The North Dakota Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a district judge’s decision granting a new trial to a woman who pleaded guilty in the death of her infant daughter and was sent to prison last year.

Four of the five justices agreed with Judge Daniel Borgen that Cassandra Black Elk received bad advice from her attorney, The Bismarck Tribune reported. Justice Lisa Fair McEvers agreed that Black Elk should get a new trial but on different grounds — because of evidence that surfaced after Black Elk’s guilty plea to a child neglect charge that subsequently led to her 1 ½-year prison sentence.

Black Elk found her 3-week-old baby dead when she awoke on Feb. 19, 2022, after she had been drinking and smoking marijuana, according to authorities. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced in May 2022.

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The North Dakota Supreme Court has granted a new trial to a woman who pleaded guilty in her infant daughter’s death case

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She testified in a hearing in January that public defender James Loraas told her to plead guilty before seeing autopsy results and that they’d “deal with it later.” Autopsy results later showed the infant was normally developed, well-nourished and well-hydrated, and there was no evidence of foul play. The baby’s death was listed as “unexplained sudden death.”

Prosecutors appealed Borgen’s determination that Black Elk received improper legal advice and deserved a new trial.

The justices noted that prosecutors did not object to Black Elk’s statements during a January hearing. The court also ruled that Borgen was correct to conclude that Black Elk’s attorney was ineffective, and that “The legal misinformation provided to her by defense counsel deprived Black Elk from an intelligent and voluntary plea.”

Her retrial is set for Sept. 26.



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