Nebraska women are facing criminal charges for violating ban on abortion

A Nebraska woman and her teenage daughter are facing criminal charges alleging they violated the state’s prohibition on abortion earlier this year, after police obtained private conversations from Meta, the company that owns Facebook.

Jessica Burgess, 41, pleaded not guilty to five charges, including three felonies, alleging she helped abort, burn and bury her fetus and is awaiting trial in Madison County District Court.

Her then-17-year-old daughter Celeste Burgess — who is being tried as an adult — also pleaded not guilty to three charges, including one felony.

A 22-year-old man, Tanner Barnhill, who was accused of helping the two women bury the fetus pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge.

A Norfolk police detective launched the investigation in late April, based on a tip that Celeste Burgess had miscarried and that she and her mother had buried the body, according to a search warrant affidavit.

The detective obtained her medical records and determined she’d been more than 23 weeks — or nearly six months — pregnant at the time, and was expected to deliver July 3.

According to court records, Celeste Burgess, 17, and her mother, Jessica Burgess, bought a medication called Pregnot designed to end pregnancy.

Pregnot is a synthetic steroid containing mifepristone and misoprostol, which is often used to safely terminate of an early pregnancy in the first trimester.

Authorties say Burgess was 28-weeks pregnant, which is later in pregnancy than mifepristone and misoprostol are recommended for use. It’s also later than Nebraska’s 20-week post-fertilization abortion ban, which makes allowances only if the pregnant person is at risk of death or “serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.”

Nebraska’s abortion laws have not changed since Roe v Wade was overturned but its Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act was signed into law in April 2010.

Jessica Burgess is charged with five crimes (three felonies, including “perform/attempt abortion at > 20 weeks, perform abortion by non-licensed doctor, and removing/concealing a dead human body).

Celeste is charged with one felony, “removing/concealing/abandoning dead human body” and two misdemeanors: concealing the death of another person and false reporting. She is being tried as an adult.

Some details of the case were earlier reported by the Lincoln Journal-Star and Forbes. Motherboard, a publication from Vice, published the search warrants and court records that show specifically how the case is being prosecuted.

Meta turned over Facebook messages between Jessica and Celeste Burgess that were exchanged two days before the abortion

While the court document alleges that the abortion took place before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade in June, they show in shocking detail how abortion could and will be prosecuted in the United States, and how tech companies will be enlisted by law enforcement to help prosecute their cases.

A court approved the search warrant, and Facebook complied with it, according to other court records. The Facebook messages appear to show Celeste and Jessica talking about taking abortion medication.

The prosecutor in the case is Joe Smith, who has been Madison County Attorney since 1990.

A federal investigation of Smith’s relationship with a convicted drug dealer and wiretaps of Smith’s cell phone came to light in June 2005, but in April 2008, the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided not to seek a criminal indictment against him.

In a letter to Smith’s lawyer Joe Stecher, who served as the United States Attorney for the District of Nebraska from 2007 to 2009, said there was not enough evidence to support criminal charges against Smith.

The letter also says that the decision was based on the availability of admissible evidence and is not an assessment of whether Smith may have acted improperly.

“Reproductive health decisions – like all health decisions – should be made by patients and their health care providers,” said United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, following the Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade.

“Restricting these decisions compromises the essential principle of maintaining an individual’s autonomy and control over their health decisions and creates dangerous health risks. When reproductive health decisions are restricted, the number of unplanned pregnancies and unsafe abortions rises,” said Murthy. “Ultimately, the health of women and pregnant people is put at risk – an effect that will be felt disproportionately in historically marginalized populations, including communities of color, low-income Americans, and rural residents.”

“Health care providers, who are already under extraordinary strains due to the pandemic, will be forced into an impossible choice between doing what’s right for their patients and complying with laws that are at odds with their patient’s health interests,” said Murthy. “While some states have already taken action to preserve reproductive health rights, in many others, today’s decision means that the reproductive health protections many Americans have relied on have now already disappeared or will soon be gone.” 

“As Surgeon General and as a doctor, I know that equitable access to reproductive health services is a cornerstone for health, and I will do everything I can to speak up for and support women’s right to make their own decisions about their health,” said Murthy.

Meta responded in a statement by contending that “nothing in the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement in early June, prior to the Supreme Court decision, mentioned abortion.”

A court approved the search warrant, and Facebook complied with it, revealing messages that appear to show the mother and her daughter talking about taking the abortion pills.

Jessica Burgess was released from jail on June 27 after posting a personal recognizance bond in the amount of $10,000. She is scheduled to appear in Madison County District Court at 9 a.m. Sept. 2.

Celeste Burgess was released on July 21 after posting a personal recognizance bond in the amount of $20,000. She is scheduled to appear in court at 9 a.m. Aug. 29.

Barnhill has pled no contest to his charge and was found guilty. He is scheduled to appear in Madison County Court for sentencing at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 23.

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