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A Stillborn Child Leads to a Murder Charge—With Threat of Life in Prison

We are merciless out of desire to blame others for the world's hardness and tragedy.
baby hand in hand

In 2006, 15-year-old Rennie Gibbs became pregnant. She tested positive for marijuana and cocaine during her pregnancy. Her daughter Samiya was born a month premature, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. An autopsy on the child found traces of a cocaine byproduct, and Rennie was charged with what Mississippi calls “depraved heart murder,” a second-degree murder charge used in cases when an unintended death results from an act “eminently dangerous to others” committed with a “depraved” disregard for human life.* Gibbs’s case has wound its way through the legal system, and it is still unclear whether she will go on trial this spring; but if she does, Gibbs, now 23, will face the threat of life in prison.

These are the facts. Heartbreaking personal stories lie behind them, and broader societal stories as well. The story of Rennie and Samiya Gibbs is a story of a prosecutor with a cavalier approach to evidence; a story of scapegoating and the inability to accept tragedy; a story of the police state created by what Jim Henley calls “the war on some drugs”; and a story, too, about legal attempts to protect the unborn. “We can love them both” is one of the more inspiring slogans of the pro-life movement. What would loving them both look like, for Rennie and Samiya? I’m pretty sure “life in prison” is not the answer.

A Corruption Story

Medical examiner Steven Hayne is the one whose autopsy found cocaine byproducts in Samiya’s body. His evidence led prosecutor Forest Allgood to seek the murder charge—despite the fact that umbilical cord compression is not linked to maternal cocaine use, and is the obvious cause of death in this case.

Criminal-justice journalist Radley Balko has been following Hayne and Allgood for years. He’s truffled up a lot of dropped cases, a lot of sketchy medical evidence, even some grim absurdity:

Allgood and Hayne go way back. Lloyd White, who served as Mississippi state medical examiner in the early 1990s, told me in 2007 that when he was in office — and at least in theory was in charge of overseeing state autopsies in criminal cases — Allgood once removed a body from his lab without his permission. White wasn’t ready to tell Allgood what he wanted to hear about how the woman had died, so Allgood had the body taken from White’s office and delivered to Hayne, who gave Allgood the expert opinion he was seeking.

The image of a prosecutor sneaking a corpse from a lab has a certain Victorian madness to it—but there are men on death row because of Steven Hayne and his willingness to massage the evidence to get a conviction. Balko writes,

Hayne performed the vast majority of autopsies in Mississippi for nearly 20 years precisely because he provided opinions and testimonies that prosecutors found favorable. It was all by design. When state medical examiners attempted to rein Hayne in, the state’s district attorneys and coroners rallied behind him. They in fact forced two state medical examiners to resign.

A Tragic Story

Balko also notes, “When babies die in Mississippi, the state’s prosecutors seem particularly determined to see that someone goes to prison for it, even if there isn’t much evidence of a crime.”

The death of an infant is an unthinkably painful event. It’s hard to understand how such things could happen. The constant barrage of “studies” and pop-sci magazine articles about which foods you can eat while pregnant, which activities are good for baby or bad, represents one way we attempt to control the uncontrollable. If I do everything exactly right, I will be safe.

Finding a villain is the other way. If Samiya’s death is Rennie’s fault, then my baby will be safe. Stillbirth makes a conceptual shift: from a tragedy which could happen to any woman into a crime which can be prevented by right action. In the emotional calculus, the incredible harshness of punishment—the life sentence—serves to mark out the event as exceptional, as if stillbirth is possible only because of a criminal’s depravity. The more Rennie is punished, the more her misery seems like something which could never happen to the rest of us. I’m not the kind of person who gets life in prison, so my baby will be okay.

Stillbirth can happen to any woman. But it happens much more often if you’re poor. The quicker prosecutors are to assume that a stillbirth was caused by maternal negligence, the more poor women will be punished for what is already a catastrophic sorrow.

A Drug War Story

Is this even a story about fetal harm? After all, Drug War hysteria has led to children being taken from their mothers due to only the flimsiest of evidence. Nobody disputes the human rights of an already-born child. And this is what the Drug War looks like:

[D]rug-testing women right after birth and then removing the babies after positive results is a pretty awful way to address the issue. These tests can and do produce false positives (as do drug tests on infants themselves.) And as with most drug war policies, minority and low-income women are far more likely be tested than white and wealthy women. A study of hospitals in Florida found that the discrepancy extends to reporting women as well — even among women who tested positive, hospital staff were 10 times more likely to report the positive tests from black women to state authorities than the positive tests from white women. And in some states, the penalties can be quite a bit worse — pregnant women and new mothers who fail drug tests can be arrested and prosecuted for child abuse.

That’s Balko again, who notes:

None of this is to diminish the seriousness of babies born with addiction. Despite the history of exaggerated media reports on both the prevalence and effects of babies born with a drug addiction, they’re obviously less healthy than babies born without an addiction. They still require more treatment and care. And no one would argue that a new mother with a drug habit presents all sorts of problems for both mother and child. But even if these tests were 100 percent accurate, treating both patients for addiction seems like a far more humane policy than yanking a newborn from his mother’s arms — or sending the mother to prison.

So is the story of Rennie Gibbs basically a story of the Drug War’s pressure to approach addiction as a crime like rape or robbery, rather than a condition (often medical, sometimes spiritual, sometimes both) to be treated? Is this solely the story of attempting to solve suffering by prosecuting the sufferers? Or does this case hold implications for the pro-life movement as well?

A Child’s Story

I believe it does. Basic biology plus an unwillingness to deprive any individual of human rights lead me to believe that unborn children deserve to be, in Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s words, “protected in law and welcomed in life.” The humanity, dignity, and beauty of the unborn child–from the moment of conception–seem obvious to me.

And even those who would not extend human rights to all of us from the moment of our conception do generally believe that a child one month shy of birth deserves protection. At some point in the process of fetal development, almost all of us eventually become pro-life.

Yet figuring out how to protect the unborn isn’t simple. Forest Allgood didn’t need any special legal protections for the unborn to charge Rennie Gibbs—he just charged her with straight-up murder. But laws directly intended to prevent women from acting in ways which harm their unborn children are one way in which states are trying to protect the unborn as much as Roe allows.

And these fetal harm laws, however well-meaning, suggest a slippery slope toward precisely Rennie Gibbs’s predicament. Criminal investigations into every miscarriage, heavy sentences for women caught smoking a single joint or struggling to quit cigarettes, legal penalties for failing to follow every jot of the ever-shifting “expert opinion” on pregnancy: The closer this world seems, the less willing abortion-rights supporters will be to even consider the humanity of the unborn. And some women have already slipped to the bottom of the slope. As a recent story on the Gibbs case notes,

Those who share such worries point to a report last year by the New York­–based National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) that documented hundreds of cases around the country in which women have been detained, arrested and sometimes convicted — on charges as serious as murder — for doing things while pregnant that authorities viewed as dangerous or harmful to their unborn child.

The definition of fetal harm in such cases has been broad: An Indiana woman who attempted suicide while pregnant spent a year in jail before murder charges were dropped last year; an Iowa woman was arrested and jailed after falling down the stairs and suffering a miscarriage; a New Jersey woman who refused to sign a preauthorization for a cesarean section didn’t end up needing the operation, yet was charged with child endangerment and lost custody of her baby. But the vast majority of cases have involved women suspected of using illegal drugs. Those women have been disproportionately young, low-income and African American.

Moreover, what pro-lifers should want most is for women who may harm their unborn children to seek help. In the case of the unborn child, mom and baby must be helped together, since they can’t be separated. Offering treatment without prosecution or judgment is by far the best way to serve the unborn children of addicted mothers. Threatening prosecution if you miscarry, by contrast, makes it much less likely that women will seek help.

I’m increasingly aware of just how much suffering and sin is caused by our belief that the world is hard and merciless. This belief—which can express itself as despair, or as the fearful drive to protect oneself above all else—makes it impossible to trust others. It makes social solidarity and even marriage extraordinarily difficult. The belief that we will be brutally punished if we set a foot out of line, that nobody will look out for us or help us or try to understand where we’re coming from, promotes abortion. It fuels addiction, by making us unwilling to admit where we’re needy, weak, or at fault.

People believe in the merciless world because that’s what they see and experience. Cases like Rennie Gibbs’s serve as evidence for the mercilessness of contemporary America. This prosecution harms not only Gibbs and her family—although that would be bad enough—but all of us.

* a previous version of this article described Renee’s charge as murder, and “depraved heart murder” as “signifying an especially callous crime”; This may have been misleading, as she has not been charged with first-degree murder, and her charge acknowledges the unintentional nature of the death.