News Law and Policy

Murder Charges Dismissed in Mississippi Stillbirth Case

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Rennie Gibbs' "depraved heart murder" charge related to a 2006 stillbirth was dismissed, but prosecutors said they plan to try and re-indict the young woman this summer.

On Thursday, a Mississippi judge dismissed the murder charge against Rennie Gibbs, the young woman who faced life in prison after she delivered a stillborn baby.

Gibbs, now 24, was 36 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to an area emergency room and diagnosed with “fetal demise.” Doctors induced labor and Gibbs delivered a stillborn daughter she named Samiya. Medical examiner Steven Hayne concluded the cause of death of Gibbs’ daughter was “cocaine toxicity,” based on autopsy reports that showed trace amounts of cocaine byproduct in the baby’s system. No cocaine was found in the infant’s blood, however. Based on the presence of those trace amounts of cocaine byproduct, the medical examiner declared the baby’s death a homicide. A Lowndes County grand jury indicted Gibbs for “depraved heart murder,” defined as an act “eminently dangerous to others … regardless of human life.” The grand jury concluded that Gibbs had “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” caused the death of the baby by smoking crack cocaine during her pregnancy. Gibbs, then 16, faced life in prison.

Experts who later examined the autopsy reports of Gibbs’ daughter disagreed with the conclusion that “cocaine toxicity” was the likely cause of the infant’s death. It was far more likely, they concluded, that the cause of death was the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck. But prosecutors pressed on, arguing that they had an obligation to prosecute Gibbs because the state has an obligation to protect children from their parents, and failing to do so sends a message that “every drug addict who robs or steals to obtain money for drugs should not be held accountable for their actions because of their addiction.”

The Mississippi court hearing Gibbs’ case was not so sure. Relying on the decision of the Mississippi Supreme Court in Buckhalter v. State, a decision that upheld the dismissal of a manslaughter indictment in a case similar to Gibbs’, Lowndes County Circuit Court Judge Jim Kitchens said the law was “unclear” on how to treat these cases. “Gibbs was indicted prior to Buckhalter and 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,” said Kitchens’ ruling.

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Gibbs’ prosecution reflects a troubling increase in prosecutors charging women with crimes related to pregnancy outcomes. As documented by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, there were a total of 413 documented cases between 1973 and 2005 where women faced criminal charges related to her pregnancy and outcome. Since 2005, that number has skyrocketed with 200 additional documented cases of prosecutors criminally charging women under so-called fetal harm laws. Those prosecuted were disproportionately low-income women and women of color.

“The biggest threats to life-born and unborn do not come from their mommies—but rather poverty, barriers to health care, persistent racism, and environmental hazards,” NAPW executive director and co-counsel for Gibbs, Lynn Paltrow, told Rewire. “Prosecutions like these increase risks to babies by frightening pregnant women away from care and by using tax dollars to expand the criminal justice system rather than to fund Nurse-Family partnerships that actually protect the health of the children.”

The judge dismissed the charge against Gibbs “without prejudice,” which means prosecutors have the discretion to refile charges against her. According to reports, Assistant District Attorney Mark Jackson said that the state would reconvene a grand jury at the end of July to try and re-indict Gibbs, this time for manslaughter.

Robert McDuff, Gibbs’ lead attorney, told Rewire, “We are pleased the murder charge was dismissed. We will have further discussions in the coming weeks with the district attorney’s office in an effort to persuade them not to indict Rennie for manslaughter or any other crime. In our view, neither the law nor the evidence justify prosecuting this young woman, who was a teenager at the time, and we hope this is the end of it. But if further charges are brought, we will return to court in her defense.”

News Human Rights

Remaining Charges Dropped Against Officers in Freddie Gray Case

Michelle D. Anderson

Gray, who was Black, died of a neck injury a week after being taken into police custody in April 2015. The 25-year-old’s death led to widespread protest and civil disobedience against racial injustice and a number of reforms in Baltimore and across Maryland.

Three Baltimore Police Department officers charged in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray will not go to trial as originally planned.

Chief Deputy State Attorney Michael Schatzow of the Baltimore City State Attorney’s Office said during a court hearing Wednesday that his office would not prosecute Officer Garrett Miller and Sgt. Alicia White or attempt to retry Officer William Porter, whose case ended in a mistrial in December.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby had charged Miller, White, and Porter, along with Officer Edward Nero, Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., and Lt. Brian Rice, in Gray’s May 2015 death in police custody.

The officers faced an array of charges, ranging from second-degree depraved-heart murder and reckless endangerment to second-degree assault and involuntary manslaughter.

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All of the officers pleaded not guilty.

Judge Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams acquitted Nero, Goodson, and Rice during bench trials that ended in May, June, and July, respectively. Miller’s trial was set to begin Wednesday; White, October 13, and Porter, September 6.

Gray, who was Black, died of a neck injury a week after being taken into police custody in April 2015. The 25-year-old’s death led to widespread protest and civil disobedience against racial injustice and a number of reforms in Baltimore and across Maryland.

Mosby, in filing charges against the officers, attempted to hold law enforcement accountable for failing to secure Gray in a seat belt after transporting him in a police van following his arrest, among other alleged negligent acts. Prosecutors charged that Gray was illegally detained before police officers found a knife in his pocket.

Mosby stood by her decision to bring charges against the six officers during a brief press conference held near the Gilmor Homes public housing project, where Gray was taken into police custody.

“We stand by the medical examiners determination that Freddie Gray’s death was a homicide,” Mosby said.

She touted her team’s success during the trials, including an appellate court victory that led some officers to testify against one another and asserted that a summary judgment was among many reasons she had “legitimate reasons” to pursue criminal charges.

Mosby praised the reforms that had come over the past year, including a new “use of force” policy Baltimore police instituted this year. The new policy emphasizes de-escalation and accountability. It marks the first rewrite of the policy since 2003.

“For those that believe I am anti-police, that’s simply not the case. I am anti-police brutality,” Mosby said.

The conference was the first time Mosby had spoken in months, since a gag order imposed by Williams had kept prosecution and defense alike from commenting on the police trials.

The decision to drop charges stemmed from “an apparent acknowledgement” that convictions were unlikely for the remaining officers, the Baltimore Sun reported.

This was because the prosecution would face major challenges during Miller’s trial since they wouldn’t be able to use anything he said on the witness stand during Nero’s trial in an attempt to convict him. Miller had spoken during Nero’s trial in an immunized testimony and with protections against self incrimination, the Sun reported.

Williams said in previous trials that prosecutors failed to show sufficient evidence to support their stance that the officers acted recklessly and caused Gray’s death. He said prosecutors wanted him to rely on “presumptions or assumptions” and rejected the notion that police intentionally gave Gray a “rough ride” in the police vehicle, according to numerous news reports.

The decision to drop charges drew criticism from many activists and citizens alike, but drew praise from the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 union, which had repeatedly urged the prosecution to drop charges.

Baltimore Bloc, a local grassroots group, said in a statement this spring that Mosby should be removed from office for failing to secure convictions against officers and continued to criticize her on Twitter after the announcement that charges would be dropped.

News Law and Policy

Texas District Attorney Drops Felony Charges Against David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The grand jury returned indictments against Daleiden and Merritt on felony charges of tampering with an official government document for purportedly using a fraudulent driver's license to gain access to a Planned Parenthood center in Houston.

UPDATE, July 26, 2:47 p.m.: This piece has been updated to include a statement from Planned Parenthood.

On Tuesday, the Harris County District Attorney’s office in Texas dismissed the remaining criminal charges against anti-choice activists David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt related to their production of widely discredited, heavily edited videos alleging Planned Parenthood was illegally profiting from fetal tissue donations.

The criminal charges against the pair originally stemmed from Republican Texas lawmakers’ responses to the videos’ release. Attorney General Ken Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick all called for the Harris County District attorney’s Office to begin a criminal investigation into Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast last August, after the release of one video that featured clinic staff in Houston talking about the methods and costs of preserving fetal tissue for life-saving scientific research.

A Texas grand jury found no evidence of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood staff and declined to bring any criminal charges against the health-care provider. More than a dozen state and federal investigations have similarly turned up no evidence of lawbreaking by the reproductive health-care provider.

Instead, in January, the grand jury returned indictments against Daleiden and Merritt on felony charges of tampering with an official government document for purportedly using a fraudulent driver’s license to gain access to a Planned Parenthood center in Houston. Daleiden was also indicted on a misdemeanor charge related to trying to entice a third party to unlawfully purchase human organs.

A Texas judge in June dismissed the misdemeanor charge against Daleiden on procedural grounds.

“This meritless and retaliatory prosecution should never have been brought,” said Daleiden’s attorney, Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society, in a statement following the announcement that the district attorneys office was dismissing the indictment. “Planned Parenthood did wrong here, not David Daleiden.”

“Planned Parenthood provides high-quality, compassionate health care and has been cleared of any wrongdoing time and again. [Daleiden] and other anti-abortion extremists, on the other hand, spent three years creating a fake company, creating fake identities, and lying. When they couldn’t find any improper or illegal activity, they made it up. They spread malicious lies about Planned Parenthood in order to advance their anti-abortion agenda. The decision to drop the prosecution on a technicality does not negate the fact that the only people who engaged in wrongdoing are the extremists behind this fraud,” Melaney A. Linton, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, said in a statement emailed to Rewire after publication.

The district attorney’s dismissal of the felony charges against Daleiden and Merritt happened just before a scheduled court hearing requested by their attorneys to argue the felony indictment should be dismissed.

Daleiden still faces three civil lawsuits elsewhere in the country related to the creation and release of the Planned Parenthood videos.

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