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Man Found Guilty of Killing Baby in DWI Case

October 18, 1996

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) _ In a case that touched on the question of when life begins, a drunken driver was convicted of killing a baby girl who was born premature after he crashed into her mother’s car.

Frank Flores Cuellar, 50, was convicted Thursday of intoxication manslaughter in the death of Krystal Zuniga, who was born a month and a half premature and had extensive brain damage. She died 44 hours later.

The case is one of the first in Texas to test whether a person can be held criminally liable for harming an unborn child. However, activists on both sides of the abortion issue said the implications of the verdict would remain murky until considered by an appeals court.

``It’s too early to know whether or not it’s a setback,″ said Pauline Cashion, executive director of the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Still, anti-abortion groups hailed the conviction as a step toward tougher laws against criminals whose actions harm the unborn.

Cuellar faces two to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced today.

On June 15, Cuellar’s blue Chevrolet Blazer veered into the wrong lane and crashed head-on into a car driven by Jeannie Coronado as she returned from a late-night trip to the grocery store.

Ms. Coronado, 7 1/2-months pregnant, gave birth to Krystal by emergency Caesarean section. The baby weighed 4 pounds.

Cuellar’s lawyer, Anne Marshall, argued that her client should not have been charged with manslaughter because Krystal was not born at the time of the accident.

District Attorney Carlos Valdez argued that a crime is defined by the result of an offense, not the timing of it. In this case, he said, the result was the death of a person, not a fetus.

``That’s a little baby and that’s who Frank Flores Cuellar killed,″ he said, pointing to a picture of Krystal lying in a hospital incubator and connected to tubes.

In a related case, a Texas appeals court in 1994 overturned the conviction of a woman charged with reckless injury to a child for smoking crack while pregnant.

The court said the Legislature had specifically limited the application of laws to conduct that injures a human being who has been born and is alive.

But Valdez said that case does not apply because it took into account the defendant’s mental state.

Instead, he cited other states that have prosecuted crimes against the unborn. In 1994, for example, an Oklahoma court upheld a manslaughter conviction in a drunken driving case in which a fetus was stillborn following the accident.

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