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Facebook handed over a teen’s DMs to police, who then arrested her for having an abortion

Police in Nebraska charge a 17-year-old and her mother after obtaining Facebook messages.

 

Mikael Thalen

Tech

Posted on Aug 9, 2022   Updated on Aug 10, 2022, 5:36 pm CDT

Court documents out of Nebraska reveal new details on the case against a 17-year-old girl and her mother who were charged for allegedly carrying out an at-home abortion.

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The documents, which were obtained and first reported on by Motherboard, detail how police used a court order to obtain information such as Facebook messages as part of their case.

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The state has charged teenager Celeste Burgess with one felony for removing, concealing, or abandoning a dead human body, as well as two misdemeanors for concealing the death of another person and false reporting. Jessica Burgess, Celeste’s mother, has been charged with three felonies for performing or attempting an abortion at before 20 weeks, performing an abortion as a non-licensed doctor, and for removing or concealing a dead human body. Jessica was likewise hit with two misdemeanor charges for concealing the death of another person and false reporting.

Celeste, who is being tried as an adult, and her mother are accused of buying a medication known as Pregnot in order to end the pregnancy. Although the medication is intended to be used during the 13 weeks of the first trimester, court documents claim Celeste was 28 weeks pregnant and violated the state’s ban on abortions past 20 weeks.

Both the mother and the daughter were arrested and held on a $10,000 bond but have since been released from custody. A 22-year-old man, Tanner Barnhill, was also charged with two misdemeanors for allegedly helping the pair bury the stillborn fetus. The discussion about the burial, which is also said to have included remarks on burning the fetus, were found in the Facebook messages obtained by police.

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The messages were obtained after investigators submitted a search warrant to Facebook’s parent company Meta demanding all private data on both of the Burgesses. As further noted by Motherboard, an affidavit submitted by Norfolk police detective Ben McBride alleged that he was told by the pair that Celeste had “given birth prematurely.” McBride further stated that Celeste then “enacted the help of her mother, Jessica Burgess, and the two of them buried the child together. Both of the Burgess’ were telling others they needed to dig the child’s body up and then burn it.”

The Facebook messages then allowed investigators to obtain a second search warrant. Police later seized 13 laptops and other devices. Smartphones obtained in the search yielded 24 gigabytes of data such as images, messages, and web histories.

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“The evidence present demonstrates an infant was born and died or miscarried (dead prior to delivery), was transported by this Defendant or at her encouragement to others, and thereafter buried said human remains at a place other than a regular place for burial and without proper death certificate issued or similar document evidencing cause of death,” a judge wrote. “Then the Defendant disinterred said body or encouraged others to do so at least one additional time and transported and reburied such human remains again at a place other than a regular place for burial and without proper death certificate issued.” 

The affidavit for the case was filed on June 14, meaning the search warrant for Facebook data was conducted before the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. While Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed in the decision’s aftermath that the company would protect users through increased encryption, the company has not responded to the latest scandal.

Update Aug. 10, 5:36pm CT: In a blog post on Tuesday, Meta pushed back by asserting that the warrants it received made no mention of abortion. “We received valid legal warrants from local law enforcement on June 7, before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” the company said. “The warrants did not mention abortion at all. Court documents indicate that police were at that time investigating the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant. The warrants were accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing information about them. The orders have now been lifted.” 

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*First Published: Aug 9, 2022, 5:30 pm CDT