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Man Found Guilty of Killing Fetus in DWI Case

October 18, 1996

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) _ A man who drove drunk into a pregnant woman’s car was convicted Thursday of killing the woman’s baby, who was born a month and a half premature because of the crash.

Jurors were not required to consider whether Krystal Zuniga was a person or a fetus at the time of the accident, but were instructed to decide whether Frank Flores Cuellar caused the crash that resulted in the baby’s death.

Groups on both sides of the abortion issue closely followed the case, which touched on the question of when life begins.

Anti-abortion activists hailed the verdict as a step toward tougher laws against criminals whose actions harm the unborn, while abortion rights supporters warned it could lead to a new determination of when life begins, leading to the outlawing of abortion.

Both sides agreed, however, that 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.

Defense lawyers refused to say whether they would appeal. They cited a gag order that remains in effect through sentencing, scheduled for Friday.

Cuellar, 50, faces two to 20 years on the intoxication manslaughter conviction. He also is charged with two felonies relating to the mother: driving while intoxicated and intoxication assault, for which he will be tried later. His defense had asked for the separate trial on the manslaughter count to avoid airing Cuellar’s prior DWI convictions.

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.

Coronado, 7 1/2-months pregnant, gave birth to Krystal by emergency Caesarean section. Weighing 4 pounds and suffering extensive brain damage, Krystal died some 44 hours later.

When the verdict was read, Ms. Coronado clasped her hands together, smiled and nodded. Neither she nor the child’s father, Julian Zuniga, would comment.

Cuellar’s attorney, Anne Marshall, argued her client never should have been charged because Krystal was not born at the time of the accident.

She cited the state’s legal definition of a person as an individual ``who has been born and is alive.″

``She must exist as the penal code defines her in order to be a victim,″ Ms. Marshall told the jury during closing statements. ``This is very sad, but the law says Frank Cuellar is not criminally responsible.″

When Ms. Marshall told the jury ``the law says that there was no Krystal Zuniga″ when the accident occurred, Ms. Coronado began to sob loudly, causing several jurors to turn toward her.

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, not an unborn human being, but a live human being.″

``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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