Tiona Rodriguez, the 17-year-old who was found with a dead fetus in her bag after being accused of shoplifting at a New York City Victoria’s Secret, was released from jail over the weekend after pleading not guilty on charges of petit larceny and criminal possession of property. While the teen has not been charged with a crime regarding the dead fetus, she has still faced death threats and public judgment for her actions.
Security guards first found the dead fetus on Thursday inside a plastic bag that was inside Rodriguez’s canvas bag, where a sales associated also allegedly found a pair of skinny jeans from Victoria’s Secret.
Rodriguez reportedly told authorities that she was six-months pregnant, had had a miscarriage, and didn’t know what to do. An autopsy on Friday found that the fetus was actually eight months along. Despite initial assessments that the fetus was “born alive” and had “asphyxiated,” preliminary autopsy reports were not conclusive, and additional tests will take another few weeks.
Rodriguez was released after the judge turned down the prosecutor’s request for a $1,000 bail. Francis Estevez, Rodriguez’s friend who was also charged in the shoplifting incident, has a prior arrest record but was released with no bail being requested.
Defense lawyer Genay Ann Leitman told the New York Daily News that Rodriguez has received death threats online, and that she was an A student who hoped to attend college.
“Right now, there’s no proof that she facilitated the death of the baby,” Leitman told reporters. “She’s a 17-year-old who just had a child die. It’s pretty traumatic for anybody, kid or adult.”
Rodriguez has faced skepticism and scrutiny from strangers online and off. Police told the
Daily News they were skeptical of her account because she already has a child, while shoppers interviewed on the scene expressed shock and disbelief. The Daily News characterized her incorrect account of how far along in her pregnancy she was as a “lie,” and the Daily Beast analyzed her expressionlessness in the courtroom as “an absence of manifest feeling that seemed to reflect a heart that is not so much cold as closed off.”
“There is a lot of unfortunate coverage … not taking into account any of the circumstances that would lead her either to hide the pregnancy, or to panic if she had a stillbirth she wasn’t expecting,” Farah Diaz-Tello, staff attorney at National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told RH Reality Check.
“We don’t know what her access to health care is,” Diaz-Tello said. “Even under medical supervision in a hospital, women often don’t get the support they need after a pregnancy loss.”
Women of color have long had particular difficulties with accessing and affording reproductive health services. Teen pregnancy rates in Rodriguez’s Brooklyn neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant, are among the highest in the city, and Black women in New York City have a much higher infant mortality rate than any other ethnic group.
Whether Rodriguez can be charged with a crime depends on the final results of the autopsy, but it may also depend on state laws. A live birth that ended in asphyxiation could result in serious charges. But if Rodriguez is found to have intentionally miscarried, she could still be charged with a class A misdemeanor, since New York is one of few states that holds women criminally responsible for inducing their own abortion. The self-induced abortion ban has only been enforced five times since 1980, but a recent attempt to change the law was a non-starter in the legislature.
Women have been held criminally responsible for bad pregnancy outcomes in several high-profile cases in recent years, including Bei Bei Shuai’s attempted suicide in Indiana, Christine Taylor’s fall down the stairs in Iowa, and Jennie Linn McCormack buying abortion medication online in Idaho. McCormack was vindicated in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a precedent which casts doubt on the constitutionality of New York’s self-induced abortion ban.
Rodriguez will be back in court December 10 to contest the shoplifting charges or enter a plea.