A judge in Mississippi has dismissed a murder charge against a woman who gave birth to a stillborn child in 2006.
Rennie Gibbs was 16 when she delivered her daughter. The child was stillborn, with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Subsequent medical exams discovered traces of cocaine byproduct in the baby’s blood, according to a story on ProPublica. Mississippi state prosecutors then indicted Gibbs for “depraved heart murder,” a second-degree murder charge. Depraved heart murder is defined in the state of Mississippi as an act that demonstrates a “callous disregard for human life.” Prosecutors alleged Gibbs caused the death of the child by using cocaine during the pregnancy.
Lowndes County Circuit Judge Jim Kitchens wasn’t so sure. He threw the case out on Thursday.
Kitchens’ ruling stated that “the law was unclear in Mississippi as to the appropriate charge, if any, to be levied when a pregnant woman allegedly consumed illegal drugs and allegedly caused the death of her unborn child.”
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Kitchens relied on a similar case in Mississippi — Buckhalter v. State — for his ruling. In that case the state’s supreme court dismissed manslaughter charges against a woman who delivered a stillborn child after taking drugs while pregnant.
Gibbs was indicted prior to that case's decision.
"Accordingly, pursuant to the Mississippi Supreme Court's ruling this case for depraved heart murder is dismissed without prejudice,” Kitchens’ ruling read, according to the The Commercial Dispatch, a Mississippi newspaper.
The case shed new light on a growing number of “fetal harm” cases in which mothers are charged with various crimes for behaviors that injure an unborn child. ProPublica detailed many of those cases. In one case, an Iowa woman was arrested and jailed after falling down a flight of stairs. In another case, a woman in Indiana who attempted suicide while pregnant spent a year in jail before murder charges against her were dropped. Women’s rights advocates worry that such cases could lead to more prosecutions of poor women, who suffer a disproportionate number of stillbirths and miscarriages.
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“It’s tremendously, tremendously frightening, this case,” said Oleta Fitzgerald of the Children’s Defense Fund, an advocacy and research organization, in Jackson, Miss. “There’s real fear for young women whose babies are dying early who [lack the resources to] defend themselves and their actions.”
Assistant District Attorney Mark Jackson said the state would present the case to the grand jury again later this summer.
Gibbs’ attorney, Carrie Jourdan, said she was “elated” with Kitchens’ decision but was disappointed the state was going to try the case again.
“I'm of course disappointed that the state is considering a manslaughter case against her,” she said.