Motion arguments in Catlin midwifery case

John Christensen
Elizabeth Catlin was greeted by dozens of supporters and a documentary film crew outside the Yates County Courthouse following her appearance.

In January, a crowd of about a hundred including a documentary film crew watched Elizabeth Catlin, 54, of Penn Yan, plead not guilty to all 95 felony counts leveled against her in relation to assisting women with in home births when she appeared in Yates County Court. But when she appeared again last week, Tuesday July 14, those supporters were kept in the lobby or stayed outside the courthouse due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements.

Catlin and her attorneys, David Morabito and Michael Sussman were with her in court to argue motions before Judge Jason Cook, facing Yates County Assistant District Attorney Michael Tantillo as the prosecutor.

Catlin was indicted Dec. 16, 2019 on:

• one count of criminally negligent homicide (class E felony)

• one count of unauthorized practice of a profession (class E felony)

• 31 counts of 2nd degree possession of a forged instrument (class D felony)

• 31 counts of 2nd degree identity theft (class E felony)

• 31 counts of 1st degree falsifying business records (class E felony).

The case dates back to an investigation begun before she was first arrested Nov. 14, 2018 by New York State Police. Yates County District Attorney Todd Casella said the indictment stems from a coordinated investigation by the New York State Police, New York Education Department, and the District Attorney’s Office into the Unlawful Practice of the Profession of Midwifery.

The criminally negligent homicide charge stems from the October 2018 death of a baby after she transported a laboring woman to FF Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua. The baby was born there, but died on the way to Strong Memorial Hospital.

Catlin has been under a court order since late 2018 to cease assisting women with home birthing.

In January, Catlin was released on her own recognizance by Judge Jason L. Cook, who also ordered the $15,000 bail that had previously been posted in Penn Yan Village Court, to be transferred to Yates County Court and then exonerated.

In court last Tuesday, Catlin rejected a plea bargain to plead guilty to the top three counts in exchange for a promised sentence of a minimum of 5 years probation to a maximum of 6 months in jail followed by 5 years probation, with a waiver of appeal.

In his arguments, Morabito requested the top two counts be severed from the remaining forged instrument counts, and Catlin be tried in two separate trials – one for the death of the child, and one for the forgery accusations – saying the weight of 95 felony counts would be prejudicial to any jury, and there would be a conflict of Catlin’s constitutional rights to remain silent in one matter, and her right to present evidence in the other.

Tantillo responded with case law, saying the indictments had been properly joined under the law in the interest of judicial economy, so the court did not have discretion to sever the cases again. 

Sussman then took the podium to argue there was no causal condition in the alleged homicide. He argued the mother and child yet to be born were in the care of the obstetrician at F.F. Thompson Hospital for four hours before the child’s death, and were not in Catlin’s care. Sussman argued that there “must be a concrete act or omission” that caused the death for the criminally negligent homicide charge to apply to Catlin, and requested the charge be dismissed or reduced.

Judge Cook denied the severance into separate trials, but reserved on the motion to dismiss. No trial date has been set, but the case will return for pre-trail hearings Sept. 10.

The Catlin case has drawn attention from regional and national media because of its impact on local maternity care at a time when there is already a shortage of professionals, and especially midwives who will support women delivering babies in homes.

Includes reporting by Gwen Chamberlain.