The town of Pleasant Grove, about ten miles outside of Birmingham, Alabama is a quiet place with one grocery store, a few restaurants and a gun shop. But recently, it has been in the international spotlight.
Last December, in the parking lot of a local Dollar General, Marshae Jones, now 28, got into a fight with 23-year-old Ebony Jemison. Officials say Jones, who was five months pregnant at the time, started the fight, which led Jemison to shoot Jones in the stomach in self-defense, killing the fetus.
Initially, charges were filed against Jemison, but two months ago the Jefferson County Bessemer Cutoff grand jury dropped those charges and indicted Jones instead. They wrote Jones “did intentionally cause the death” of her fetus by “initiating a fight knowing she was five months pregnant.”
The charges against Jones were made public last week when she was arrested and later released from jail on a $50,000 bond. Since then, the case has drawn outrage from women’s rights groups and legal advocates, and more than 50,000 people have signed an online petition to drop the charges.
The Jefferson County district attorney for the Bessemer Division, Lynneice Washington, did just that Wednesday, saying the case was tragic for everyone involved and prosecution of Jones was not “in the best interest of justice.”
“A Life Lost”
In the same shopping plaza where the fight happened in December, a regular breakfast crowd gathers most mornings at Jack’s restaurant. Interviewed before charges were dropped, some said they didn’t think the indictment against Jones was fair.
“I don’t think she should have been charged with killing the baby,” said Fred Gipson. “That don’t make sense to me. She didn’t want the baby dead.”
For others, it is not so clear. Anna Lake has been following the story in the news and said she is not sure about the legal details. But when a woman is pregnant, Lake said, she is responsible for protecting her fetus.
“I definitely think the baby was a life that was lost because of the unfortunate circumstances,” Lake said.
The state of Alabama agrees. Under a 2006 Fetal Homicide Law, it recognizes a fetus as a person in cases of criminal homicide or assault. So when Jones allegedly started the fight that led the other woman to shoot her in the stomach, the grand jury said she intentionally caused the death of a separate person – in this case, her own fetus.
But Jones’ legal team, White Arnold & Down P.C., said state law doesn’t allow for a woman to be prosecuted for manslaughter in the death of her fetus.
“I don’t know why this was manipulated to get this result, but it is unprecedented,” said Mark White, one of the defense attorneys on the case.
He also said the charges against Jones are irrational, because Jones did not intend for Jemison to shoot her in the stomach.
Setting a Precedent
When it comes to recognizing the rights of a fetus, Alabama already stands out, according to Jenny Carroll, a law professor at the University of Alabama and a former public defender. Hundreds of women have been prosecuted for using drugs during pregnancy under the state’s Chemical Endangerment Law. Alabama recently passed one of the strictest abortion bans in the country. And now, a local grand jury has filed charges against Jones.
“The way the state is treating the fetus,” said Carroll, “in this case, and in all these other laws we’ve just talked about, it is creating new liability for mothers that doesn’t exist for anyone else.”
Shortly after the indictment of Jones became public last week, Yellowhammer Fund, a Tuscaloosa-based organization that helps women pay for reproductive health care and abortions, announced it would provide financial assistance for Jones. It paid the $50,000 bail to get her out of jail and is paying her legal fees.
Executive director Amanda Reyes said the charges against Jones are an attack on the rights of pregnant people.
“In this indictment and in this whole process, Marshae Jones has been erased,” Reyes said. “She’s been erased as a victim.”
In the same Pleasant Grove parking lot where the fight broke out last December, resident LaTasha Currington said she understands the woman who shot Jones was allegedly acting in self-defense and she also feels the fetus counts as a person. But Currington doesn’t think Jones should go to jail.
“She lost her child,” Currington said, “then she has to pay for losing her child. That’s kind of harsh and sad at the same time.”
Washington, who is the state’s first black woman to serve as district attorney, said last week that officials in her office “feel sympathy for the families involved, including Ms. Jones, who lost her unborn child.” She said they are evaluating the indictment against Jones and have not yet made a decision about “whether to prosecute it as a manslaughter case, reduce it to a lesser charge or not to prosecute it.”
After being out of the country last week, Washington gave a speech at Boutwell Auditorium over the weekend and responded to criticism her office has received about the Jones’ indictment.
“I took an oath to serve,” Washington said. “I am a black woman in black skin. So, don’t tell me how I don’t appreciate the sensitivity of a woman and the rights of women.”