August 10, 2013 6:47:59 PM
JACKSON -- The Mississippi Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court's dismissal of an indictment against a woman who suffered a stillbirth and was arrested in 2010 because of alleged drug use during her pregnancy.
Nina Buckhalter was charged with negligent culpable manslaughter, but a local judge threw out the case in 2012. Prosecutors appealed.
In a ruling Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court said the indictment, which alleged Buckhalter willfully caused the death of the fetus, was flawed.
The justices said the indictment failed to provide any information to back the state's allegation that Buckhalter had "willfully, unlawfully, feloniously" killed the fetus "by culpable negligence."
Buckhalter was in her 31st week of pregnancy at the time of the stillbirth, according to documents filed in the case.
The justices didn't address the lower court's reason for dismissing the indictment. The Lamar County Circuit Court backed the argument by Buckhalter's lawyer that the indictment should be dismissed because the state's manslaughter statute does not apply to a pregnant woman for the death of her unborn child. At best, the lawyer argued, the wording in the statute as applied to the case was ambiguous.
The lower court ruled the statute was "vague as to whether the legislature intended the term 'other' to be specifically inclusive of the pregnant woman herself as against her own unborn child."
In Thursday's decision, the Supreme Court found the indictment to be "fatally flawed," and dismissed it without addressing the statute.
In a separate opinion, Supreme Court Justice Leslie King wrote that while he agreed with the outcome, the court should have addressed the merits of the case.
The "decision places Buckhalter at risk of substantial injury -- re-indictment and a possible trial and conviction," King wrote. "Also with re-indictment, Buckhalter will have the same issue to present to the circuit court for resolution -- whether she can be charged for murder of any kind under Mississippi statutes."
Justices James Kitchens and David Chandler joined that opinion.
District Attorney Hal Kittrell said Friday in a telephone interview that he's reviewing the opinion before deciding whether to pursue the case further.
Buckhalter attorney Robert McDuff said in a statement that the American Medical Association, the Mississippi Psychological Association and others have said women should not be charged with homicide "for unintended stillbirths."
"She should not be prosecuted further and no one should be trying to send her to prison," McDuff said.
The statement also said Buckhalter had completed drug treatment and graduated from a community college.
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