, has garnered national attention and led critics to question the constitutionality of how women are treated under the statute.

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the New York City-based National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said she is concerned about the precedent that could be set by Varlan's ruling.

"Every pregnant woman and every mother is about more than her addiction," Paltrow said. "But to have a federal court judge suggest there is a national policy [that] because you got pregnant and stayed pregnant we can punish you more, it should be considered outrageous by everyone, whether they consider themselves pro-life or pro-choice or just caring about families."

Her group also has reached out to Eldridge about assisting him in the appeal case, including representing medical experts in an amicus brief, she said.

Barbara Rutherford, the legal guardian of Weld's son, testified on her stepsister's behalf Tuesday before the sentence was announced. Rutherford, who has had custody of the now 2-year-old child since he was less than a week old, said he is "a very bright little boy" who loves to climb and appears to have no adverse health conditions.

The boy spent six weeks at East Tennessee Children's Hospital in summer 2012 after he tested positive to amphetamine and opiates when he was born.

"The facts in this case were egregious, a child was harmed and the court imposed a proper punishment in this case," prosecutor Kelly Norris said.

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