An 18-year-old woman from northeast Nebraska was sentenced Thursday to 90 days in jail and two years of probation for burning and burying a fetus with the help of her mother in a case watched by advocates as the state moves to restrict access to abortion.
Celeste Burgess, of Norfolk, was sentenced in Madison County after pleading guilty earlier this year to concealing or abandoning a dead body. Two other misdemeanor charges of false reporting and concealing the death of another were dropped, in an agreement with prosecutors.
“The Court specifically finds that while probation is appropriate, confinement is necessary because without confinement, it would aggravate the crime or promote contempt of the law,” the judge read in an order.
Burgess and her mother, 42-year-old Jessica Burgess of Norfolk, are accused of working together to terminate the pregnancy. The abortionist, well into her third trimester, violated a Nebraska law at the time that prohibited abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. Officials said Jessica Burgess ordered abortion pills online, which she gave to her then 17-year-old daughter in the spring of 2022.
Jessica Burgess pleaded guilty earlier this month to providing an illegal abortion, false reporting and tampering with human skeletal remains. In exchange for her pleas, the charges of concealing the death of another person and abortion by another person other than a licensed physician were dismissed. She will be sentenced on September 22.
A Norfolk police detective opened an investigation into the abortion after a tip, according to an arrest affidavit. Police obtained a search warrant to access Facebook messages between the two, in which prosecutors say the women discussed terminating the pregnancy and destroyed the evidence. Police then found the burnt fetal remains buried in a field north of Norfolk.
In one of the Facebook messages, Jessica Burgess instructed her daughter how to take the pills to end the pregnancy, according to court records. In another, Celeste Burgess wrote, “I’ll finally be able to wear jeans,” according to the documents.
Last year the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right to abortion for 50 years. Nebraska lawmakers who opposed Republican efforts to severely restrict access to abortion in the legislative session that ended in June repeatedly cited the Norfolk case, saying it shows state prosecutors would target women who seek abortions with criminal penalties.
Republicans in Nebraska’s officially nonpartisan Legislature failed this year to enact a six-week ban on abortion, but a 12-week ban later passed after it was added as an amendment to another bill to limit gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Opponents say it violated Nebraska’s constitutional requirement that legislative bills stick to a single subject.
The ACLU has sued to overturn the abortion ban and transgender care bill.