On Thursday, a Mississippi judge dismissed the murder charge against Rennie Gibbs, the young woman who faced life in prison after she delivered a stillborn baby.
Gibbs, now 24, was 36 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to an area emergency room and diagnosed with “fetal demise.” Doctors induced labor and Gibbs delivered a stillborn daughter she named Samiya. Medical examiner Steven Hayne concluded the cause of death of Gibbs’ daughter was “cocaine toxicity,” based on autopsy reports that showed trace amounts of cocaine byproduct in the baby’s system. No cocaine was found in the infant’s blood, however. Based on the presence of those trace amounts of cocaine byproduct, the medical examiner declared the baby’s death a homicide. A Lowndes County grand jury indicted Gibbs for “depraved heart murder,” defined as an act “eminently dangerous to others … regardless of human life.” The grand jury concluded that Gibbs had “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” caused the death of the baby by smoking crack cocaine during her pregnancy. Gibbs, then 16, faced life in prison.
Experts who later examined the autopsy reports of Gibbs’ daughter disagreed with the conclusion that “cocaine toxicity” was the likely cause of the infant’s death. It was far more likely, they concluded, that the cause of death was the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck. But prosecutors pressed on, arguing that they had an obligation to prosecute Gibbs because the state has an obligation to protect children from their parents, and failing to do so sends a message that “every drug addict who robs or steals to obtain money for drugs should not be held accountable for their actions because of their addiction.”
The Mississippi court hearing Gibbs’ case was not so sure. Relying on the decision of the Mississippi Supreme Court in Buckhalter v. State, a decision that upheld the dismissal of a manslaughter indictment in a case similar to Gibbs’, Lowndes County Circuit Court Judge Jim Kitchens said the law was “unclear” on how to treat these cases. “Gibbs was indicted prior to Buckhalter and the law was unclear in Mississippi as to the appropriate charge, if any, to be levied when a pregnant woman allegedly consumed illegal drugs and allegedly caused the death of her unborn child,” said Kitchens’ ruling.
Gibbs’ prosecution reflects a troubling increase in prosecutors charging women with crimes related to pregnancy outcomes. As documented by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, there were a total of 413 documented cases between 1973 and 2005 where women faced criminal charges related to her pregnancy and outcome. Since 2005, that number has skyrocketed with 200 additional documented cases of prosecutors criminally charging women under so-called fetal harm laws. Those prosecuted were disproportionately low-income women and women of color.
“The biggest threats to life-born and unborn do not come from their mommies—but rather poverty, barriers to health care, persistent racism, and environmental hazards,” NAPW executive director and co-counsel for Gibbs, Lynn Paltrow, told RH Reality Check. “Prosecutions like these increase risks to babies by frightening pregnant women away from care and by using tax dollars to expand the criminal justice system rather than to fund Nurse-Family partnerships that actually protect the health of the children.”
The judge dismissed the charge against Gibbs “without prejudice,” which means prosecutors have the discretion to refile charges against her. According to reports, Assistant District Attorney Mark Jackson said that the state would reconvene a grand jury at the end of July to try and re-indict Gibbs, this time for manslaughter.
Robert McDuff, Gibbs’ lead attorney, told RH Reality Check, “We are pleased the murder charge was dismissed. We will have further discussions in the coming weeks with the district attorney’s office in an effort to persuade them not to indict Rennie for manslaughter or any other crime. 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.”