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Texas Injustice: the Life and Punishment of Amber Craker

A mentally disabled teenager was labeled a "baby killer." Was she?

Injustice in Texas
Illustration by Jade Schulz

"I deserve to die" is what eighteen-year-old Amber Craker said to detectives in an interview that would later be played at her trial. Amber made this statement at Hendrick Regional Medical Center in Abilene, Texas, on January 18, 2016. She was hemorrhaging severely at the time. The police were called in after medical personnel suspected that she had just given birth. Then, as Amber was being readied for surgery to attend to her medical issues, police rushed to her home in South Abilene. There, they found the teenager's placenta clogging a sink. In a trash can nearby was the body of an infant girl. It was unclear whether the baby had ever lived, but she had cuts on her body.

Just a year before that eventful January, Amber Craker was a student in special-education classes at Cooper High School in South Abilene. In a news video, she appears opening up a Dumpster, sorting through the trash to find materials to recycle. This was one of the activities she did as part of the school's Green Team. "I always wanted to help people, so being part of the team makes me happy," she declares to her interviewer. That tape, dredged up by the television station from its archives, is now reposted on its website, an important component of the "How could she" tenor in which local media presented the case.

After she had undergone emergency surgery, detectives interviewed Craker. At first, she held her ground, telling them how she had kept the pregnancy a secret from her parents, who also lived in the home. Wracked by labor pains, she had muffled her cries with a washcloth, but at some point, overwhelmed, she had passed out. When she came to, the baby was out but not moving and still attached to the umbilical cord. When the detectives showed Craker pictures of the newborn, she said she had accidentally cut the baby while trying to detach the cord to save her. When the detectives pressed on, insisting that this "could never happen by accident," Amber admitted to trying to flush the baby down the toilet. When she couldn't, she hid it in the trash, wadded up in toilet paper, so her parents wouldn't find it. Then, with the hemorrhaging getting worse, she called for help. Her parents and boyfriend, Damien Cate, alarmed by the amount of blood, brought her to the hospital.

Not long after Amber Craker gave that interview, she was charged with murder and tampering with evidence. A few days later, Damian Cate was also charged with the same crime. "I'd ask her why she done this stuff," he told news reporters in Texas after his arrest, insisting that there was no way he'd had any part in the matter. But to police, he had said that he was present at the birth and that the baby had been born alive and that he had even held it for twenty minutes.

Then, three days later, in an incident usually left out of discussions of the Craker case, her uncle Christopher Craker was also arrested. His crime, in literal terms, was unconnected. In 2006, He had been convicted of molesting an eight-year-old girl. Following his release, he had failed to register as a sex offender, a fact police discovered only when they went into Amber Craker's home to find the baby. In 2006, Amber would have been eight years old, the same age as the unnamed minor Christopher Craker had been convicted of molesting.

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The day after Amber was charged with capital murder for killing her daughter, the police officers who had responded to the 911 call and who had named the baby "Ashley" held a funeral service for the dead child. Amber's family did not have money to hold such a service, and so it was funded by donations that the police collected from the community. A second service was also held at nearby Abilene Christian College, where mourners insisted on calling the baby "Ashley Cate," using the father's last name. Mourners said they were there to communicate a message to the dead baby: "We love you, and you were a member of this community."

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Craker and Cate, in the meantime, were both in custody in the local jail, their families unable to afford bond on the $300,000 bail the judge set for each of them pending trial. In the preliminary autopsy report, forensic examiners noted the stab wounds on the baby's body but were not able to definitively establish that the baby had been born alive, a crucial point required to prove that her mother had murdered her.

Then came April and another surprise. After receiving the results of a psychiatric evaluation, ordered when Craker's attorney argued that his client was mentally disabled, a judge ruled that she was indeed "incompetent to stand trial. "The judge's order required the local sheriff to transfer Craker to the North Texas Mental Health Facility in Vernon, Texas, for a period of 120 days. For weeks after the issuance of the order, however, she remained in the Tyler County Jail, awaiting a spot at the overcrowded state facility. Another hearing would be held after she had spent 120 days at the hospital to determine if she had "regained" competency. On May 4, 2016, almost a month after the judge ordered her transferred, she was finally taken to the Mental Health Facility. A week later, Cate, now a potential witness against Craker, was released from jail on reduced bond.

Amber Craker's respite would not last long. That summer prosecutors in Abilene convened a grand jury to decide if there was enough evidence to indict Craker and Cate in the murder of the baby. The grand jury returned with an indictment, not for first-degree murder and tampering with evidence, which the prosecutors had sought, but with the more serious charge of capital murder. In the year that followed, Craker, having completed her 120 days at the hospital in Vernon, was deemed competent again, and new trial dates were set.

The Trial

The trial of Amber Craker for killing her newborn baby began on October 2, 2017, in Abilene. A jury of six men and six women were seated to hear the case. In opening statements, Taylor County district attorney James Hicks alleged that Amber Craker had known exactly what she was doing when she stabbed her live-born baby to death hours after birth and then threw the body in the trash. Craker's lawyers, Trey Keith and Jeff Propst, underscored how her "confession" to the police, made as it was after giving birth and being under the influence of anesthetic, was not reliable.

The prosecution called the charge nurse who had first seen Amber at the hospital, and she recounted how she had never believed Amber's story. The doctor at the ER also took the stand; he explained how he and the nurse, after examining Craker, had contacted the police so they could go find the missing baby. It was only under cross-examination that he admitted that Craker had been administered morphine and that she would have been under influence of the drug for all of her police interviews.

In the second of these interviews, detectives assailed a distraught and hysterical Craker with pictures of her dead baby. Then they confronted her with the fact that her boyfriend, Damian, insisted he had been present at the birth and held the baby for twenty minutes. It was at this point that Craker said "I killed my own damn child," amid tears and sobbed. It is what counted as her confession.

In ensuing days, the medical examiner testified that even after review by a team of five, the cause of death of Amber Craker's baby could not be determined. A psychologist from Cooper High School also took the stand, describing how Craker experienced both "emotional disability" and learning disability and had been in special education at the school. On Thursday, October 5, Craker's trial ended, and the case went to the jury.

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It took only five hours to decide her fate. The news, however, was not good for the now-twenty-year-old. The jury had found her guilty of both capital murder and tampering with evidence. She was sentenced to life in prison on the first charge and to nineteen years on the second, the latter running concurrently with the first. She would likely never be free again.

The Hunt for Baby Killers

On November 2, 2017, Amber Craker's attorneys announced that they would be appealing the verdict. In the meantime, she will begin serving her life sentence for taking the life of a baby that no one ever proved was born alive. As her attorney acknowledged in his closing arguments, his adversary in the case was the frenzy of social-media posts and community zealotry that demanded punishment for a woman painted as a cruel and malicious baby killer. The fact that Amber Craker was dirt poor and mentally and emotionally disabled, and that her alleged "confession" had been obtained while she was hysterical and under the influence of morphine, did not give the baby saviors of Abilene any pause.

The verdict in Craker's case is of a piece with the fates of other women labeled "baby killers." In recent years, the state of Indiana — its legislature also controlled by the zealously anti-abortion Christian conservatives — has begun to use a "feticide" statute enacted in the 1970s to prosecute women who try to abort their fetuses. The statute, passed to punish rapists who hurt and kill pregnant women, is now being used to prosecute women, even if the babies were never delivered alive or even if they were. The first case tried in this way was that of Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant who swallowed rat poison while pregnant. While she lived, her baby did not. It was only after the case received a lot of international attention that the charges against Shuai were dropped. In the meantime, her attorney received threats for defending a baby killer.

The second case, also from Indiana, bears many similarities to that of Amber Craker. On July 11, 2013, Purvi Patel, an immigrant of Indian origin, showed up in an emergency room in northern Indiana complaining of cramps and bleeding. As in Craker's case, the doctors and nurses determined that she had given birth and set about trying to find the baby. It, too, was discovered in the trash, and Patel was taken into custody.

At trial, the prosecution alleged that Patel had taken an abortifacient, a drug meant to induce abortion. A medical examiner for the defense testified that the baby had not been born alive. An expert called by the prosecution alleged, based on a lung-buoyancy test, that the fetus had taken a breath. The jury agreed with the prosecution and found Purvi Patel guilty of child neglect. Patel's case was heard on appeal, nearly two years after her visit to the emergency room and after she had spent over a year in prison. In a decision issued in July 2015, the Indiana Court of Appeals found that the prosecution had incorrectly used the feticide statute and vacated the neglect charge on the basis of incorrect jury instructions. Purvi Patel was finally free.

Amber Craker is unlikely to be quite so lucky. Her case was tried under Texas's capital-murder laws and not under any special statute. The jury and judge were aware of her status as a mentally disabled student, her initial incompetency to stand trial, the fact that her alleged "confession" had been obtained while she was under the influence of morphine, and that no one, not one of five medical examiners, could say that her baby had been born alive. What they did not know but likely should have been told was that Amber had grown up in a household with a registered sex offender, that her family was incredibly poor, and that many who could have helped her refused to do so. The appeal will proceed, and it is unknown whether it will succeed or fail; all the while Amber Craker, twenty years old, remains in jail.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of Veil_ (2017) and_ The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (2015).