COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) - Unborn children would receive constitutional rights beginning at conception under a "Stand Your Ground" law that allows women in South Carolina to use lethal force against anyone threatening their fetuses.
The South Carolina Senate Judiciary Subcommittee voted 3-2 this month to expand the state's "Stand Your Ground" law to include protections for unborn babies.
The bill defines an "unborn child" as "the offspring of human beings from conception until birth."
People may use deadly force to protect themselves and others against the threat of "imminent peril of death or great bodily injury" under the state's current law.
Supporters of the "Pregnant Women's Protection Act" claimed that without this law, pregnant women could face attacks that may cause them to miscarry, but that might not justify the use of lethal force.
The "Pregnant Women's Protection Act," sponsored by state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, was debated at the same time as two other bills that sought to grant personhood to embryos.
Opponents, including organizations providing women's health services, are concerned that the bill is designed to take away women's access to birth control, in-vitro fertilization, emergency contraception and other basic healthcare options.
"It could outlaw contraception, any form of hormonal birth control, and emergency contraception that is usually given to victims of rape," Emma Davidson, a spokeswoman for New Morning Foundation, told Courthouse News.
"It would also have implications for in-vitro fertilization, which involves being able to work in the time frame that this bill would impact. It would make it financially unrealistic for any clinic to practice it in that time frame."
Columbia-based New Morning Foundation is a nonprofit working for young people's reproductive health education, counseling, and clinical services throughout South Carolina.
"No one disputes that violence against pregnant women is a concern in our state, and few would deny the need for swift action to stop any instances of further violence," Davidson said. "But it is hypocritical to introduce legislation claiming to protect victims of domestic abuse, rape and violence while simultaneously outlawing emergency contraception, a key treatment option for those victims."
Davidson said "personhood" bills are introduced every year in South Carolina, but have failed to pass into law.
"These bills like to define a human being as a 'person' at fertilization, which would create a variety of restrictions that would limit the reproductive and family building choices of hundreds of thousands of South Carolina residents," said Dr. Michael Slowey, a reproductive endocrinologist and founder of Coastal Fertility Specialists in Mount Pleasant. "Specifically, these bills would put an end to our ability to perform in-vitro fertilization, provide contraception and effectively treat abnormal pregnancies, including life-threatening ectopic pregnancies."
Marcia Zug, a University of South Carolina law professor, testified during the state Senate hearing on a companion bill that had similar language on life defined as beginning at conception.
"This bill is not a direct challenge to abortion, but certainly it has a lot of support from people who are hoping it would challenge it," Zug said about the Stand Your Ground for your fetus bill.
"We would have for the first time a law that specifically defines pregnancy and life as beginning at conception, and that is very important language for people who want to ban abortion - which would then be equated with murder," Zug said.
The other two bills that would give human embryos the same rights as humans did not make it to a vote before the Senate panel adjourned.
"This bill is unnecessary for any reason other than to challenge the legality of abortion," Zug said. "South Carolina already has a very robust Stand Your Ground law. There was the argument that there is a possibility that a woman could be defending her unborn child but not her own life. Most attacks that would harm a fetus would be [dangerous] enough to harm a woman and she would be able to use current protections.
"Women don't know when they conceive," she added. "There is a period there when a woman doesn't know she's pregnant, so she wouldn't be able to use the new protections in that period of time."
Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at reproductive health nonprofit Guttmacher Institute in Washington, said the bill, although not a direct challenge to abortion or contraception, could be part of a strategy to ban these rights.
"We've seen these bills before," Nash said in a telephone interview. "There are similar laws in effect in Oklahoma and Arkansas, but what makes the South Carolina bill so different is that it's the first time this sort of bill would be added into the Stand Your Ground law."
Some other states' bills include provisions that pregnant women can protect themselves by using lethal force if they are attacked. At least 23 states, including South Carolina, have fetal homicide laws that apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy and provide for increased criminal penalties for crimes against pregnant women. These laws, however, focus on the harm done to a pregnant woman, not on the rights of the fetus.
"The South Carolina bill also creates this definition of unborn child which essentially grants personhood at fertilization," Nash said. "The message here is that abortion opponents would take any spot in the statute to promote this idea that a fetus is a person. Part of this is to create some statutory language around when personhood begins, and the hope is that eventually abortion would be banned and that these laws would have helped to make this happen."
Nash said the bill is redundant, because South Carolina's "Stand Your Ground" law already allows people to protect themselves by using lethal force.
"This is all about politics and rhetoric," she said.
In March, state Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, backed by former law enforcement officials, introduced a bill to repeal South Carolina's "Stand Your Ground" law. That proposal would eliminate the right to use deadly force against someone perceived as a threat in a public space, limiting the "Stand Your Ground" legal defense to those defending their homes, cars and businesses.
Sen. Shealy, the sponsor of the Stand Your Fetus' Ground bill, and state Sen. George "Chip" Campsen, R-Charleston, who supports the proposal, did not respond to requests for comment.
Georgia's 8th Judicial District underfunds its public defender's office so badly that its juvenile courts have more judges than public defenders, denying children the right to counsel, and sending adults to jail for months before trial, a class action claims in state court.
Four children and four adults sued Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal and the director of Georgia's Public Defender Standards Council W. Travis Sakrison, in Fulton County State Court.
Lead plaintiff N.P. by his next friend Shaneka Darden claims the Cordele Judicial Circuit is so "severely understaffed and grossly underfunded" that children get no meaningful representation and receive only "assembly-line justice."
The plaintiffs claim that though public defender representation is mandatory for children at risk of detention, commitment or probation, some children are tried and sentenced without counsel.
In 2012, the circuit handled 681 juvenile delinquency cases, but the public defender reported handling only 52 of them, according to the complaint on behalf of two classes, children and adults.
And the circuit does not have attorneys specialized in the defense of juveniles, the class claims.
Adults who cannot afford a lawyer stay in jail for months after arrest, and children at risk for detention go through the courts without access to a public defender, according to the 85-page complaint.
The Cordele Judicial Circuit, based in Cordele, is in South Central Georgia, south of Macon. It includes Crisp, Ben Hill, Dooly and Wilcox counties. Cordele, pop. 11,300, calls itself "the watermelon capital of the world."
"The circuit's public defender office is severely understaffed and grossly underfunded," the lawsuit states. "It has only three full-time lawyers and, since July 1, 2013, a lawyer under contract to work no more than 75 hours per month. This is half the number of attorneys in the Cordele Circuit District Attorney's office. The disparity is even greater with respect to investigators: while the District Attorney's office is assisted by numerous local and state law enforcement agencies, the circuit's public defender office has a single investigator who typically only conducts initial interviews with people detained in jail for the sole purpose of completing the public defender eligibility application. Unlike other circuit public defender offices in the state, the Cordele Circuit Public Defender Office does not receive county funds to employ additional assistant public defenders and investigators.
"The circuit's public defenders are required to handle such an excessive number of cases that they are unable to provide representation in all of the courts and cases in the circuit. Each county has a Superior Court and a juvenile court. There are three Superior Court judges and one juvenile court judge. Thus, there may be more judges presiding over courts than there are public defenders. On many occasions, all of the public defenders must be in one court to deal with a large volume of cases and are unable to be in another court. The public defenders are unable to spend more than a few minutes per case which does not allow them to develop representational relationships with the people they are supposed to represent."
Most adults who cannot afford an attorney spend weeks or months in jail and see a public defender only for a few minutes during bond hearings or arraignments, the complaint states.
The plaintiffs claim the circuit public defenders have no time to get to know the people they represent, assess the charges against them, conduct investigations or offer meaningful legal advice.
Defendants who plead not guilty must investigate their own cases and find witnesses on their own. Defendants must also pay a $50 public defender fee, even when the lawyers miss their hearings, according to the lawsuit.
The minor plaintiffs, most of whom were charged with burglary, theft or disorderly conduct, say their probation could be revoked if they fail to pay the $50 fee.
They say the circuit fails to tell defendants that the fee can be waived, and the public defenders rarely ask for waivers or preliminary hearings.
Until mid-2009, the Cordele Circuit Public Defender received both state and county money for assistant public defenders. However, the circuit's county governments stopped funding two attorney positions in 2008 and 2009, leaving the office with only three full-time attorneys to handle cases in four superior courts and four juvenile courts. By comparison, the District Attorney's office has seven attorneys, with one dedicated to the circuit's juvenile courts, according to the complaint.
In 2010 and 2011, Cordele public defenders handled about 1,200 cases per year. In 2012, their caseload grew to 1,384, the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs claim judicial circuits with comparable caseloads receive county funding for assistant public defenders and are much better staffed.
They seek class certification, an injunction and damages for constitutional violations.
They are represented by Stephen Bright with the Southern Center for Human Rights and attorneys from Washington, D.C.-based Arnold & Porter.
"Poor people accused of crime in the Cordele Circuit are not 'represented by counsel' in any meaningful way and, instead, are processed through the courts in assembly-line fashion at arraignments and largely neglected the rest of the time," Southern Center attorney Atteeyah Hollie said in a statement. "Children are frequently not represented at all."
Gov. Deal's office declined to comment.
BOSTON (CN) - A rape victim sued Massachusetts to stop it from subjecting her to "a court-ordered 16-year unwanted relationship with her attacker" by giving him paternity rights over the child born from the rape.
H.T., of Norwood, Mass., sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in Federal Court.
"The plaintiff, a rape victim in a state criminal matter, became pregnant in 2009 at age 14 as a result of the crime and gave birth to her attacker's child," the lawsuit states.
"The defendant in the state criminal proceeding, age 20 at the time of the impregnation, was convicted of rape in 2011 and was sentenced to 16 years probation. Conditions of probation include an order that he initiate proceedings in family court and comply with that court's orders until the child reaches adulthood. The plaintiff here seeks to enjoin enforcement of so much of the state court's order as violates her federal rights by binding her to an unwanted 16-year legal relationship with her rapist."
H.T., who recently graduated from high school, says the order forces her to participate in unwanted court proceedings for 16 years with the man who raped her, and to spend money on legal fees.
"The plaintiff will suffer irreparable harm without relief from this court because she cannot choose not to participate in said family court proceedings without risking serious consequences, including the loss of custody of her child," the complaint states.
"Even if the family court ruled in the plaintiff's favor on issues currently in dispute, such as whether the criminal defendant should be granted visitation rights to the plaintiff's child, the plaintiff will suffer harm from the constant threat of new issues arising in family court until her child reaches adulthood, including, for example, efforts by the criminal defendant to seek to modify child support orders and enforce his parental rights at the trial court level and on appeal."
H.T. was 14 when 20-year-old Jamie Melendez raped her in the fall of 2009, making her pregnant, according to the complaint.
H.T. says she lived with her mother, who had to quit her job to care for the baby.
"The plaintiff and her mother repeatedly informed state officials that they wanted no contact with Melendez for any purpose and that they did not want the child born of the crime to have a relationship with Melendez," the complaint states.
"Melendez pleaded guilty to rape in September, 2011 (Norfolk Criminal Docket No . CR200900499) and was sentenced to probation for 16 years. As a condition of probation, Melendez was ordered to initiate proceedings in family court, declare paternity as to the child born of his crime, (paternity had already been determined in the criminal case, via DNA testing), and comply with the family court's orders throughout the probationary period. The plaintiff and her mother were adamantly opposed to participation in family court proceedings and repeatedly expressed this sentiment to state officials." (Parentheses in complaint).
In June 2012, H.T. found out that Melendez was seeking visitation rights with the child.
After a family court judge ordered Melendez to pay $110 a week in child support, he Melendez asked for visitation rights, and offered to withdraw his request in exchange for not having to pay child support, according to the lawsuit.
"Melendez had no prior contact with the child and had expressed no interest in the child, but no Massachusetts law forbids the enforcement of visitation rights by a biological father who causes a child's birth through the crime of rape," the complaint states.
The sentencing judge in the state criminal court denied H.T.'s request to order Melendez to pay criminal restitution instead of child support, and release her from any legal proceedings involving him.
H.T. asked the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to review the decision, but the single justice of the court found that she lacked standing to challenge the order. The justice agreed with the state court that H.T. could appeal any adverse rulings in family court.
H.T. appealed the ruling, but the full court affirmed the single justice's decision in June, according to the complaint.
H.T. says she never asserted an interest in the prosecution of Melendez. On the contrary, she seeks to be released from having any authority over his probationary conditions, according to the complaint.
"Through this action, the plaintiff requests that she be liberated from a state court order that not only imposes unlawfully on her liberty for 16 years, but also obligates her with the unwanted and inappropriate responsibility for ensuring Melendez's compliance with the conditions of his probation; an obligation that should rest exclusively with state officials," the complaint states.
H.T. claims the order subjects her to an unwanted legal relationship with her attacker, and violates due process and other constitutional rights.
"An estimated 35,000 babies are born from rape every year," the complaint states. "No state court has ever issued an order such as the one at issue here. Granting the plaintiff's requested relief will inhibit state court judges in Massachusetts and elsewhere from similarly depriving rape victims of their liberty, personal autonomy and due process."
H.T. seeks an injunction and annulment of the order.
She is represented by Wendy Murphy, co-director of New England Law School's Women's and Children's Advocacy Project.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Martha Coakley declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the state had not yet reviewed the filing.
Elderly Woman Dies in Court "Gasping for Breath" After Sheriff's Deputies "Callously" Refused to Give Her Medication, Daughter Claims
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) - A woman died on a courthouse floor because Alabama sheriff's deputies refused to give her her medicine - after arresting her for an old traffic ticket, the woman's daughter claims in court.
Ayunna Johnae London sued St. Clair County Sheriff Terry Surles, jail administrators Austin Nash and Terry Marcrum, Southern Healthcare Partners, and its employee Jennifer Eisel, in Federal Court.
London claims her mother, Dwana Voncia London-Richardson, died gasping for breath in court after callous and unconstitutional treatment from the defendants.
Richardson suffered from asthma and other serious health problems, but the defendants refused to give her her medication, accused her of faking, and let her die in the courtroom, her daughter claims.
Southern Healthcare Partners, which provided medical care to inmates at the St. Clair County Jail, failed to treat her mother properly, London says.
Her 45-year-old mother died in May 2011 at the St. Clair County Courthouse while in the sheriff's custody.
Richardson was arrested on May 19, 2011, in Tarrant City, Ala., for failing to pay a 2008 traffic ticket. She was sent to the St. Clair County Jail.
London claims that when she visited her mom in jail two days later, her mother could hardly walk, had trouble breathing and complained of pain in both legs.
London claims the jail staff refused to give her mom her asthma medication and stopped other inmates from helping her.
"Ms. Richardson told Ayunna that she was sick, that both her legs were hurting her so badly that she could not walk to the tray area to pick up her food, and that they would not give her her medicine," the complaint states.
"Ms. Richardson told Ayunna that several of the inmates were trying to help her out by going to get her tray for her, since she could hardly walk, but the jailers told them that they were 'babying' her, and moved Ms. Richardson to a different area in the jail, away from the inmates that were trying to help her."
Jail staff refused to take Richardson to the hospital, despite her worsening condition, her daughter says.
On May 23, deputies took her mother to court and ignored her need for medical care until it was too late, London says.
"Ayunna headed to the St. Clair County Courthouse early that morning," the complaint states. "She could not locate where court was being held. She saw deputy (or jailer) John Doe standing at the fire station, talking to a firefighter so she pulled into the station to ask where court was being held.
"When she pulled into the fire station, she saw her mother lying on the ground next to the police car with her legs extended under the police car.
"She asked them what had happened and her mother told her that she did not know, that she had just passed out. Ms. Richardson was sweating and struggling breathing.
"Ayunna had one of her mother's asthma pumps in her car so she asked if her mother could sit in her car and get some air.
"Ayunna gave her mother the asthma pump but it was not working. Her mother's breathing continued to get worse."
London says the deputies still refused to take her mom to the hospital, and said would be locked up if she didn't keep her court date.
"Ms. Richardson was unable to walk," the complaint states. "Deputy (or jailer) Doe obtained an office chair from the courthouse and they used it to wheel Ms. Richardson to the courtroom.
"Ayunna set beside deputy (or jailer) Doe and her mother, fanning her mother, whose breathing continued to get worse.
"After sitting in the courtroom waiting for about twenty minutes, Ms. Richardson stated that she 'could not take anymore,' and she told deputy/jailer Doe that she needed help.
"Ayunna also pleaded with deputy/jailer Doe to get someone to help her mother.
"Deputy/jailer Doe responded as though he believed Ms. Richardson was just putting on.
"Ms. Richardson then stated 'I need to lay down.'
"Ms. Richardson laid down on the courtroom floor and her body started to shaking.
"Deputy/jailer Doe took no action to assist Ms. Richardson or to clear the courtroom.
"Everyone in the courtroom watched as Ms. Richardson died in court, on the courtroom floor.
"Ayunna stayed beside her mother trying to do CPR to bring her back for about twenty minutes, but she failed."
Emergency personnel arrived 45 minutes later and took Richardson, who was unresponsive, to the hospital.
London says her mother was pronounced dead within 5 minutes of arriving at the hospital.
She seeks punitive damages for constitutional violations, wrongful death and negligence.
She is represented by Charles Tatum Jr. of Jasper, Ala
Johns Hopkins Gynecologist Secretly Videotaped Patients During Pelvic Exams for 20 years, Three Patients Claim
BALTIMORE (CN) - A Johns Hopkins gynecologist secretly videotaped patients during pelvic exams for 20 years, three patients claim in a class action.
Jane Roe 1, 2 and 3 sued The Johns Hopkins Health System dba The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
They claim Johns Hopkins failed to properly supervise the late Dr. Nikita Levy, who worked as an ob-gyn at Hopkins' East Baltimore Medical Center until last month.
Levy, 54, committed suicide on Feb. 18 at his Towson-area home after police searched his home and office, according to The Baltimore Sun.
The Sun reported that Levy used a pen camera and other devices to secretly record patients, according to a colleague who reported Levy to Hopkins officials.
"Dr. Levy served for more than twenty years as a physician with Johns Hopkins," the complaint states. "During much, if not all, of that time, Dr. Levy took thousands of photographs and/or videos of his patients and/or other private areas of their anatomy, doing so surreptitiously, without his patients' knowledge, permission or informed consent.
"As a result of Dr. Levy's actions and as a result of Johns Hopkins' failure to prevent Dr. Levy's actions, the plaintiffs have suffered an outrageous invasion of their privacy and been subjected to extreme emotional distress and mental anguish."
The women, who live in Baltimore, seek to represent all of Levy's patients at the East Baltimore Medical Center or any other Johns Hopkins facility.
"The class plaintiffs were patients of Dr. Levy's, having seen him for numerous medical examinations and/or procedures until Dr. Levy left Johns Hopkins in February 2013," the complaint states.
"In early 2013, law enforcement officers searched the home of Dr. Levy, where they discovered computer equipment containing thousands of photographs and videos of his patients and their genitals and/or other private areas of their anatomy.
"These aforementioned photographs and videos of their genitals and/or other private areas had been taken surreptitiously by Dr. Levy during much, if not all of his more than twenty years as a physician with Johns Hopkins. He obtained those photographs and videos without his patients' knowledge, permission or informed consent."
The plaintiffs claim Johns Hopkins knew or should have known about Levy's perverse activity.
They say they "all have grave concerns that personal and private photographs and/or videos of their bodies were surreptitiously recorded and potentially distributed over the Internet or by other means."
They say they suffered severe emotional distress and psychological damages due to Levy's invasion of their privacy.
They seek class certification, compensatory and punitive damages for invasion of privacy, lack of informed consent, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, violations of Maryland visual surveillance laws, and costs of therapy and counseling.
They also want Johns Hopkins to find and destroy all photographs and videos made of Levy's patients, to notify all potential victims, and to prevent exploitation of patients.
They are represented by Howard Janet with Janet, Jenner & Suggs.