Below is a Press Release from National Advocates for Pregnant Women, an organization with whom the Drug Policy Forum has worked closely in the past. This case has many dimensions that are all extremely important. For us, this case exemplifies the kind of callousness that is the result of treating drug use as a crime rather than a public health issue. The lack of a scientific connection between cocaine use and stillbirths makes it even more clear that the prosecution is using this tragedy to pursue their own agenda of establishing “personhood” for fetuses. In this way, it is the prosecutors who have shown a callous disregard for human life.
Yesterday, April 3, 2014, Mississippi Lowndes County Circuit Judge, Jim Kitchens, dismissed the murder charge against Rennie Gibbs. Ms. Gibbs, now 24, was charged with “depraved heart” murder after experiencing a stillbirth at 36 weeks of pregnancy. She was then only 16 years old. Relying on the medical examiner’s report in Ms. Gibbs’ case, the prosecutor claimed — without scientific support — that the stillbirth was caused by her cocaine use.
“We are pleased the murder charge was dismissed,” said Robert McDuff of McDuff & Byrd, Mississippi Defense Counsel. “We will have further discussions in the coming weeks with the District Attorney’s office in an effort to persuade them not to indict Ms. Gibbs for manslaughter or any other crime.” McDuff added, “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.”
According to Mishka Terplan, MD, MPH, clinician and researcher, “While research in the 1980s raised the concern that there might be an association between cocaine and stillbirths, in the subsequent 25 years of research no data has been found to support a causal relationship between cocaine use and stillbirths.”
This case became the subject of national attention, in part because of questions about the state’s medical examiner in the case, the questionable scientific claims it is based on, and the use of Mississippi’s murder statutes against pregnant women and mothers:
Nina Martin, ProPublica, “A Stillborn Child, A Charge of Murder, and the Disputed Case Law on ‘Fetal Harm’“
Sadhbh Walshe, The Guardian, “Is miscarriage murder? States that put fetal rights ahead of a mother’s say so,” (original accompanying photograph)
Radley Balko, The Washington Post, “Another Mississippi outrage: Young mother faces life in prison for stillborn child“
“The biggest threats to life — born and unborn — do not come from mothers, but rather from poverty, barriers to health care, persistent racism, environmental hazards, and prosecutions like this one,” said Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women and co-counsel in the case. She explained, “Prosecutions like these increase risks to babies by frightening pregnant women away from care and use tax dollars to expand the criminal justice system rather than to fund programs that actually protect the health of children.”
More than 70 organizations and experts were represented as amicus (friend of the court) in briefs in support of Ms. Gibbs’ case calling for the dismissal of the murder charge.
In articles reporting on the dismissal, Assistant District Attorney Mark Jackson suggested the state was considering seeking an indictment for manslaughter against Ms. Gibbs in the upcoming July grand jury session.