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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Charges against parents in co-sleeping death of 2-day-old baby draw condemnation from pregnancy justice groups

The criminal case of an Aurora couple charged in the co-sleeping death of their 2-day-old baby has spurred outcry from state reproductive justice groups who describe the prosecution as part of a growing trend across the country in which pregnant and postpartum people are facing more criminalization.

Brittany Diekneit, 27, and her husband Sean Byrne, 26, are each facing a felony charge of child abuse resulting in death. Diekneit and baby Walker returned home from the hospital on Sept. 22, and Walker died sometime that night or early morning. In April, three months after the autopsy was completed, arrest warrants were issued for the pair. The Aurora police arrest affidavits allege that the couple was drinking alcohol before sharing a bed with the baby and “ignored the substantial and unjustifiable risk of co-sleeping with Walker while being incapacitated and they were thus unable to check on him.”

The 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office also upped the detective’s initial charge of a class 3 felony (criminal negligence in the death) to a class 2 (knowingly or recklessly causing the death) – increasing possible sentencing and fines.

Diekneit’s attorney Adam Yoast argues that not only is there no clear evidence to explain what killed the baby, he also points to blood tests the parents took that show they were not intoxicated. The couple’s defense teams say the young parents’ lower socioeconomic status and backgrounds likely factored into how they are being prosecuted.

“The crux” of the case is that the District Attorney’s Office has “made sleeping with an infant in your bed a criminal action, essentially,” said Alan Davis, Byrne’s attorney.

Nonprofit organizations Elephant Circle, Soul2Soul Sisters and ProgressNow Colorado penned a letter to the DA’s office denouncing the case against Diekneit, citing systemic failures as more to blame than the parents for the death. Nationwide, groups have been raising alarms about criminalization involving pregnancies — most often affecting women of color and those who live in poverty — which they fear will get worse.

“Advocates need to have the frame of reproductive justice to a different degree now, post-Dobbs (the U.S. Supreme Court case reversing abortion rights),” said Kayla Frawley, ProgressNow’s legislative director. “We have to see how these cases relate to the criminalization of pregnancy itself now. … We know the gravity of these cases and that they’re happening and they’re often not amplified and not publicized because they’re done to families that are very low-resourced.”

The nonprofits advocating for equity and reproductive justice also argue that the charges go against Colorado’s policies, which favor education, treatment and keeping families together over prosecution.

The District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case.

Since Walker’s death, the couple’s 2-year-old daughter and Diekneit have been living with Diekneit’s parents because she and Byrne aren’t allowed to be alone with the toddler or have contact with each other.

“I can’t make sense of it,” Diekneit said. “I can’t. I know I did not hurt my son. And I know I knowingly did not hurt my son. I would never ever, ever, ever, ever hurt my children.”

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