When People Kill Their Kids: Understanding Fetal Homicide Laws

Can a fetus be a victim of murder?

A prisoner behind bars with hands cuffed
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In 1969, Teresa Keeler, eight months pregnant, was beaten unconscious by her jealous ex-husband, Robert Keeler, who told her during the attack that he was going to "stomp it out of her." Later, at the hospital, Keeler delivered her little girl, who was stillborn and suffered a fractured skull.

Prosecutors attempted to charge Robert Keeler with the beating of his wife and for the murder of the fetus, "Baby Girl Vogt," named with her father's last name.

The California Supreme Court dismissed the charges, saying that only someone born alive could be killed and that the fetus was not legally a human being.

Due to public pressure, the murder statute was eventually amended to say that murder charges can only apply to fetuses older than seven weeks or beyond the embryonic stage.

Laci Peterson

This law was then used to prosecute Scott Peterson with two counts of murder for Laci Peterson, his wife, and their seven-month unborn son, Conner.

"If both the woman and the child were killed and we can prove the child was killed due to the actions of the perpetrator, then we charge both," said Stanislaus County Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley as quoted by CourtTv.com. A multiple murder charge against Scott Peterson makes him eligible for the death penalty according to California law.

Fetal Homicide: When Is a Fetus Considered Living?

Although many states now have fetal homicide laws, there is a wide variety of differences about when a fetus is considered living.

 

Pro-Choice groups see the laws as a way to undermine Roe v. Wade, although currently statues to the laws clearly exclude legal abortions. Anti-abortionists view it as a way to teach the public about the value of a human life.

Rae Carruth

Former pro football player for the Carolina Panthers, Rae Carruth, was convicted of conspiracy to commit the murder of Cherica Adams, who was seven months pregnant with his child.

He was also found guilty of shooting into an occupied vehicle and of using an instrument to kill a fetus.

Adams died of a result of the gunshot wounds but her child, delivered by Caesarean section, survived. Rae Carruth received close to the maximum sentence of 19 to 24 years in prison.

Unborn Victims of Violence Act

On April 1, 2004, President Bush signed into law the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, also known as "Laci and Conner's Law." The new law states that any "child in utero" is considered to be a legal victim if injured or killed during the commission of a federal crime of violence. The bill's definition of "child in utero" is "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."

Veronica Jane Thornsbury

Since February 2004, Kentucky law recognizes a crime of "fetal homicide" in the first, second, third, and fourth degrees. The law defines an "unborn child," as "a member of the species homo sapiens in utero from conception onward, without regard to age, health, or condition of dependency."

This determination came after the March 2001 tragedy involving 22-year-old Veronica Jane Thornsbury who was in labor and on her way to the hospital when a driver, under the influence of drugs, Charles Christopher Morris, 29, ran a red light and smashed into Thornsbury car and killed her.

The fetus was stillborn.

The drugged driver was prosecuted on for the murder of both the mother and the fetus. However, because her baby was not born, state Court of Appeals overturned a guilty plea in the death of the fetus.

Currently, 37 states recognize the unlawful killing of an unborn child as homicide in at least some circumstances.