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After outcry, Alabama DA decides not to prosecute woman for endangering fetus

More than 35 U.S. states have laws classifying a fetus as a victim in a homicide or an assault. Those laws can result in criminal charges against pregnant women, as highlighted by a recent Alabama case involving a woman whose fetus died after she was shot. Lisa Desjardins talks to Mary Scott Hodgin of WBHM public radio about what happened and why the district attorney decided not to prosecute.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More than 35 states have laws on the books that classify a fetus as a victim in the case of a homicide or an assault. Those laws can lead in some cases to criminal charges against the pregnant woman.

    A case in Alabama involving a pregnant woman who was shot in a fight is casting a national spotlight on those issues and raising questions about weighing the rights of the mother and the rights of the fetus.

    Lisa Desjardins has the latest on today's developments.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Last December, Marshae Jones was shot in a fight near Birmingham, Alabama. She was five months pregnant at the time.

    Jones' story became national last week when a grand jury indicted her for the loss of her own fetus, but didn't indict the woman who shot her. That altercation happened outside a Dollar General Store, where police say Jones started the fight. There's no indication that she had a weapon. The other woman involved fired a bullet that hit Jones' abdomen and she lost the fetus in a miscarriage.

    The police said the shooter acted in self-defense and pointed criminal blame only at Jones, indicting her for manslaughter for endangering her fetus.

    But, today, the district attorney overseeing the case said she wouldn't prosecute Ms. Jones.

  • Lynneice Washington:

    An unborn child was tragically lost, and families on both sides of this matter have suffered. Nothing, nothing, nothing we do today or in the future will change that reality.

    The issue before us is whether it's appropriate to try to hold someone legally culpable for the actions that led to the death of the unborn child. There are no winners, only losers, in the sad ordeal.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This decision over whether to charge Jones has been widely debated. It is related to the personhood movement, which supporters say pushes for the rights of fetus to be recognized as equal to the rights of any person.

    But critics say it is dangerous, making concern for the fetus outweigh and sometimes risk harm to the mother.

    Mary Scott Hodgin is a health and science reporter with WBHM in Alabama. She has been following this story.

    And, Mary Scott, I want to start by saying, since a grand jury was involved, we don't really have all the details of this altercation, but can you explain why police said that they believed the pregnant woman should be charged? And what law did they say was involved?

  • Mary Scott Hodgin:

    This case came before the grand jury in April of this year. And all the evidence was presented at that time.

    And the grand jury said Jemison, the woman who shot Jones, was acting in self-defense, because Jones started the fight and wouldn't stop. And so they said, we're going to drop the charges against Jemison. And, instead, we're going to charge Jones, the woman who was pregnant at the time, because she started the fight that led to the death of her fetus.

    In fact, they said that Jones intentionally caused the death of her fetus by starting the fight, knowing that she was five months pregnant.

    Alabama law does recognize a fetus as a person in acts of homicide or assault. And so that's what they said in this case, that Jones recklessly caused the death of another person, which in this case was her own fetus.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And then, on the other hand, we had a DA come out today, an elected official, decide not to prosecute. Can you tell us why? And what do we know about her?

  • Mary Scott Hodgin:

    Yes, so the DA in this case is Lynneice Washington. She was elected a few years ago as the district attorney of the Bessemer District Cutoff here in Jefferson County.

    She is the first black woman to hold the position of district attorney in the state of Alabama. So she made history when she was elected a few years ago. And she had come out over the weekend and said that her office had received a lot of criticism about this case.

    And, at that time, her office had said, we're still deciding, we respect the decision of the grand jury, but it's up to us whether or not to take this case to court.

    Today, the district attorney, Washington, came out and said she is not going to take the case to court. And I think that it was in response to, one, she didn't feel that the case needed to go any further. But, additionally, a lot of people were upset about this. And, as you pointed out, it's brought up this debate about the personhood movement. Should a fetus carry the same rights as a person?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You know, abortion is so political that I feel like sometimes we forget the very human issues and emotions on both sides of this debate.

    For example, I know Marshae Jones named the fetus that she lost. I'm curious what the people of Alabama tell you they feel about this case and about her.

  • Mary Scott Hodgin:

    The people that I have spoken with mirrored some of the same sentiment that Washington said today in her press conference, which is that it's very sad, the whole situation.

    One woman I spoke with said, Jones, the woman who lost her fetus, she lost a child in this case. She's already been punished enough, and that it's really sad, and that she didn't intend for her fetus to be shot. She didn't intend for her unborn child to die in this case.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Alabama is known for leading the conservative charge against abortion, even trying to ban it, restrict it further.

    But can you talk about how unusual this case is and how often Alabama prosecutes pregnant women who may have unintended miscarriages as being responsible for those miscarriages.

  • Mary Scott Hodgin:

    This case specifically, everyone has pointed out that it is unprecedented, even here in the state of Alabama, although the state does have a history of prosecuting pregnant women for — quote, unquote — "endangering" their fetuses while pregnant.

    So, in 2006, Alabama passed a chemical endangerment law, which has since been used to prosecute pregnant women for using drugs during their pregnancy.

    And a report a few years ago showed that, between 2006 and 2015, over 470 women have been prosecuted under that law. So, yes, certainly, it's unprecedented, the case of Marshae Jones, the charges that were brought against her, but it's not unprecedented in the fact that the state does have this history of prosecuting pregnant women for their actions during pregnancy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, Mary Scott Hodgin of WBHM, thank you for joining us.

  • Mary Scott Hodgin:

    Thank you.

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