A court in El Salvador cleared a 21-year-old woman on Monday who had been serving 30 years for aggravated homicide after she gave birth to a stillborn baby. Evelyn Hernández Cruz was an 18-year-old high school student in 2016 when she was found unconscious and covered in blood after she went into labor and had a stillbirth in an outhouse near her home. The teenager was rushed to the hospital by her mother. Once there, hospital authorities called the police. Hernandez said she had been raped by a gang member and did not know she was pregnant. In 2017, the courts in El Salvador found her guilty anyway and sentenced her to 30 years in prison.
Hernández spent nearly three years behind bars before she was granted a new trial and released as the case was heard again. When the 30-year conviction was overturned on procedural grounds last year, prosecutors sought a 40-year sentence in the second trial. The case became a global cause célèbre, highlighting the draconian abortion laws in El Salvador that prohibit abortion in all cases even to save the life of the mother, and how those laws criminalize and punish women in the country. A result of the intrusive law is that it not only casts suspicion on women—many of whom are poor, without access to medical care—but when things go wrong with a pregnancy, it can be used to punish them.
“During the trial last week, prosecutors argued that Ms. Hernández, who was attending high school at the time, should have known that she was pregnant and sought prenatal care. After going into labor, they said, she also should have gone to the hospital,” the New York Times notes. “The court ruled on Monday that there was not enough evidence to convict her. The prosecution, it said, had failed to prove that Ms. Hernández was in any condition to protect her baby.”
Hernández, in tears, addressed the crowd outside the courthouse after the decision. “Thank God, justice was done,” Hernandez said. “There are many women who are still locked up, and I call for them to be freed soon, too.” “Some 147 Salvadoran women have been sentenced to up to 40 years in prison in such cases between 2000 and 2014, according to the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, a local rights group,” Reuters reports. “The group said it will seek fresh reviews of at least 16 similar cases.”
“My future is to continue studying and to move forward with my goals,” Hernandez said. “I am happy.”