Understanding Fetal Homicide Laws

Can a fetus be a murder victim?

President Bush signs the Unborn Fetus Protection Act into law, surrounded by Laci Peterson's mother Sharon Rocha and stepfather Ron Grantski, unborn Zacharia Seavers' mother Tracy Marciniak Seavers, Christina Renee Alberts' mother Stephanie Alberts, and members of Congress

Alex Wong / Getty Images 

In 1969, eight months pregnant Teresa Keeler 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 "Baby Girl Vogt," the fetus given the father's last name.

When Is a Fetus Considered Alive?

The California Supreme Court dismissed the charges against Keeler, saying that only someone born alive could be killed and that the fetus was not legally a human being. Due to public pressure, statutes were eventually amended to say that murder charges can only apply to fetuses older than seven weeks or beyond the embryonic stage. Currently, 37 states recognize the unlawful killing of an unborn child as homicide in at least some circumstances.

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.

Cherica Adams

In 2001, Rae Carruth, former pro-football player for the Carolina Panthers, 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 from 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.

Veronica Jane Thornsbury

In March 2001, 22-year-old Veronica Jane Thornsbury was in labor and on her way to the hospital when Charles Christopher Morris, a 29-year-old driver ran a red light. Under the influence of drugs, Morris smashed into Thornsbury's car, killing her. The fetus was stillborn. Morris was prosecuted for the murder of both the mother and the fetus. However, because her baby was not born, the Kentucky Court of Appeals overturned a guilty plea in the death of the fetus.

After the tragedy of Thornsbury's death, Kentucky law determined in February 2004 to recognize 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."

Laci Peterson and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act

Thirty-five years after Baby Girl Vogt, California's fetal homicide law was used to prosecute Scott Peterson with two counts of murder for Laci Peterson, his seven months pregnant wife, and their unborn son, Conner. According to Stanislaus County Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley:

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.

A multiple murder charge against Scott Peterson made him eligible for the death penalty according to 2004 California law.

On April 1, 2004, President Bush signed into law the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, also known as "Laci and Conner's Law" and the Unborn Fetus Protection Act. It 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 definition given of "child in utero" is "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."

Resources and Further Reading

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Montaldo, Charles. "Understanding Fetal Homicide Laws." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/fetal-homicide-when-we-become-human-972223. Montaldo, Charles. (2021, February 16). Understanding Fetal Homicide Laws. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/fetal-homicide-when-we-become-human-972223 Montaldo, Charles. "Understanding Fetal Homicide Laws." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/fetal-homicide-when-we-become-human-972223 (accessed April 10, 2021).