12 January 2009

Long Sentence In Another Neonatal Death

A twenty-three year old Wasilla, Alaska woman whose failure to act properly in the throes of child birth in Grand Junction that caused the death of her baby pleaded guilty to charges carrying a 16-24 year sentence today in Colorado. It is yet another case of a life wasted by a poorly crafted Colorado criminal statute.

Mesa County's District Attorney, Pete Hautzinger's poor judgment is also a driving force behind a great many of these prosecutions.

Colorado's child abuse resulting in death statute treats this as first degree murder, for which a life in prison without parole sentence is required, in many cases. The neonatal death scenario is the dominant one in which this statute has been applied, even though it is probably the least culpable of all the scenarios that can lead to charges under the statute.

Deaths in the immediate aftermath of child birth, in the wake of solitary births, are a distinct phenomena that has vexed lawmakers nationwide since the Colonial era, with a very different common set of facts that differ greatly from the typical child abuse death. The defendants in these cases tend to be vulnerable and grief stricken. The punishments secured in these cases range of dismissals (often due to a lack of proof regarding whether there was a still birth or a live birth), to the life in prison without parole sentence authorized by Colorado law, with very little factually to distinguish them.

I personally take the opinion that, as middle ground, the mothers in these cases (but not anyone else) should be exempt from criminal liability beyond negligent homicide, given the diminished capacity issues often present in these cases and the fact that the mother-defendant often is suffering deeply from guilty and sorrow related to the death itself. Few women charged as defendants in these cases are a threat to the public when they are not in the throes of labor and delivery. Wasting the lives of these women with long prison sentences cause a harm grossly disproportionate to the public purpose presumably served by the alleged deterrent effect of such long sentences. The sentences also distract attention and responsibility from other people in the lives of these women who frequently could have intervened more effectively and failed to do so.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Another recent case involves an alleged neonatal homicide in Port Angeles, Washington, by a 16 year old from Pueblo, Colorado, who apparently had moved to Washington to live with her father, which allegedly covered up the death of the baby in a toilet. She was charged as an adult. (The case is also notable for some eerie similarities to Meyer's "Twilight" saga.)

cancer said...

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