Imagine if Jackie O got arrested for losing her son after smoking. Now meet the woman facing life in prison for something like that
Seven and a half years ago, a Mississippi teenager named Rennie Gibbs went into premature labor and delivered a stillborn baby girl named Samiya. Initially, experts attributed the baby’s death to the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. But when traces of a cocaine byproduct showed up on the autopsy report, a medical examiner declared the stillbirth a homicide and cited cocaine toxicity as the cause. Shortly afterward, the 16-year-old Gibbs was charged with murder, specifically “depraved heart murder”, a charge that can carry a sentence of up to 20 years to life in prison.
Since her grand-jury indictment in 2007, Gibbs’s team of attorneys has been fighting for the charges to be dropped on both technical and legal grounds. The defense argues that there’s no scientific proof that cocaine use can cause a stillbirth – and that the “depraved heart murder” statute did not apply to unborn children at the time of Samiya’s death. A decision is expected any day now as to whether the Gibbs case will finally proceed to trial or get dismissed. If it does go to trial, and Gibbs is convicted of murder for being 16 and pregnant, then a dangerous precedent may be established that should make anyone with a uterus feel very afraid.
This week, I spoke with one of Gibbs’s attorneys, Robert McDuff, who told me that he volunteered his services to the public defender assigned to the case back in 2009 because he was concerned about the implications for women everywhere if the prosecution is successful:
It’s ridiculous that this teenager is being prosecuted for a murder charge not justified by either law or science. If she can be tried for allegedly taking drugs during her pregnancy, what is to stop other women who miscarry or suffer a stillbirth from being prosecuted because they smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol or just didn’t follow their doctor’s orders?
Central to the Gibbs case is whether her alleged cocaine use directly caused her baby’s stillbirth. A recent ProPublica investigation by Nina Martin goes into some detail on this aspect, outlining serious doubts surrounding the medical examiner’s conclusion that drugs were the cause of death. The reliability of the examiner’s work has been called into question before, and at least four murder convictions based on his evidence have been overturned.