A Mississippi judge ruled Thursday that the state has no legitimate murder case against 24-year-old Rennie Gibbs, who gave birth to a stillborn baby after using cocaine during her pregnancy. Gibbs was a teenager in 2006 when her baby was stillborn with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. There was no cocaine found in the baby’s blood, but an autopsy turned up traces of “cocaine byproduct.” Mississippi prosecutors then indicted Gibbs in 2007 for “depraved-heart murder,” a second-degree murder charge for crimes which demonstrate a “callous disregard for life”. If convicted, Gibbs faced life in prison.
Gibbs’ case is among a wave of “fetal harm” cases, in which women are being prosecuted when their babies are found with traces of drugs in their system. “Reproductive rights” advocates say that criminalizing miscarriages and stillbirths is just another tragic political strategy for those who support “personhood” laws.
Lowndes County Circuit Court Judge Jim Kitchens dismissed Gibbs’ case saying there was no law in Mississippi that clearly applied. He pointed to a recent Mississippi Supreme Court case, Mississippi v. Buckhalter, in which manslaughter charges were dismissed against a woman who gave birth to a stillborn baby after taking drugs during her pregnancy.
“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,” Kitchens said in the ruling.
Mississippi District Attorney Mark Jackson said the state would attempt to try Gibbs’ case in August, “The Lowndes County grand jury…indicted this case as murder. At the time, there was nothing in the law that precluded [that]…The Supreme Court has since decided that murder did not apply based on their interpretation…we are bound to try cases with the parameters set by the Supreme Court. While I don’t agree…our office will prosecute all cases based on what we believe to be the law at that time.”
Gibbs’ attorney, Carrie Jordan, celebrated the judge’s decision, but was disappointed to learn that the prosecutors are undeterred,
“I believe that Judge Kitchens has summed up the law correctly and accurately and obviously we believe he has done the right thing according to the law. We are incredibly relieved for our client who has been through a great deal. I’m of course disappointed that the state is considering a manslaughter case against her. With that possibility looming, I can’t say a great deal except we had filed separate motions related to the science and other facts in this case that we found equally compelling.”
Under Mississippi law, the highest charge Gibbs can face is manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Judge Kitchens dismissed the case without prejudice meaning that prosecutors can seek to re-file new charges against Gibbs. At the center of Gibbs’ case, is the controversial medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne and the uncertain science behind figuring out what causes stillbirths (in Gibbs’ case, the defense contends the child died due to the umbilical cord being wrapped around her neck, the prosecution contends in was due to the mother’s drug use). Hayne declared Gibbs’ daughter, Samiya’s death a homicide by “cocaine toxicity.”
Hayne was also involved in many other controversial cases, including:
- The wrongful conviction of Tyler Edmonds. Joey Fulgham was murdered by his wife, but his 13-year-old brother-in-law Tyler Edmonds was tried and convicted as well, based mostly upon Hayne’s testimony that Edmonds was also holding the gun when it was fired. On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court found that his alleged forensic testimony was “scientifically unfounded” and “speculative”. Upon retrial, minus the unscientific testimony, Edmonds was acquitted.
- Jeffrey Havard’s rape and murder conviction of his girlfriend’s daughter is a suspected wrongful conviction. Havard is on death row with three other men Dr. Hayne has sent there.
- The wrongful convictions of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, both were exonerated of murdering two girls. Brewer was accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter. He was sentenced to death. Brewer remained in prison for 5 years following his conviction being overturned, but prosecutors ultimately decided not to retry him. He served 15 years in prison, 7 of those on death row. Brooks served 16 years in prison for the rape and murder of a 3-year-old, the daughter of his ex-girlfriend. The two rapes and murders were nearly identical and happened in the same town less than two years apart. Another man, Justin Albert Johnson was apprehended following DNA linking the two previously unlinked wrongful convictions. He subsequently confessed to both girls’ murders. Both cases involved the unvalidated forensic science of bite marks.