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Alabama Woman's Case Highlights State's Aggressive Prosecution of Pregnant Women

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The state of Alabama will not prosecute Marshae Jones. She is the 28-year-old woman who was pregnant last December when authorities said she started a fight with another woman. Jones was shot in the stomach. Her fetus did not survive. As a result, a grand jury indicted Jones for manslaughter. Here's district attorney Lynneice Washington dropping those charges this afternoon.

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LYNNEICE WASHINGTON: The members of the grand jury took to heart that the life of an unborn child was violently ended and someone - and believe someone should be held accountable. But in the interest of all concerned, we are not prosecuting this case.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Alabama, it's not so unusual for a pregnant woman to be charged with crimes related to her fetus. A law passed in 2006 followed by a couple of state Supreme Court decisions has created a legal environment in Alabama that allows prosecutors to pursue charges like these.

Here to talk about this is Amy Yurkanin. She's an enterprise reporter for al.com. Welcome to the program.

AMY YURKANIN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: I want to start with that law that was passed in 2006. It's called the Chemical Endangerment Law. What was the intent of that statute?

YURKANIN: So that law was really intended to protect children from exposure to drugs and specifically home meth labs, which were a really big problem in Alabama at the time. There were a couple of meth lab raids where they found children kind of sleeping right next to these really toxic labs full of chemicals. And the law was really intended to make it a crime to expose a child to a situation like that. And you could be charged for a more serious offense if the child was injured. And if the child was killed by such an exposure, then really you were facing up to 99 years in prison.

CORNISH: How did that come to be expanded? How did it come to be used to prosecute pregnant women?

YURKANIN: Well, soon after the law was passed, a couple of prosecutors started applying it to women who used drugs during pregnancy. Basically they argued that the womb was also an environment and that if you expose a child to drugs in the environment of the womb, that's the same as exposing a child who's already been born to toxic substances from a meth lab or other types of drugs.

CORNISH: And I understand that there are some convictions that were challenged, right? There was an appeal to the Alabama state Supreme Court. And what happened?

YURKANIN: Two women did challenge their convictions for chemical endangerment for using drugs during pregnancy. And in 2013, the majority of the court sided with the prosecutors that this was a proper use of the law and decided that just like children who had been born, fetuses were basically people deserving of protection under the law, so this law could apply to children before birth or fetuses as well as children who might have been exposed to drugs after birth.

CORNISH: Do you get the sense that that gave a green light to prosecutors who were interested in this interpretation of the law - because there have been hundreds of prosecutions since.

YURKANIN: I definitely think it did. I think prosecutors who were watching some of these early cases felt they could go forward with cases against women who were pregnant. And I think also, you know, if you want to connect this back to Marshae Jones, the legal community here in Alabama knows that the appellate courts and the state Supreme Court in particular is really sympathetic to protection of the fetus as a goal that the state should have and that using existing laws in a way to further that is something that - they're going to be very sympathetic to that argument.

CORNISH: So how often do you see cases like this in Alabama that are similar to the Marshae Jones case where it's not chemical endangerment but rather manslaughter or negligence or some other charge?

YURKANIN: You know, I really haven't seen a case like this. We see chemical endangerment cases all the time. They're very routine. They happen in certain counties on a weekly basis. But I haven't ever seen a case quite like Marshae Jones.

CORNISH: Amy Yurkanin is an enterprise reporter for al.com. Thank you for speaking with us.

YURKANIN: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.