TAMPA — Sentencing for a man accused of tricking his pregnant girlfriend into taking an abortion pill was delayed Monday after a judge raised questions about whether the dose could have caused the miscarriage.
John Andrew Welden, 28, of Tampa, was scheduled to be sentenced today as part of a plea agreement in which he accepted responsibility for giving Remee Jo Lee the prescription medication Misoprostol, under the brand name Cytotec, which the prosecution called an abortion drug.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys had recommended a sentence of 13 years and 8 months in federal prison.
But Judge Richard A. Lazzara on Friday put lawyers on notice that he would require prosecutors at today’s sentencing hearing to prove that the ingestion of Cytotec caused the victim serious bodily injury and caused the death of the embryo.
That sent lawyers scrambling over the weekend, with U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow seeking a sentencing delay and Weldon’s lawyers arguing to keep the schedule intact. Lazzara on Monday granted the delay, setting a status conference for Thursday but not rescheduling a new sentencing date.
In his Friday order, the judge said he was not bound by a plea agreement such as the one reached in this case but that he could himself determine facts relevant to sentencing. He cited an affidavit from a doctor serving as a defense expert witness who stated that “it is impossible that one 200 microgram tablet of Misoprostol caused serious bodily harm” to the victim and that “it is impossible for any medical professional to definitively conclude that one 200 microgram tablet of Misoprostol actually caused the death of the unborn embryo in question.”
The judge also quoted a second affidavit from another doctor who reached a similar conclusion.
In U.S. District Court on Monday, Lazzara said there was “tremendous sway” in sentencing recommendations if he did not consider that serious bodily injury was caused by the drug dose. The 13 years and 8 months stipulated in the plea deal could be lowered to as little as 41 to 51 months, which his order stated was “a substantial decrease from the recommended advisory guideline range” of 13 years, three months to 14 years.
That is why, despite the plea agreement, Lazzara wants prosecutors at sentencing to “prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the victim’s ingestion of Cytotec in fact caused her serious bodily injury and in fact caused the death of her unborn embryo.”
Welden is accused of giving Lee, who was about seven weeks’ pregnant, the drug he obtained by forging his physician father’s signature on a prescription. He then switched the label to make it look like an antibiotic, giving it to Lee and telling her his father said she had an infection.
After taking one of the pills, Lee lost the baby.
Welden could have faced a mandatory life sentence under the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. He was allowed to plead guilty to tampering with a consumer product and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
Also Monday, Lazzara granted a modification of Welden’s bond conditions, saying he would not have to be guarded by an armed security guard if he is home with at least one of his parents. Previously, he was ordered to be under guard around the clock, which lawyer Todd Foster called “prohibitively expensive” to the family.
Welden will still have to keep on a GPS device.