Terrifying Precedent: Woman to Be Tried for Murder for Giving Birth to Stillborn When She Was 16
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Rennie Gibbs’s daughter, Samiya, was a month premature when she simultaneously entered the world and left it, never taking a breath. To experts who later examined the medical record, the stillborn infant’s most likely cause of death was also the most obvious: the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.
But within days of Samiya’s delivery in November 2006, Steven Hayne, Mississippi’s de facto medical examiner at the time, came to a different conclusion. Autopsy tests had turned up traces of a cocaine byproduct in Samiya’s blood, and Hayne declared her death a homicide, caused by “cocaine toxicity.”
In early 2007, a Lowndes County grand jury indicted Gibbs, a 16-year-old black teen, for “depraved heart murder” — defined under Mississippi law as an act “eminently dangerous to others…regardless of human life.” By smoking crack during her pregnancy, the indictment said, Gibbs had “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” caused the death of her baby. The maximum sentence: life in prison.
Seven years and much legal wrangling later, Gibbs could finally go on trial this spring — part of a wave of “fetal harm” cases across the country in recent years that pit the rights of the mother against what lawmakers, health care workers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, and others view as the rights of the unborn child.
A judge is said to be likely to decide this week if the case should move forward or be dismissed. Assuming it continues, whether Gibbs becomes the first woman ever convicted by a Mississippi jury for the loss of her pregnancy could turn on a fundamental question that has received surprisingly little scrutiny so far by the courts: Is there scientific proof that cocaine can cause lasting damage to a child exposed in the womb, or are the conclusions reached by Hayne and prosecutors based on faulty analysis and junk science?
The case intersects a number of divisive and difficult issues — the criminal justice system’s often disproportionate treatment of poor people of color, especially in drug prosecutions; the backlash to Roe v. Wade and the conservative push to establish “personhood” for fetuses as part of a broad-based strategy to weaken abortion laws. A wild card in the case — Mississippi’s history of using sometimes dubious forensic evidence to win criminal convictions over many years — could end up playing a central role.
Prosecutors argue that the state has a responsibility to protect children from the dangerous actions of their parents. Saying Gibbs should not be tried for murder is like saying that “every drug addict who robs or steals to obtain money for drugs should not be held accountable for their actions because of their addiction,” the state attorney general’s office wrote in a brief to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
But some civil libertarians and women’s rights advocates worry that if Gibbs is convicted, the precedent could inspire more prosecutions of Mississippi women and girls for everything from miscarriage to abortion — and that African Americans, who suffer twice as many stillbirths as whites, would be affected the most.
Mississippi has one of has one of the worst records for maternal and infant health in the U.S., as well as some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease and among the most restrictive policies on abortion. Many of the factors that have been linked to prenatal and infant mortality — poverty, poor nutrition, lack of access to healthcare, pollution, smoking, stress — are rampant there.
“It’s tremendously, tremendously frightening, this case,” said Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund, an advocacy and research organization, in Jackson. “There’s real fear for young women whose babies are dying early who [lack the resources to] defend themselves and their actions.”