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Texas woman charged with murder for self-induced abortion sues prosecutors

An entrance of the Starr County jail in Rio Grande City.
Michael Gonzalez
/
The Texas Tribune
A woman is suing the Starr County district attorney in South Texas after he charged with her murder following an abortion. The charges were dropped.

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When a Texas woman was arrested and jailed for self-inducing an abortion in 2022, her name and mugshot were quickly broadcast around the world. Three days later, the Starr County prosecutor dropped the charges and was later disciplined for bringing them at all.

But for Lizelle Herrera, now Lizelle Gonzalez, the damage had been done. The “humiliation of a highly publicized indictment and arrest” has “permanently affected her standing in the community,” according to a new federal lawsuit filed Thursday.

Gonzalez is suing Starr County District Attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez and Assistant District Attorney Alexandria Lynn Barrera for more than $1 million. Prosecutors typically have wide-ranging immunity but the lawsuit alleges Ramirez and Barrera waived that when they undertook the investigation of this case and misled the grand jury.

Starr County, in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, is home to about 65,000 people.

This indictment and the alleged abortion happened before the overturn of Roe v. Wade and the state’s near-total ban on abortion. At that time, abortion in Texas was prohibited after about six weeks of pregnancy; Gonzalez was 19 weeks pregnant when she went to Starr County Memorial Hospital after allegedly taking an abortion-inducing drug.

But Texas law, then and now, does not allow murder charges to be brought against a pregnant person who undergoes an abortion. There were no grounds for Gonzalez to be indicted for terminating her own pregnancy, which Ramirez acknowledged after Gonzalez spent two nights in jail.

An investigation by the State Bar of Texas found that Ramirez “sought to pursue criminal homicide charges against an individual for acts clearly not criminal.” Ramirez agreed to pay a $1,250 fine and his license will be held in a probated suspension for one year.

The district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Friday, Ramirez told the Associated Press he had not yet been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment.

The lawsuit says Gonzalez is bringing this suit to vindicate her constitutional rights, and “to hold accountable the government officials who violated them.”

New details emerge

When Gonzalez was first arrested in April 2022, few details were made public. This new lawsuit offers additional insight into the timeline of events that led to her arrest.

According to the lawsuit, Gonzalez first went to the Starr County emergency room in January 2022. She was 19 weeks pregnant and, according to the lawsuit, had taken Cytotec, also known as misoprostol, to purportedly induce an abortion.

She was still registering a fetal heart rate, so she was sent home. The next day, she returned to the hospital by ambulance, complaining of abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. There was no fetal cardiac activity, and she was diagnosed with an “incomplete spontaneous abortion” before she delivered the stillborn child by cesarean section.

At some point between those January visits and late March 2022, the lawsuit says, employees of Starr County Memorial Hospital told the Starr County District Attorney’s Office about Gonzalez’s attempted abortion. The allegations were investigated directly by Ramirez’s office, not the sheriff or the local police department, according to the filing.

Barrera and Ramirez then took their findings to a grand jury. The lawsuit says they “present[ed] false information and recklessly misrepresented facts in order to pursue murder charges against Plaintiff for acts clearly not criminal under the Texas Penal Code.”

Gonzalez was arrested for murder on April 7, 2022, and incarcerated at the Starr County jail on a $500,000 bond. Her arrest made international news and mobilized activists across the country, led by organizers in the Rio Grande Valley. The lawsuit says she was taken to the hospital while incarcerated, although it does not say why.

Gonzalez was released on bail organized by national advocacy groups. Three days after she was arrested, Ramirez dropped the charges.

“In reviewing applicable Texas law, it is clear that Ms. Herrera cannot and should not be prosecuted for the allegation against her,” Ramirez said in a news release at the time.

This did little to quell the attention on the case, the lawsuit says.

“Because the charges stemmed from abortion — a hot button political agenda — the dismissal of the charges did not result in any less media attention,” it says. “Rather, the media attention was heightened after the dismissal due to the fact that the prosecution was frivolous.”

Gonzalez is asking for an excess of $1 million for the “deprivation of liberty, reputational harm, public humiliation, distress, pain, and suffering” she experienced as a result of this prosecution. No hearing dates have been set.


From The Texas Tribune

Disclosure: State Bar of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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