Criminal Justice

Judge mulls depraved-heart murder charge against teen accused of causing stillbirth by cocaine use

A Mississippi judge is considering whether to dismiss a “depraved heart” murder charge against a woman accused of using crack cocaine, resulting in the stillbirth of her daughter.

The defendant, Rennie Gibbs, was only 16 at the time of her indictment in 2007, ProPublica reports. Since then, Gibbs’ lawyers have tried without success to get the Mississippi Supreme Court to toss the murder charge. At issue in the case is the link between cocaine use and damage to the fetus.

According to Pro Publica, Gibbs’ case is among a “wave of ‘fetal harm’ cases across the country in recent years that pit the rights of the mother against what lawmakers, health care workers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, and others view as the rights of the unborn child.” Gibbs tested positive three times for cocaine or marijuana during her pregnancy. She tested positive again on the day she sought emergency treatment and doctors diagnosed “fetal demise.”

Expert witnesses hired by Gibbs’ lawyers acknowledge that toxicology tests showed traces of a cocaine byproduct in the stillborn child, but say the small amount makes it impossible to conclude the stillbirth was due to cocaine toxicity, the story says. Cocaine has been linked to placenta abruption, the experts say, but that wasn’t a problem in this case. The experts also say the state should have tested for infection or fetal abnormality as a cause of death.

The defense is also challenging the idea that cocaine exposure can cause death of the fetus or long-lasting harm in children who are born. Boston University School of Medicine researcher Deborah Frank has studied the issue and concluded that cocaine concerns are “wildly overstated,” the story says.

The pathologist who conducted the autopsy for the state was Steven Hayne, whose testimony in prior cases has come under fire. The Washington Post blog the Watch notes that the prosecutor in the case is Forrest Allgood, who used a controversial bite-mark specialist to put two men on death row who were later cleared of the crimes.

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