INS takes custody of girl jailed in baby's death

Deportation plan begins after teen mother is found incompetent to stand trial

January 20, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

DENTON -- A Guatemalan teen-ager who was ruled incompetent to stand trial in the death of her newborn baby has been handed over to federal immigration authorities, who began deportation proceedings yesterday.

Jailed for nearly a year, Erminia Escalante Berdugo, 18, is eligible for bail -- set at $10,000 by the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- and could be released to the custody of a Queen Anne's County couple who have volunteered to act as her guardians.

Supporters who have rallied to defend Berdugo say she is the victim of a legal system she cannot understand.

Charged with first-degree murder Feb. 2 after her premature baby was found dead in the mobile home she shared with relatives in rural Caroline County, Berdugo was found by a state psychologist to have an IQ between 52 and 62.

Last week, Circuit Judge William S. Horne found Berdugo incompetent to stand trial. Her attorneys brokered an arrangement in which the state's Developmental Disabilities Administration was to supervise Berdugo while she remained in the care of Jeannette and David Lusby, the couple who have befriended the young woman.

Instead, immigration officials exercised their option to take custody of Berdugo, who has acknowledged that she entered the country illegally in December 1998. Yesterday, INS agents took her to Baltimore, where deportation papers were served.

"We're at the very beginning of this process, and there are a number of options open to her, including bail and an appeal," said Shawn Saucier, a spokesman for the INS.

Late yesterday, Berdugo was transferred to the Wicomico County Detention Center, where more than 120 prisoners who are accused of violating immigration law are being held under a contract with the INS.

"I'm very disappointed, but we are not accepting this as the final answer," said Mrs. Lusby, who has hired a lawyer who specializes in immigration law to help Berdugo through what is likely to be a lengthy deportation appeal.

"She has to reside somewhere until there's a decision whether she'll be deported, and obviously we feel that a home setting would be best for her," Lusby said. "She's already been in jail a year."

No one disputes that Berdugo is an illegal immigrant, but supporters say that even if she is deported, she should never have been charged with murder in the case.

"I think what the Lusby family is doing is an act of simple Christian charity," said Thomas McCarthy Sr., an Annapolis lawyer who has represented Berdugo in her criminal case.

Berdugo, who speaks only rudimentary Spanish and almost no English, told authorities she entered the country with the help of a girlfriend who arranged transportation and took care of their money.

Apparently unaware she was pregnant, Berdugo found a job at a nearby egg-packing plant and moved into a mobile home with her aunt and uncle, poultry workers Jaime Escalante and Flora Perez Diaz, who are legal immigrants.

After giving birth in a bathroom, Berdugo told police she placed the baby in plastic grocery bags on the floor. It was nearly two hours before emergency crews found the child dead. A state medical examiner ruled that the baby died of asphyxiation or drowning.

Berdugo, who also was charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter, first- and second-degree assault and child abuse, could still be prosecuted on those charges if she is ever found competent.

Despite many unanswered questions about the death of the baby and Berdugo's uncertain future, Lusby is eager to take Berdugo into her home.

A risk-management specialist at Easton Memorial Hospital, where Berdugo was treated after delivering the premature 3-pound, 6-ounce baby boy, Lusby said she developed a friendship with Berdugo during weekly visits to the jail in Denton.

"What we want to do is give her a home with a family, an opportunity for education and time to be a teen-ager," Lusby said.

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