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Longtime Fargo fed judge: Sentence unjust for mom who left infant to die

FARGO Dana Deegan secretly gave birth to a baby boy on Oct. 20, 1998, at her home on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. A few hours after the baby was born, Deegan fed, cleaned and dressed her son and then placed him in a basket. Sh...


Dana Deegan secretly gave birth to a baby boy on Oct. 20, 1998, at her home on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

A few hours after the baby was born, Deegan fed, cleaned and dressed her son and then placed him in a basket.

She then left her house, her other three children in tow, and didn't return for two weeks.

Later, she would say she couldn't bear to bring a child into the world she could not protect.


When she returned home, she found her son dead in the basket where she left him.

After putting the baby's remains in a suitcase, she left the case in a ditch near her home.

The facts surrounding Deegan's crime are detailed in an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision filed Tuesday that upholds Deegan's 10-year sentence received in 2008 after she pled guilty in federal court to a charge of second-degree murder.

But the appeals court decision was not unanimous.

Myron Bright, a federal judge in Fargo and one of three judges on the appeals panel, filed a dissenting opinion that runs nearly 60 pages.

He states that in his more than four decades as a federal judge, the sentence given to Deegan is the most unfair he has seen.

A sad start

Dana Deegan's life began with almost daily beatings by her alcoholic father, according to information contained in Bright's opinion.


Deegan's father's drinking buddies began sexually abusing the girl at age 5, and the abuse continued until she was 11, when she told her mother.

Deegan's father responded to the news by beating his daughter for "being a slut and allowing it to happen."

Deegan spent much of her childhood caring for and protecting six younger siblings, who would later report that Deegan frequently put herself in the path of physical abuse meant for them.

At 15, Deegan began a relationship with a man who continued the cycle of abuse and who fathered four of her children, including the one she left behind, court records state.

Medical records show that two days before Deegan gave birth to her third child, Deegan's partner choked her and threw her to the ground, causing injuries that lasted months.

When Deegan learned she was pregnant with her fourth child, she put the pregnancy out of her mind.

Having previously suffered three miscarriages, she reported feeling so depressed she could barely take care of herself and her three children.

Unique crime


Bright stated in his dissenting opinion that Deegan's crime was a special sort of homicide called "neonaticide," a term that describes the conduct of parents whose mental illness leads to the death of an infant within 24 hours of birth.

Such cases are so rare, Bright said, that guideline sentences attached to the murder charge Deegan pleaded guilty to do not apply.

Instead, Bright said, the district court judge who sentenced Deegan should have focused on other things judges are required to consider, including "the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.

"Ms. Deegan has suffered immense cruelty at the hands of her father, his male friends and the father of her children," Bright wrote.

"Now her lifetime of travail becomes magnified by an unjust and improper prison sentence," Bright said.

Contrasting sentences

In his opinion, Bright contrasted Deegan's case with that of a North Dakota State University student who was charged in state court after she wrapped a newborn in a blanket, placed it under a bed and later disposed of the child's remains.

In the state case, the mother involved received three months of probation, said Bill Schmidt, an assistant federal public defender who is Deegan's attorney.


Deegan's case ended up in federal court because the federal government has jurisdiction over major crimes committed on reservations.

Schmidt said because of the unique nature of Deegan's case, he agreed with Bright's opinion that the judge who sentenced Deegan should have looked far afield, including checking on state court cases, to determine a reasonable sentence.

Also, Schmidt said, Bright's opinion quotes a doctor who said that because of what Deegan went through growing up, it was not out of the realm of possibility for her to let her child die and not recognize it as wrongful conduct.

The same doctor indicated it was highly unlikely Deegan would ever engage in similar conduct again, Schmidt added.

Majority opinion

In upholding the district court's decision, the two other judges on the appeals court panel stated that Deegan's sentence at the bottom of the guideline range was reasonable.

Writing for the majority, Judge Steven Colloton of Iowa disagreed with Bright's contention that the sentencing judge should have considered the disparity between the sentence Deegan received in federal court and one she might have received had her case been prosecuted in state court.

"She (Deegan) left a newborn baby alone in a basket in an empty house without food and water for two weeks until the child died," Colloton wrote.


"There likely are those, like Deegan's expert (witness), who believe that a term of imprisonment is unnecessary, and there may be others who feel that no term of imprisonment is too long for one who murders a helpless infant in this manner.

"We need only determine whether the district court's middle ground is a permissible choice," Colloton concluded.

Schmidt said the defense has 14 days to resubmit the case to the appeals panel and/or the full Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

If denied again, Schmidt said the case could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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