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» Scarleteen Boards: 2000 - 2014 (Archive) » SCARLETEEN CENTRAL » Sexual Ethics and Politics » Murder conviction of mother of stillborn baby upheld

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Author Topic: Murder conviction of mother of stillborn baby upheld
Dzuunmod
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Apparently, South Carolina is the only United State in which stillbirths can sometimes be treated as murders. A woman who had used cocaine during her pregnancy was convicted a few years ago of murder after suffering a stillbirth. Well, the case is back in the news because the United States Supreme Court has upheld the decision.

Those who are opposed to the decision say that it opens the door to potential prosecutions in cases where alcohol, tobacco and even poor air quality have been a factor in stillbirths. South Carolina officials defend the prosecution as a detterent to pregnant women thinking about engaging in risky behaviour.

While I don't know that that's what South Carolina officials are really going after, I can see some merit to both arguments. How about you?

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Dude_who_writes
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Hmm... I started keying out a response, and suddenly, I realized that I'm not sure how I truly feel. I'm conflicted.

On one hand, I'm not against drug use (although, personally, I'm not a partaker) and the energy behind the U.S. war on drugs could go to other efforts. Consensual crimes, in general, don't have my vote simply because until another law is broken, things like drug use and prostitution laws are an attempt by the establishment to pressure morals onto society. Murder is murder, and carries stiff enough penalities, so if the person happened to be under the influience of what-have-you when he shot the convinence store clerk, I think that fact is irrelevant, and further proscution need not take place. Drugs don't equate violence, simply put, in my book.

But, on the other hand, I don't see the baby as being able to consent. Which is a difficult point for me, because I'm pro choice, and one of the arguments against the pro-choice stance is that fact alone. This is truly one case where my views are conflicting, and I'm not really sure how I feel about all of this.

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Tim, as in "Donate"
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Etch
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This is a hard one for me too.

My little brother and sister are adopted "special needs" children. They are considered such because their mother is a repeat drug user during pregnancy. She has just had her fourth child taken away because her rights as a mother are completely taken away.

I think that sort of behavior, repeat usage that is obviously harmful, should not be tolerated. But if it was the first time... I dunno thats hard.


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Gumdrop Girl
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i'm gnna go out on a limb as say that I think the woman's conviction was fair. Why? because that fetus was at 35 weeks of gestation at the time of its death, which is later than 34 week, the time when a fetus is considered "term." That child could have survived had it been born a week or so earlier, but instead, because of its mothers negligence, it died.

I would have liked to have seen an intervention come sooner, give the woman a chance at rehabilitation. I understand that addiction is an insidious thing. But there aren't very many women out there who aren't aware that crack cocaine can seriously harm a fetus. She could have sought help to kick her habit, and she chose not to.

In this case, i will directly disagree with you, Tim. A baby died because of drug use, and if that isn't somehow "violent," then I really have to wonder what is.

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logic_grrl
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quote:
She could have sought help to kick her habit, and she chose not to.

Actually, according to the original article, the woman's lawyers say that she:

quote:
was addicted to cocaine and that there were no drug-treatment options available to her.

They also say:

quote:
"There is no evidence that she knew cocaine use could endanger her pregnancy

Which may initially seem implausible, but becomes less so if you take into account the fact that she is a homeless drug addict with an IQ of 72.

And apparently she was grief-stricken and devastated by the stillbirth. There's no evidence that she had "violent" intentions towards her baby.

Personally, I don't see how sentencing her to 12 years in jail is going to achieve anything. Ensuring that all pregnant women have access to drug-treatment programs - that might achieve something.


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Dzuunmod
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I kind of feel, logic, like the argument that sentencing her isn't going to accomplish anything doesn't hold up. Many people who go to prison would probably sincerely take back what they did that put them there. If we're going to have laws, they need to be applied evenly to the businessman and the homeless addict. (I know, I know, they aren't, usually, but that's a whole other story.)

My partner and I talked at length about this case last night, and I'm no closer to resolving it for myself than I was 24 hours ago.

Lemme say this: I've got terrible allergies. My mother smoked while I was a fetus. I've connected the dots. It's nowhere near on the same level as stillbirths or, say, fetal alcohol syndrome, but it's still upsetting that no one was looking out for my interests while I was in the womb. And now I'm stuck with these friggin' allergies for all time.

That's not to say that I don't think women get to decide what's best for their bodies (or hell, just what to do to their bodies). I don't. But, when babies are born with problems that can be directly traced to something lousy that someone (not necessarily just the mother) did while the baby was in the womb, there should be some responsibility somewhere. I feel like there's really no solution to this that would make me happy, though.

If a case presented itself in which a baby was born with significant problems (or was stillborn) because the mother worked for an employer who refused to shore up the air quality in the factory, would the mother (and the child) be entitled to some retribution from the employer?

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Dude_who_writes
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Truthfully, this whole thing smacks of trying to put a band-aid on a broken leg. In this case, my sympathy falls behind the woman who suffered addiction and was unable to get help, for whatever reasons. In my mind, it seems really inappropiate to punish her when help which could potentially have avoided this situation in the beginning seems completely wrong to me.

And, ultimately, the crime and punishment system that has been established in the United States just doesn't seem to work. The remorse that anyone feels for going to prison (simply out of fear of punishment) is real, yes, but there is still a fairly high number of repeat offenders.

And, really, I'm not comfortable with the legal ramifications of all of this. "Let's punish those who suffer tragedy because of possible triggers leading up to that tragedy," doesn't seem like a logical sensiblity. How about offering the proper support that could keep this from happening to everyone instead of criminalizing them after the fact?

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logic_grrl
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quote:
If we're going to have laws, they need to be applied evenly to the businessman and the homeless addict.

And I'd make exactly the same argument if she was a businesswoman who had no access to drug treatment and genuinely had no idea that what she was doing was harmful to her fetus (it's just incredibly unlikely that an educated and well-paid businesswoman would ever be in that situation).

There's an interesting issue here, incidentally, which no-one seems to have pointed out yet.

In most cases, when environmental causes (such as smoking, or drug-taking, or air pollution in the mother's environment) affect a fetus before birth, it's going to be happening way before the fetus is viable - at a point when aborting that fetus would be completely legal.

If that was criminalized, you'd have an interesting situation: a mother who drank heavily during early pregnancy could be charged with a crime unless she had an abortion. If she carried the pregnancy to term, she could be charged with having harmed the baby that would then exist. If she had an abortion, obviously she couldn't be charged.

So the criminal justice system would effectively be threatening to send her to prison unless she had an abortion.

Somehow, I don't see that as a positive situation for anyone's rights or welfare.


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Milke
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Taking cocaine isn't some sort of random, involuntary happening, it's a choice. And going to efforts to seek it out, despite being aware that it's both illegal and extremely dangerous is a conscious act. Nor is becoming pregnant something that happens to helpless victims. Having heterosexual sex and choosing not to use reliable birth control, or choosing not to terminate a pregnancy one is unwilling and unable to properly care for, is a choice too.

I don't know that the sentence was the best one for this woman; then again, I don't know what would have been better. But is it fair to hold some serious crimes against their perpetrators, but treat other offenders as victims? Despite how we might feel about US criminal law personally, I don't think setting those who've broken the law into a sort of caste system is ethical or just.

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logic_grrl
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You're missing my point, I think.

I'd assume that for the term "murder" to be applicable, you surely have to prove intent or at least culpable negligence.

This woman's lawyers have said that there is no evidence that she knew cocaine would be harmful to her fetus, let alone that she intended to harm it.

It may seem implausible that anyone could not know that, but bear in mind that this woman has an IQ of 72: if her IQ was 3 points lower, she'd officially be considered "mentally retarded".

It is extremely plausible to me (having had a fair amount of experience with people with developmental disabilities), that someone functioning at that level could genuinely have no idea at all that she was harming her fetus.

If she had no intent to harm and was not being knowingly negligent, then charging her with "murder" doesn't seem to make sense.


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logic_grrl
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Just to add to the paradoxes here, from the last paragraph of the article:

quote:
South Carolina also has an abortion law to prosecute a woman's intentional termination of pregnancy after fetal viability. But that offense is classified as a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison. In contrast, the state's homicide statute - used to prosecute McKnight - carries a punishment of 20 years to life in prison.

In other words, if she took the cocaine to try and induce a stillbirth (e.g. carried out an illegal abortion) she could only be sentenced to a maximum of 2 years in prison.

Since she wanted this baby and was griefstricken by the stillbirth, she's been sentenced to 12 years.

I don't see how this makes any sort of sense.


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Milke
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You posted in the time I was writing, therefore I didn't read your post before mine posted.

However, criminal lawyers make their business defending people. I don't think there'd be many cases where one would speak out against their client, meaning we need to consider that any and all statements they make are going to be biased. I also don't believe IQ is all that affects a person's ability to understand or absorb information, or their criminal liability. My problem is with people who've committed crimes being treated like monsters or victims based on the whims of other people. Opinions change easily, as we've seen in this thread already, and I think by assigning one of the above roles to this woman we're obscuring the actual issues involved.

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Milke, with an L, Mrs BD to you, RATS, TMNTP, MF, CWCD, WAOTA

The Earth says Hel-lo!


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logic_grrl
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quote:
You posted in the time I was writing, therefore I didn't read your post before mine posted.

Oopsie, sorry .

And I agree that lawyers' public statements must of course be taken with a pinch of salt.

However, I do think there's a very strong case for saying that unless the prosecution could prove that she was at least knowingly negligent, there's simply no charge of any kind to be made here.

IQ certainly isn't the whole deal, but it does make it much more plausible that this woman might genuinely not have known that cocaine could harm a fetus.


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Dzuunmod
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Well, one would think that they would have done that, seeing as the murder conviction came years ago, no? It's pretty tough to convict someone of something without having some proof of intent.

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logic_grrl
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However, the article doesn't mention any such evidence, so it's pretty hard to evaluate it. Are there any other articles which give this information?
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persephone801
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Though it has been mentioned the real precedent set by this case hasn't been explicitly brought up. Whether or not it was right for the woman to be convicted, her conviction gives fetuses new and clearly established rights. This is one of the chips that Anti-abortion orginizations claim they are moving to take out of Roe v. Wade. There are definitely people out there who see the previously stated connection between the difference in prosecution for an abortion and a stillborn, and instead of wanting to free the woman want to prosecute abortions. Judge Rehienquist said in his appointment hearings that he was against Roe v. Wade and we now have a conservative supreme court. It was sad that the defendant recieved 12 years in prison, but the important part of the case is that it helps justify the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It doesn't do so by itself, but it implies it, and if america doesn't watch out, such cases will build up over time.
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logic_grrl
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Yes, this is a very valid point, I think.

At the least, it would seem that the legal precedent would mean that South Carolina will now be able to prosecute all terminations of pregnancy post-viability as "murder", instead of as a misdemeanour.


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BruinDan
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quote:
Originally posted by logic_grrl:
At the least, it would seem that the legal precedent would mean that South Carolina will now be able to prosecute all terminations of pregnancy post-viability as "murder", instead of as a misdemeanour.

I hate to break it to ya, but the precedent already exists, and has been there for years. In the 1980's there was a big push by the National Organization of Women to grant more rights to pregnant women. Part of that was a request to have laws that protected unborn fetuses from attack. The intent was good, but seems both incredibly myopic and ironic now. As a result, laws were put into place which made it a crime to harm or kill an unborn baby in the act of committing some other crime (battery, drunk driving, attempted murder, etc).

Those laws gave birth to newer ones, so now we have fetal abuse laws, fetal homicide laws, and all sorts of things in between that have muddied the waters of the "fetal rights" debate. It's given the anti-abortion folk ample ammunition to try and ban the procedure outright by pointing out a double-standard, and it's given pro-abortion folk plenty of headaches while trying to strike a balance between necessary legal protection for pregnant women and necessary legal protection for a woman's right to choose how to handle her pregnancy.

I've been ranting and raving about this for a little under five years now, and there are several threads here where I've gotten all long-winded about why this is a serious problem, so I'll cut it off here in an attempt not to repeat myself too much more. But suffice it to say that this South Carolina case isn't going to help matters any. I don't think it will have much of an effect in terms of the revocation of Roe vs Wade; my guess is that this will just be one more thing for the anti-abortion camp to shout about...and they'll have a point. You can't really have abortion when you've got fetal rights laws in place, the two stand in contrast to one another. And eventually it's going to have to come to a head. Stay tuned, friends.

As far as this case goes, I felt a lot more comfortable with the outcome when I read both briefs in a legal handout that showed up at work. Evidently this woman had three children, had sought prenatal care for those children, and had been advised during prenatal exams for each one of the dangers of drugs and alcohol use while pregnant. She knew what she was getting into.

I'd also dispute the defense's claim that this woman had nowhere to turn to. Certainly her circumstances left a lot to be desired, but there are missions and shelters and hospitals that are available to those who seek them out for help. South Carolina may not be widely known for their generous drug treatment centers, but neither is it the backwater entity some claim it to be. The defendant could easily have gone to the same hospital where she sought prenatal care for her other children and asked for help with her drug problem, at which point she'd have been handled with kid gloves. While she still would have been technically in violation of SC's fetal abuse law, the likelihood of her actually being charged with a crime would be reduced to near zero since she actively sought out help rather than continuing to abuse illicit drugs.

I almost feel heartless for posting this, because conventional wisdom dictates that mothers of stillborn children need all the support they can get. But for some reason, my heart is just not in this one...I can't get around it no matter how many times I try. My gut tells me that when you drive 150 miles per hour on a city street with your child in the passenger seat, and kill that child in the resulting traffic collision; you do not have the right to claim "victim." I'd apply the same logic to this defendant.

Even if it makes me feel coldhearted.

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Sighter Goliant
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quote:
Originally posted by logic_grrl:
However, the article doesn't mention any such evidence, so it's pretty hard to evaluate it. Are there any other articles which give this information?

However, the article deals with the appeal to the Supreme Court, does it not? In the appellate courts, facts are not disputed, merely the viability and constitutionality of the law. The facts would have been established in the original case, not in the Supreme Court.

Oh, and Dan, you're right, but I'd go out on a limb and say you can be supportive of the mother of the stillborn without being supportive of what that mother did. Living in SC, I know quite well how the Juvenile Arbitration Program has a 91% success rate in preventing repeat offenses. It's high time that we understood that punishment should not all be retributive, but it should also be restorative. In this sort of case, you can still try to help the mother without saying what she did was right. Don't be so hard on yourself.


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KandyKorn17
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Wow, like most of y'all, my opinion on this matter has changed almost from post to post as I was reading all the information and opinions you all offered.

There are so many different issues to consider. 1 is simply "is there a reason to send this woman to jail?" logic_grrl has made a pretty valid point- 12 years in jail might not serve ANY purpose other than proving some sort of consistency of the law. Dzuunmod disagrees, stating that consistency is JUST what needs to be enforced here, in order to prevent a lot of emotionally based prosecution and/or defense. Milke expanded on this, basically saying "Hey, we can't convict people OR excuse their crimes just because we're emotionally charged and FEEL like either hanging someone or hugging someone based on our MOODS and OPINIONS and not on facts." It's all something to think about.

(sorry, trying not to waste space by repeating so many things, I just wanted to put things side by side)

I have to kinda go with the (somewhat radical) view of Dude_who_writes: the justice system in the united states has a LOT of problems. Punishing criminals for the sake of punishing criminals has been proven over and over to be almost useless. Sending people to jail for long periods of time do nothing to prevent future crimes (except crimes potentially committed by the people in jail, and only then in life sentences or death penalties), they do nothing to rehabilitate criminals, do nothing to fix the damages inflicted on victims (if there ARE victimsÖ), and therefore, I canít see what giving this woman 12 years in jail would do. One could argue that no matter what your position on certain laws or the legal system are, you have to accept the laws for what they are and follow them. This is a nice, practical idea, but then it would have to be fully carried out- meaning even pointless and hardly enforced laws would have to be followed (and people on this site particularly seem to have extensive knowledge on many conservative laws against all sorts of sex acts and other things). Also, while I agree with Milkeís statement that people shouldnít be depicted as monsters or victims based on peopleís opinions, itís a sad fact, but most LAWS are created solely based on the emotions of the people in power, so fact vs opinion and right vs wrong in this case is almost completely subjective. If we, the people, canít come to a decision in this case, it worries me that other people so easily come to a decision.

But to go further with that would be going off topic, soÖ

Personally, my opinion of this woman is slightly swayed depending on whether or not she really DID have knowledge of the dangers of cocaine use to her baby (as BruinDan suggested that she did). I think if she knew she was harming her baby, that is pretty messed up. At the same time, something Miz Scarlet said a long time ago (that helped change my whole opinion on abortion incidentally) sticks out in my mindóOnce a child is born, a mother no longer has a right to deny that child a life and fathers have equal entitlement to see and raise and protect that child.. but before a child is born, it is inside the motherís body, and therefore a part of the motherís body, so therefore she has complete control over her own body, unborn baby included. Now, that is completely taken out of context and I donít know if Miz S thinks that applies in cases where mothers are past the legal amount of time they are given to decide to terminate pregnancy, but my personal opinion is that if the kid is still in there, the kid is still in there, and it is still a part of momís body, and using cocaine was her choice that she was free to make and whatever happened to something that was part of HER body is no business of prosecutors or supreme court justices.

So thatís my two cents (oh dearÖ more like 50 cents or something.. this is quite longÖ)


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