A Maryland woman drank a couple of beers on the porch while her infant daughter and 4-year-old slept. She changed the baby’s diaper, took out the trash and locked the doors before climbing into bed next to her baby girl.
By morning, Muriel Morrison’s daughter was listless, her lips blue. Morrison was charged and convicted by a jury in the co-sleeping death of her infant, who suffocated while she slept beside her mother.
Maryland’s highest court this week threw out Morrison’s 2013 conviction and 20-year sentence. The decision divided the Maryland Court of Appeals along gender lines, with the all-female majority ruling that there was not enough evidence to find that Morrison was “grossly negligent.” The judges were not prepared to criminalize co-sleeping with an infant.
“Co-sleeping with a four-month old after consuming beer does not necessarily pose such an inherent risk of death or serious physical harm,” wrote Judge Michele D. Hotten, who was joined by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judges Shirley M. Watts and Brynja M. Booth.
Although the government introduced evidence that the safest way for a baby to sleep is alone in a crib or bassinet.
“Certainly anyone who co-slept with a baby under circumstances similar to those in this case would be at risk for conviction on insufficient evidence in any jurisdiction in the State,” Judge Watts wrote.
There are about 3,500 sleep-related deaths of babies in the United States each year, including from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), accidental suffocation and deaths from unknown causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to share a room with their babies, but not the same bed.
The court majority was concerned about “the unfairness of sending (Morrison) to prison given that it wasn’t a clear risk.”
The dissenting judges in the case agreed that co-sleeping with an infant is not inherently dangerous. But the combination of drinking to the point of “serious impairment,” they said, “creates a substantial risk that the parent will suffocate the infant.”
It is not the court’s role, the dissent said, to second-guess the jury and its conclusion that Morrison drank to the point of “serious impairment” before getting into bed with her infant, and 4-year-old daughter on her other side.
At her three-day trial in 2016, Morrison testified that she drank two 12-ounce beers and about half of a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor during the virtual happy hour to celebrate the start school year with her friends in Virginia.
Her older daughter, who was 4 at the time and 7 when she testified at her mother’s trial, said her mother had rolled on top of her baby sister. She tried unsuccessfully to wake Morrison, who was in a “deep, deep sleep,” her daughter testified.
Prosecutors argued that Morrison engaged in a practice that had been proven to be dangerous and had drank enough alcohol to effectively “pass out.”
But Morrison told the court that co-sleeping was a tradition in her family. She shared a bed with her mother as a child, her mother had done the same with her grandmother, and Morrison had done so with each of her five older children, as did many of the other mothers she knew.
The jury convicted Morrison of involuntary manslaughter. She received a 20-year sentence that was suspended by the trial court, and she was put on probation. Her conviction for child neglect was upheld.