Assistant District Attorney Kristen Martin, left, and JCSD Capt. Tonya Madison stand in front of the Jones County courthouse in Laurel. (Photo by Mark Thornton)

Martin & Madison

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Meth moms, don’t mess with these mothers

A Jones County woman who smoked methamphetamine while she was pregnant — and the father of the baby who gave the drug to her — are both going to prison.

Sara Pace, 27, and Kevin Hall, 44, were both ordered to serve five years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections after pleading guilty to felonious child abuse and battery of a child. Both were arrested in August 2016, after their baby boy was born more than a month premature with methamphetamine in his system.

Pace is pregnant again, near full term, and continued to use meth until being locked up again for the same thing in May.

“Shame on you,” Judge Dal Williamson said to Pace after he accepted her plea agreement in Jones County Circuit Court on Tuesday. “It’s beyond me how an expectant mother can do this to their child. I don’t get it.”

Hall’s plea agreement was Monday. In August 2016, when he and Pace were first arrested, he said, “We love our kids,” before going into Jones County Justice Court for their initial appearance.

He is the first father to be indicted — and now prosecuted — by the Jones County District Attorney’s Office in one of the 10 or so local cases that involve infants being born with illicit drugs in their system. Pace is the second local mother to get prison time for the offense.

Assistant District Attorney Kristen Martin and Capt. Tonya Madison of the Jones County Sheriff’s Department have teamed up to take on all of the cases.

“We’re the only district in the state that’s prosecuting people for babies being born addicted to drugs,” Martin said, adding that prosecutors from other jurisdictions have been calling to get information about how she’s doing it. That’s because the state doesn’t have a specific statute regarding mothers who ingest illicit drugs while they are pregnant.

“The only thing we have is felony child abuse,” Martin said, and she refers to a section of the statute that deals with poisoning a child. “I wish the Legislature would set a statute. We need it.”

All of the drug-using mothers who have come to court so far have pleaded guilty. Two went to drug court, and a couple of others went through drug rehab, then met the stringent standards of Child Protective Services to get their baby back. Other cases are pending.

“Tonya has been one of the biggest proponents of going after these cases,” Martin said. “Somebody has got to be an advocate for these children.”

Finding the statute to charge the defendants under was difficult. Getting convictions has not been.

“It’s one of those cases where you get to ride in wearing the white hat,” Martin said. “They know when a jury hears that her baby is born on drugs, they know what’s going to happen.”

Felonious child abuse carries a sentence of up to life in prison.

More charges would be possible if the baby suffered problems. But that may not be evident early on, Martin said.

“Some (babies) don’t end up seeing any long-term effects,” she said, “but the problem is, sometimes you can’t tell for many years. Luckily, we haven’t had one yet who died or had major deformities.”

The case of Pace and Hall was particularly disturbing because she smoked on July 13, 2016, then went into labor and gave birth the next day. The baby was due Aug. 24. Martin told the judge she wasn’t sure of that baby’s condition now.

“She said that she and her husband, Kevin Hall, did meth weekly or whenever they got money,” Martin told the court.

They were caught after the premature baby was born and tested positive for meth. South Central Regional Medical Center reported that to Child Protective Services, and that agency notified the sheriff’s department. The baby was discharged to the custody of CPS and the parents were taken into the custody of the JCSD.

More fathers haven’t been charged because it can’t always be determined who they are. That’s because it’s not uncommon for addicts to have sex in exchange for drugs, so they often have multiple partners.

Martin and Madison stay professional in their pursuit of justice, but both are both mothers, so they can’t help but take the cases personally, too.

“As a female and a mother, and you know you’re carrying that child, you do everything in your power to not harm that child,” Martin said. “The thought that someone would knowingly do something to hurt their child … I just can’t imagine. There are so many couples out there who can’t have children or are trying to adopt.”

That’s what Judge Williamson emphasized, too.

“I can’t fathom how a momma could do this to her baby,” he said.

Pace stood stoic as the judge talked about his disbelief that she would do that to her unborn child. But she began to cry when he talked about the terms of her sentence.

In addition to the five years in prison, she and Hall will also have to serve three years on post-release supervision under MDOC, participate in the court’s community service program and pay $1,917.50 in fees and fines.

“This shows how addictive these drugs are,” Martin said. “They’re addicts. They’ve got to want to get help before we can help them.”