March 3, 2014 9:40:27 AM
JACKSON -- A Mississippi woman who gave birth to a stillborn child at age 16 is challenging a "depraved heart murder" charge that was filed against her by prosecutors who said her cocaine use killed the baby.
Lawyers for Rennie Gibbs are scheduled to be in Lowndes Circuit Court today to argue a motion to dismiss the charge.
Gibbs' child was stillborn in 2006. Prosecutors blamed Gibbs' cocaine use, and charged her with depraved-heart murder. It's a legal term under Mississippi law for an action that demonstrates a "callous disregard for human life" and results in death. It carries a life sentence.
Gibbs became pregnant at age 15 and the stillborn death occurred when was 16, according to court records. Her trial is scheduled for the May term of Circuit Court.
In 2009, Gibbs asked a judge to dismiss the indictment because she was charged with a crime not listed in state law. The Circuit Court judge denied the motion. Gibbs appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The state's high court initially ruled Gibbs could challenge the indictment but later reversed itself. The court said the issues raised by Gibbs could be addressed in a future appeal -- if there is one.
Monday's hearing in Columbus will focus on motions filed by Gibbs' attorney, Robert McDuff of Jackson, to dismiss the charges and exclude testimony of forensic pathologist Steven Hayne. According to court records, Hayne performed an autopsy in 2006 and concluded the stillbirth was caused by "cocaine toxicity."
McDuff argues in briefs that prosecutors want to try Gibbs for a crime that does not exist and a crime that would be unconstitutional if it did exist.
McDuff said that nowhere in state law is it a crime for a woman to smoke, drink or take drugs while pregnant, even if the pregnancy ends in miscarriage or a stillbirth. McDuff said state law is directed at murders committed by third parties against an unborn child. He said the courts cannot assume such laws cover "a pregnant woman who does something that unintentionally causes a miscarriage or stillbirth."
Prosecutors argue the Legislature's failure to pass bills criminalizing a pregnant woman's drug use does not do away with statutes that make it a crime to harm an unborn child. They said unborn children are defined as "human beings" under Mississippi homicide statutes.
The National Association of Social Workers, the National Organization for Women and other groups filed briefs with the court supporting dismissal of the charges against Gibbs.
The Mississippi Supreme Court has not addressed the substantial issues in such cases.
Last summer, the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court's dismissal of an indictment against another woman, Nina Buckhalter, who suffered a stillbirth and was arrested in 2010 because of alleged drug use during her pregnancy.
Buckhalter was charged with negligent culpable manslaughter, but a local judge threw out the case in 2012. Prosecutors appealed.
The Supreme Court said the indictment, which alleged that Buckhalter willfully caused the death of the fetus, failed to provide information to back the state's allegations.
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.
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