After North Dakota mom pleaded guilty, baby's autopsy showed she wasn't at fault, judge says

The Great North Innocence Project got involved in the case after the autopsy report for 3-week-old Starlight Black Elk showed she died from sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS.

Cassandra Black Elk.
Photo via Great North Innocence Project

BISMARCK — A judge has ruled that an attorney wrongfully told a North Dakota woman to plead guilty to child neglect roughly two weeks before an autopsy showed she didn't cause her baby's death.

Burleigh County District Judge Daniel Borgen issued a ruling that says 27-year-old Cassandra Black Elk deserves a trial.

On Jan. 30, Judge Borgen vacated Black Elk’s guilty plea to child neglect, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. She was released from the custody of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after serving almost half of her 18-month sentence.

An autopsy report revealed the Feb. 19 death of Black Elk’s 3-week-old daughter, Starlight, in Bismarck was the result of “unexplained sudden death,” sometimes referred to as sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS. There was no evidence of foul play, and “Black Elk’s conduct was not attributable to” Starlight’s death, Judge Borgen wrote in citing the autopsy report.

“It’s very meaningful to her after what she went through in the courts and media, being blamed for" Starlight’s death, James Mayer, an attorney for the Great North Innocence Project in Minneapolis , told The Forum on Monday, Feb. 6.


The mother is hoping to "reclaim her name," Mayer said.

The Innocence Project is a nonprofit group that works to overturn wrongful convictions. Mayer and the organization represented Black Elk in her post-conviction relief petition.

The Burleigh County State’s Attorney’s Office has filed an appeal to uphold the conviction, meaning Black Elk still faces a legal battle. Prosecutor David Rappenecker, who argued against overturning the conviction, said in court documents that Black Elk did not plead guilty to killing her child.

Black Elk pleaded guilty on May 16 to child neglect, a charge that said she “willfully failed to provide proper parental care,” Rappenecker wrote.

The death of the child happened after Black Elk and Starlight’s father got into a physical confrontation, according to court documents. The two drank alcohol, and Black Elk told police she couldn’t recall any details of the fight, court records said.

Black Elk said she didn’t remember doing anything that would result in her child’s death, according to court documents. She fed Starlight, swaddled the baby in a blanket and put the child face up in a large bed, court documents said.

Black Elk also slept in the bed and found the child unresponsive when she awoke, court documents said.

Prosecutors alleged Black Elk was intoxicated to the point that it would “impair her ability to care for” the child when Starlight died. Police said that was enough to charge her with child neglect.


During a three-hour interrogation, police told Black Elk that the child died of inflicted trauma and had bruising on her head and back, attorneys representing the mother said in her petition for post-conviction relief. Police also claimed the child died of shaken baby syndrome, the petition said.

Black Elk denied accusations that she killed her child but instead told police she thought the child died of SIDS, court documents said. Police said, “SIDS is not real,” according to the petition.

The Bismarck Police Department declined to comment on this story since the case remains open.

Black Elk requested her daughter’s autopsy report numerous times, court documents said. Her attorney, James Loraas, told his client that they didn’t need to wait for the autopsy because they could just “deal with it later,” court documents said. Judge Borgen, a former Grand Forks attorney, ruled that advice led to ineffective counsel. Loraas did not respond to The Forum's request for comment.

The baby's autopsy report became available on May 27 — roughly two weeks after Black Elk pleaded guilty, according to Judge Borgen’s ruling. The child was “normally developed, well-nourished and well-hydrated,” according to court documents.

“Had she been aware of the results of the autopsy, Cassandra would have never pleaded guilty,” her petition for post-conviction relief said.

Judge Borgen agreed.

Rappenecker, the prosecutor, said he didn't have anything to add beyond what was written in court documents, noting that the case is still pending.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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