But in their study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001, they wrote that in Maryland, "a pregnant or recently pregnant woman is more likely to be a victim of homicide than to die of any other cause."
"It was a huge surprise," said Horon, who recalls paperwork covering the researchers' kitchen tables on weekends and evenings as they sought to understand the astonishing numbers. "We thought we had to have made a mistake. We kept checking and checking and rechecking."
Christina Colon, 24, was fatally shot this year in Pennsylvania, where her boyfriend is awaiting trial. She was five months pregnant.
_____About This Series_____
The Toll: Researchers are just beginning to discover what has been a hidden risk of pregnancy: Pregnant women and new mothers are more likely to be victims of homicide than to die of any single natural cause, several statewide studies have shown.
The Victims: As public health experts focus new attention on homicide during pregnancy, the Washington region has become a focal point. Research rarely casts light on the lives of those who were slain or how violence entered their lives at such a pivotal time. TOMORROW
The Legacy: The tragedy of maternal homicide lingers in the lives of children left behind, some of them born as their mothers were dying. Older siblings sometimes witnessed the violence. The children often must be raised by their grandparents.
Video: Recovering at Ceeatta's House
Photo Gallery: The Missing Stories
Maternal Homicide in D.C. Area
_____From The Post_____
Violence Intersects Lives of Promise (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
States Add Penalties For Death of Unborn (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
Researchers Stunned By Scope of Slayings (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
How the Series Was Reported (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
_____For Information or Help_____
National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE
D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 202-299-1181
Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, 301-352-4574
Virginians Against Domestic Violence, 804-377-0335
Their findings, as it turned out, were no error. Homicide accounted for 50 of 247 maternal deaths in Maryland over a six-year period -- more than 20 percent. It had caused more deaths than cardiovascular disorders, embolisms or accidents.
"People have this misconception that pregnancy is a safe haven," Cheng said.
Building upon the Maryland study and others, The Post contacted 50 states and the District for all possible data about maternal deaths during pregnancy or postpartum months. Few states track homicides in a comprehensive way, but many states could provide some data, mostly from death certificates. The Post combined what it collected with cases culled from other sources.
The resulting 1,367 maternal homicides took place over 14 years.
"That's a formidable number -- and that's just the tip," said Judith McFarlane, who studies violence and pregnancy at Texas Woman's University and who described the void of reliable numbers as "embarrassing." She observed: "You can't address a problem that we don't document. You can't reduce them. You can't prevent them. In essence, they don't exist."
In all, 13 states said they had no way of telling how many pregnant and postpartum women had been killed in recent years.
The states included California, where the Peterson case has flashed across television screens and filled newspaper columns since Christmas Eve 2002, when Laci Peterson, eight months pregnant, was reported missing. Her body was discovered in San Francisco Bay in April 2003.
That year, California for the first time changed its death certificate process to include a female victim's maternity status, but no data are available yet. In the nation's most populous state, no one can say how many pregnant women like Peterson have been killed.
Three weeks after Peterson disappeared in Modesto, Quinnisha Thomas lost her life in Sacramento, 80 miles away. Eight months pregnant, Thomas, 18, was walking home from a grocery store when her ex-boyfriend shot her in the head execution-style because, prosecutors said, he believed fatherhood would get in the way of his music career. "This was a big, major inconvenience for him," prosecutor Mark Curry said.
Other states that say they have no way of counting pregnant and postpartum homicides include Arizona, where Melinda Gonzalez, 20, was found dead in a park when she was three months pregnant; and Pennsylvania, where Christina Colon, 24, five months pregnant, was shot and found dead in a quarry.
Cara Krulewitch, a University of Maryland researcher who has studied maternal deaths in the District and Maryland, contended that states are not to blame so much as the lack of a national focus.
The FBI collects comprehensive homicide statistics but does not look at pregnancy. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks maternal health but has no uniform way of monitoring maternal killings.