TAMPA — A federal judge decided Friday that Remee Jo Lee lost her fledgling pregnancy not by a random act of nature but by the intentional actions of her former lover, John Andrew Welden.
The 29-year-old son of a Lutz fertility doctor is now back on track to be sentenced for tricking Lee into taking an abortion pill, after three days of hearings that allowed the judge to examine the underpinnings of a plea agreement reached in September.
U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara rejected theories offered by defense experts that Lee's nearly seven-week embryo met a demise independent of the ingestion of a single 200-microgram dose of the drug misoprostol, disguised as an antibiotic.
He said he was swayed by the clear, concise testimony and clinical experience of Tampa obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Catherine Lynch, a witness for the prosecution. He also pointed to a prenatal examination conducted by the defendant's father, Dr. Stephen Welden, "whose expertise has never been called into question." Dr. Welden, 66, documented a viable pregnancy through ultrasound, blood tests and clinical notes when he examined Lee a day before she took the pill.
Lynch, vice president for women's health at USF Health, opined that the misoprostol had achieved its intended results. She testified that Lee, 26 when pregnant, had a less than 1 percent chance of a naturally occurring miscarriage, in part because of her age. Lynch stood by that estimate even when defense attorney Todd Foster asked whether drinking, smoking or a family history of prior miscarriages would affect her view.
The judge said Lynch's testimony meshed with the undisputed facts of the case and that there wasn't "one scintilla of evidence" to support the defense.
"These suggestions that prior to the ingestion of this highly toxic drug to a pregnant woman, that this victim was in the throes or the process of a spontaneous abortion, based on other factors, is just speculation and not supported by the record," he said.
He scheduled Welden's sentencing for Jan. 27.
Welden has already pleaded guilty to product tampering and mail fraud. He was supposed to be sentenced in December.
Days before that hearing, Lazzara saw that the pre-sentencing report, written by a neutral arm of the court with government and defense attorney input, contained no proof that the pill caused the miscarriage.
Was he supposed to sit there like a potted plant, the judge groused, and just rubber stamp the arrangement between the government and defense counsel? If he was, he didn't. His approval, not yet complete, was hard-won. And he was no potted plant, railing during testimony about experts merely "parroting" other people's research articles.
Welden sat quietly, using breaks to share sign language greetings with his hearing-impaired maternal grandmother, 81, yards away in the back row.
"I see you," he told her, signing. "Are you okay? I love you."
His mother, Linda Byars, interpreted hours of complex testimony for the older woman.
When it became clear that the judge was siding with the prosecution, Dr. Welden leaned forward in the front row beside his current wife, Lenora, and bowed his head. Byars' signing paused, arms clenching her waist, before she delivered the news.
A short while later, another quiet drama would play out, with the grandmother signing a plea to Dr. Welden. She and her daughter haven't felt welcome in his Lutz home since the Tampa Bay Times wrote Sept. 1 about the Welden-Byars divorce. Her grandson is there on house arrest, days of freedom short.
There was no resolution to either drama. Lazzara reserved judgment on whether he will accept the sentence recommended in the plea agreement: 13 years and 8 months. He could go higher, up to 15 years, or he could give Welden less time.
"I will only impose the recommended sentence if I'm convinced it's reasonable in light of the totality of the circumstances," he said.
Welden, initially charged with first-degree murder under the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act, once faced the possibility of life in prison.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Stephen Muldrow and Josephine Thomas. Welden is represented by private defense attorneys Foster and Bobbi Madonna.
"In my view, the judge's ruling puts us back exactly where we were prior to any hearings," Foster said after the hearing. "Our plea agreement remains intact and the government will move to dismiss the murder charge at the conclusion of the sentencing."