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Courts & Trials

S.C. Mom Wants to Take Back Her Guilty Plea After Admitting She Drowned Her Infant Daughter

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Sarah Toney
Horry County Police Department

A South Carolina mother who wept as she pleaded guilty to drowning her 5-month-old daughter, Grace Carlson Santa Cruz, in 2015 has requested to take back her plea, PEOPLE confirms.

Sarah Toney, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison in January, filed an application for post-conviction release on May 18, arguing that she “involuntarily” pleaded guilty.

In the partially handwritten petition obtained by PEOPLE, Toney wrote that her plea was “unlawfully induced” and not agreed to with “a complete understanding of the nature of the charges.”

She also said her attorney at the time did not call any expert witnesses concerning her mental health and purported postpartum depression.

Toney was arrested in November 2015 after she walked her daughter into a creek by her home and drowned her.

Toney’s neighbors in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, called police soon after when she showed up at their back door in soaking wet clothes claiming she had lost her baby in the creek nearby, according to a police report obtained by PEOPLE.

She told them she had taken Grace to the creek but lost her footing in the fast-moving current and ultimately lost control of the girl. When police asked why she took the baby to the creek, Toney said because the girl would not stop crying.

Then, moments later, she told police she did it because “she was trying to find God.”

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Grace’s body was found two days later in the creek.

According to the report, at the time of her arrest Toney appeared “to be in emotional distress and exhibited behavior normally associated with the use of methamphetamine,” such as twitching and scratching her skin.

Grace Carlson Santa Cruz
Horry County Police Department

In January, South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Steven John handed down Toney’s sentencing. He said he believed Toney knew right from wrong when she took her daughter into the water.

Speaking with PEOPLE, Toney’s current attorney, James Falk, says the petition is not uncommon and is one of her rights under the Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.

“There are legitimate cases where the person really does deserve a second look,” Falk says. “And that may be this case.”

The petition will be reviewed by the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office and, if granted, Toney would be able to re-enter her plea and possibly have her case tried before a jury.