Black Woman Faces Life In Prison For Cocaine Positive Test In Stillborn Child. Is This Justice?

March 27, 2014  |  

Source: Rennie Gibbs

If you have not yet had your fill of peculiarly arrested and prosecuted black women, may I introduce you to the story of Rennie Gibbs, a 23 year old Mississippi mother, who is looking at the possibility of life in prison for allegedly endangering her stillborn child.

The independent journalism website ProPublica features an investigative piece by Nina Martin about Gibbs, who at 16 years old was indicted by a Mississippi grand jury for what is, as Martin writes a “depraved heart murder. ” Under state law “a depraved heart murder” is an act “eminently dangerous to others…regardless of human life.” According to the piece, Gibbs had given birth prematurely to a stillborn baby in 2006, who had its umbilical cord still wrapped around its neck at the time of delivery.

Most would conclude that the most obvious cause of death would be stillbirth from cord accident, however the medical examiner in the case ruled the death a cocaine toxicity because the baby had tested positive for a cocaine byproduct known as benzoylecgonine. The grand jury agreed and indicted Gibbs for “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” causing the death of her baby. She is out on bail now as her lawyers fight the indictment. If the case is allowed to go through, Gibbs will become “the first woman ever convicted by a Mississippi jury for the loss of her pregnancy.”

As Martin notes:

The case intersects a number of divisive and difficult issues — the criminal justice system’s often disproportionate treatment of poor people of color, especially in drug prosecutions; the backlash to Roe v. Wade and the conservative push to establish “personhood” for fetuses as part of a broad-based strategy to weaken abortion laws. A wild card in the case — Mississippi’s history of using sometimes dubious forensic evidence to win criminal convictions over many years — could end up playing a central role.

Prosecutors argue that the state has a responsibility to protect children from the dangerous actions of their parents. Saying Gibbs should not be tried for murder is like saying 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 state attorney general’s office wrote in a brief to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

But some civil libertarians and women’s rights advocates worry that if Gibbs is convicted, the precedent could inspire more prosecutions of Mississippi women and girls for everything from miscarriage to abortion — and that African Americans, who suffer twice as many stillbirths as whites, would be affected the most.”

Possible and likely racial disparities aside, Martin also writes that Gibbs’ defense is hoping the judge will throw out the conviction based upon some of the discrepancies in the case, particularly around the medical examiner, who has been accused by a consortium of organizations, attorneys and fellow medical examiners “of being sloppy, exaggerating his credentials, and leaping to conclusions that sometimes had no basis in science.” Among some of his alleged shoddier works are the four murder convictions that have been overturned since 2007. More specifically to the Gibbs case, her attorneys are arguing that the medical examiner overstated the significance that the traces of benzoylecgonine in not only determining actual cocaine use (Again, benzoylecgonine is a byproduct of the drug.) but drawing conclusion that it led to toxicity of the fetus.

Martin also writes:

The experts maintain that there were other problems with the findings as well. Hayne, they say, did not order tests to rule out infection or fetal abnormality, two common causes of stillbirth. Hayne said that Gibbs’s placenta was normal, but closer examination, the defense experts assert, showed the presence of blood clots — a sign that the baby’s oxygen supply had been cut off. (In a 2011 study by a consortium of researchers around the U.S., 24 percent of stillbirths were caused by blood clots or other placenta abnormalities.)

The experts said cocaine has been linked to one kind of devastating outcome — placenta abruption (when the placenta pulls away from the uterus), which can lead to stillbirth. That was not present in Samiya’s death. In Gibbs’s case, the evidence pointed to “umbilical cord compression” as the likeliest explanation for Samiya’s death, the defense experts said.

Gibbs defense team is also looking to dispute the very science accepted in most fetal harm legal proceedings, which suggests cocaine exposure causes widespread fetal mortality or serious, long-lasting harm in children. It’s a defense that is gaining traction in the court of public opinion and researchers alike. Most notably, the Dr. Hallam Hurt led study, which over a course of ten years, found no significant differences between the cocaine-exposed children and those without. And as Martin’s own expert shares with her:

But the concerns about cocaine have proven to be “wildly overstated,” said Deborah A. Frank, a pediatrician and researcher at Boston University School of Medicine who has participated in numerous studies on the topic over the past two decades. “There is no consistent association between cocaine use during pregnancy and serious fetal harms, birth defects, or serious long-term physical or developmental impairments,” Frank wrote in an affidavit. “There is no convincing evidence that prenatal cocaine exposure is more strongly associated with fetal harm or developmental deficits than exposure to legal substances, like tobacco and alcohol, or many other factors.”

According to Martin, the Gibbs case was expected to be heard by a judge the week the original story ran. However that was a week ago, and no new information can be found. When I do find new information, I’ll make sure to update folks. On an aside: I wanted highlight this story to once again inspire folks to give pause the next time we hear and read stories in the media, particularly of young black, mostly poor women. The meme about the welfare mom is toxic. It has conditioned us to ultimately associate poor women as moral failures, when the more likely reality is that it is the system’s moral failure which continuously disenfranchises poor and black women.

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