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DWI Case May Test When Life Begins

October 15, 1996

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) _ Krystal Zuniga wasn’t born yet when a blue Chevrolet Blazer veered into the wrong lane and crashed head-on into her family’s car as they returned from a late-night jaunt to the grocery store.

Her mother was 7 1/2 months pregnant. The child, weighing 4 pounds, survived an emergency C-section hours after the crash, but had suffered extensive brain damage. Some 44 hours later, Krystal died.

As her family mourns, Krystal’s death has led to a criminal case that focuses on the controversial and emotional question of when life begins. A jury was seated Monday to hear charges of intoxication manslaughter against Frank Flores Cuellar, the driver of the Blazer.

Cuellar’s lawyer, Anne Marshall, says he should not be held responsible because Krystal was injured before she was born. She points to the state’s legal definition as a person as being an individual ``who has been born and is alive.″

``It doesn’t say is going to be born and might be alive. I don’t know how much clearer you can get,″ she said. ``No matter how heinous you think some behavior is, if it isn’t against the law, you can’t prosecute.″

On the other hand, Nueces County District Attorney Carlos Valdez argues that the case has nothing to do with determining when life begins.

``Our position is that a criminal case doesn’t arise until we get the result of the conduct. When this case arose, Krystal was a person,″ he said. ``We’re talking about the death of a human being. She was born. She had a birth certificate and a name, and she had a death certificate.″

Krystal’s 24-year-old mother, Jeannie Coronado, has declined to speak with the media. No one other than Krystal was injured in the June 15 crash.

Cuellar, who has at least two prior drunken driving convictions, faces two to 20 years for the manslaughter charge and two to 10 years on charges of driving while intoxicated and intoxication assault, if convicted.

The case is one of the first in Texas to test criminal liability for an unborn child.

Ms. Marshall cited as precedent a 1994 state appeals court decision overturning the conviction of a woman charged with reckless injury to a child for smoking crack while pregnant.

Valdez, however, said the 1994 case does not apply because it took into account the defendant’s mental state.

Instead, he is looking to 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.

The case also has become a lightning rod for the abortion issue.

``Texas is really way behind the national curve on this, and it’s a matter of gross injustice,″ said Bill Price, president of Texans United For Life, an anti-abortion group. ``There are numerous women every year whose unborn children are killed or injured through accidents, and the courts in this state are telling them your child isn’t worth a nickel.″

Abortion-rights activists contend any statute giving legal standing to the unborn is a first step toward making abortion illegal.

``It’s not that we don’t empathize with this woman,″ said Pauline Cashion, executive director of the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

``She was denied her right to choose to have this baby, and that’s a travesty,″ she said. ``But do we further that travesty by creating new precedent in law that would deny other women the right to choose as well?″

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