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A chance to punish two-victim crimes

Feb 29, 2004 | Two Victims

Minneapolis Star-Tribune
February 29, 2004

By Douglas Johnson

Douglas Johnson is legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee (http://nrlc.org//).

When a criminal attacks a pregnant woman, injuring or killing both her and her unborn child, has he claimed one victim, or two?

It is a timely question, as the state of California prepares to try Scott Peterson on two homicide charges: one for his wife, Laci, and the second for their unborn son, Conner.

California is one of 29 states that prosecute for unlawful killing of an unborn child (“fetal homicide”) in at least some circumstances.

Abortion-rights advocacy groups such as the ACLU strongly oppose such laws, and have argued that the Peterson case really was a single homicide. However, in three national polls, about 80 percent of the public supports fetal homicide laws.

Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin have enforced strong fetal homicide laws since 1986, 1987 and 1998, respectively. In none of these states, or any other, has a fetal homicide law affected abortion.

In 1988, Sean Patrick Merrill was charged in Olmsted County with two counts of murder arising from the shooting death of Gail Anderson, a woman discovered, at her autopsy, to have been about 28 days pregnant. In 1990, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected Merrill’s claim that the law was invalid under Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Other federal and state courts across the nation have consistently upheld fetal homicide laws.

It is noteworthy that the Minnesota Supreme Court also ruled it was irrelevant whether Merrill knew that Anderson was pregnant, holding, “The possibility that a female homicide victim of childbearing age may be pregnant is a possibility that an assaulter may not safely exclude.”

This is an excellent deterrent principle. The deterrence is heightened by the fact that someone who attacks a woman can be convicted of fetal homicide, even if the force he uses is less than lethal to the mother herself.

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, a bill to extend recognition to unborn victims of federal crimes. Federal laws apply to murders on Indian lands, federal lands and military bases, and to a host of specific acts, including assaults that follow interstate stalking, shootings related to major drug activity, and terrorist attacks.

Under the bill (which President Bush supports), if a pregnant woman is the victim of a crime covered by an existing federal or military law, her attacker will be charged for the harm done to the woman under that existing law — but also will face a second charge for whatever harm he does to the unborn child.

Congress will choose between this bill and a radically different alternative offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. This “Feinstein substitute,” while increasing penalties for federal crimes against pregnant women, would also actually write into federal law the doctrine that the mother is the only victim.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., is a cosponsor of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. It appears that Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., has not yet taken a definitive position on either competing bill. He has expressed “concerns” as to whether recognizing fetal homicide could possibly affect legal abortion, which he favors. But he has also repeatedly expressed support for the Minnesota fetal homicide law, which is a position incompatible with enacting the Feinstein “single-victim” doctrine. In answering the question, “One victim, or two?” every senator should listen carefully to the voices of those who have lost loved ones — born and unborn — in terrible crimes of violence.

In a letter to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., urging him to reconsider his declared opposition to the two-victim bill and support for the single-victim approach, Sharon Rocha — mother of Laci Peterson, grandmother of Conner — said that “adoption of such a single-victim proposal would be a painful blow to those, like me, who are left to grieve after a two-victim crime, because Congress would be saying that Conner and other innocent victims like him are not really victims — indeed, that they never really existed at all. “But our grandson did live. He had a name, he was loved, and his life was violently taken from him before he ever saw the sun.”

Rocha concluded, “[T]here were two bodies that washed up in San Francisco Bay, and the law should recognize that reality.”

On Jan. 7, Ashley Lyons, 18, of Scott County, Ky., was found shot to death in her car. Only hours earlier, she and her mother, Carol, had watched a brand-new ultrasound videotape of Ashley’s unborn son, Landon.

“Nobody can tell me that there were not two victims,” Carol Lyons said. “I placed Landon in his mother’s arms, wrapped in a baby blanket that I had sewn for him, just before I kissed my daughter goodbye for the last time and closed the casket.”

One victim, or two? Soon, Sharon Rocha, Carol Lyons and many others who have lost loved ones before birth will have their answer from the U.S. Senate.

Categories: Two Victims
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