By Anne-marie O'neill
September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

WHEN THE WESTSIDE LOUNGE in Racine, Wis., opened for business at 2 p.m. on March 16, Deborah Zimmerman was already waiting outside. Within minutes of sitting down at the bar, the then 34-year-old waitress had knocked back her first Blind Russian—a mixture of vodka, Kahlúa and Baileys Irish Cream. Halfway through her second, she leaned over and confided to bartender Dennis Peterson, “I want to tell you a secret. I’m going to have a baby.” Instantly, Peterson swept away her cocktail and replaced it with a 7Up. But the damage had been done long before.

By the time her mother, Donna, fetched her from the bar and checked her into St. Luke’s Hospital later that afternoon, Zimmerman, who was in fact nine months pregnant, was in a drunken frenzy. Swearing and ripping fetal heart monitors from her belly, she threatened to leave the hospital. “If you don’t keep me here, I’m just going to go home and keep drinking and drink myself to death,” she told surgical aide Julie Maher. “And I’m going to kill this thing because I don’t want it anyways.”

Zimmerman drank neither herself nor her baby to death that Saturday afternoon. Instead, at 10:27 that night she gave birth to a 4-lb., 6-oz. girl, whom she named Meagan. But Deborah Zimmerman may yet become a case study in the annals of American jurisprudence. For her child’s blood alcohol level was 0.199 grams per deciliter—almost twice the level for a legal finding of intoxication in Wisconsin. And Zimmerman now finds herself the first woman in the U.S. charged with the attempted murder of her fetus for drinking throughout her pregnancy—even though the baby lived. For that, she faces up to 40 years in prison.

All because on that March day, doctors attending Zimmerman delivered an infant with a flat face, small wide-set eyes and a diminutive body, telltale signs of fetal alcohol syndrome—a condition that can cause heart defects, brain damage and, in severe cases, death. For Joan Korb, Racine County’s assistant district attorney, the combination of the infant’s condition and Zimmerman’s threats was enough to bring charges. It’s time to “start holding women accountable for the harm they do their unborn children,” explains Korb.

On Sept. 5, Zimmerman’s lawyer, public defender Sally A. Hoelzel, will argue in Wisconsin circuit court for dismissal of the case. Prosecutor Korb’s stance—that a pregnant woman may be criminally liable for actions that endanger her unborn child—hasn’t fared well in previous court tests. Priscilla Smith, a staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York City, a nonprofit group that lobbies for access to safe and affordable health care for women, calls the odds of success for any such prosecution “very slim.” Lower courts have been hard-nosed, but state supreme courts from Nevada to Florida to Kentucky to Ohio have all overruled judgments that declared such behavior criminal. There has been one departure: On July 15, the South Carolina supreme court ruled that a mother who has taken drugs while pregnant could be prosecuted for child abuse.

Seldom if ever has a case brought the issue into starker focus than the charge against Deborah Zimmerman. Should this woman—a chronic alcoholic who has been raped three times, who killed a man in a drunk-driving accident 13 years ago, and who has a history of being physically abused—be held accountable by law for damaging her unborn child? Should any woman? And where does one draw the line?

“You make a choice to have a child, and you have a responsibility to make sure that child is as healthy as can be,” says Korb. “It’s a moral obligation.” But Priscilla Smith thinks it should not be made a legal one. If Korb prevails, she says, “anything a woman did [during her pregnancy] could make her subject to homicide prosecution”—including such behavior as jogging, or ignoring a doctor’s cautions, or reckless driving. She views Zimmerman herself as a victim. “She does not need to be thrown in jail,” says Smith. “She needs help.”

For more than a dozen years, Zimmerman has apparently sought help mainly in a bottle. Growing up on the family farm in Franksville, Wis., Debbie fantasized about a life free from pulling weeds, feeding animals and cleaning out stalls, says her neighbor and childhood friend Lisa Flood, 33. “She had a great voice,” recalls Flood. “We made a tape one time and sent it in to be singers. We were going to have a band.” But other forces were at work. Neighbor Fran Harris recalls watching Jack Zimmerman—a farmer who kept beer on tap in the basement—give it to his preteen son Jack Jr. after a day toiling in the fields. “I remember Dad would always be drunk,” Zimmerman told a court psychologist in 1989. “That was his release. Beer and brandy.”

Before long, it became hers too. By high school, Zimmerman was drinking. “She grew up quicker than I did,” says Flood. “She got in with that alcohol thing and maybe couldn’t get out of it.”

Nothing in the years that followed would help. Shortly after she graduated from high school in 1979, Zimmerman was raped. She rarely talked about it. In 1980, Zimmerman moved to Kenosha, Wis., where she met and later married a musician. Years later she told another court psychologist, Kenneth Smail, that her first husband drank heavily and abused her, once locking her in a closet for hours.

That marriage didn’t last, but Zimmerman’s problems had only begun. On the morning of Oct. 5, 1983, she was driving home after drinking in a bar in Oak Creek, Wis., when she ran a flashing red light and slammed into a pickup truck. After hours of surgery, the other driver, Lloyd Parr, 31, died of internal bleeding. Zimmerman, who had a blood alcohol reading of 0.168 that night, initially pleaded not guilty to a charge of homicide. Her defense: When a man who had tried to pick her up at the bar then chased her in his car, she had flashbacks to her rape and ran the light.

When he examined her in 1984, Smail wrote that Zimmerman was “emotionally distraught” and had feelings of being “out of control.” “She always seemed very fragile,” recalls Robert Friebert, who defended Zimmerman. After five years of court hearings, Zimmerman pleaded no contest—and served seven months of the required one year jail time. That outraged Parr’s relatives. “My family sat there and listened to her say she wasn’t guilty,” says Lina Parr, 46. “My brother was dead. If she didn’t do it, who did?” (Two weeks before Zimmerman’s release, her brother Jack Jr.—who already had two drunk-driving convictions—was also jailed after he crashed his pickup into the back of a hay wagon, killing a 25-year-old police aide, and was later sentenced to nine years in jail.)

After the accident, “things got worse,” says Zimmerman’s great aunt Ann Anderson, 73. “In a way, I think she was scared.” For nearly a decade, Deborah drifted between jobs and men, eventually landing in Little Rock in 1993. There she tried to pull her life together by enrolling in the University of Arkansas. But drinking interfered with her classes, recalls Glen Bean, 56, who manages the Indian Villa apartments where Zimmerman lived for six months. Then she tried—just as unsuccessfully—to end her life, slashing her wrists and mixing prescription drugs with her vodka.

On the rare occasion Zimmerman was sober, says Bean, “she was a nice, loving person.” That was the woman Charles “Bubba” Ellison, 31, fell for when they met in the spring of 1995. “She’s very sweet and beautiful when she’s straight,” says Ellison, a carpet-layer who moved into Zimmerman’s one-bedroom, $365-a-month apartment. “She’d fix supper, and we’d have a candlelight dinner every evening. We’d go sit by the river and just talk.”

But the good times didn’t last. Soon, Zimmerman “was waking me up in the middle of the night, telling me to go get her something to drink,” says Ellison. Their relationship was often violent. Twice, says Ellison, Zimmerman became pregnant and miscarried. Then, one night, shortly after she became pregnant with Meagan, Ellison says two masked men broke into their apartment, stole $5 and took turns raping Zimmerman while he was held at gunpoint. Last Dec. 23, after a final drunken brawl, Zimmerman’s parents intervened; they went to Little Rock to take their pregnant daughter home.

Bringing her own daughter home is a hope Zimmerman has not abandoned; once again, she’s trying to clean up her life. While Meagan lives in foster care, showing some minor motor-skills delay, her mother is in treatment at a Racine alcohol rehabilitation center and waits tables at the Main Street Bistro for $2.35 an hour. She sees her daughter weekly and contributes $136 a month to her support. She hopes someday to regain custody of Meagan.

For Lina Parr, sister of the man Zimmerman killed while drunk 13 years ago, her new sense of responsibility is too little too late. “She is just not changed,” says Parr. “I can only hope the courts at some point look at this and say it’s just too wrong.”


LEAH ESKIN in Racine and LINDA SATTER in Little Rock