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Bill ups charges in fetal deaths

Senior Political Reporter

March 20. 2014 9:25PM

CONCORD — The New Hampshire House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to enact enhanced penalties for those convicted of crimes in which a unborn child is killed when a mother is killed, but an amendment forbidding separate prosecutions for the killing of a fetus changed the sponsor's intent and prompted emotional debate.

The bill, HB 1503, which passed by a vote of 243-42, allows for additional penalties for negligent homicide and manslaughter that causes a miscarriage or still-birth of a fetus.

In cases of second-degree murder causing a miscarriage or stillbirth, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, the bill originally allowed for a separate prosecution for the death of the unborn child older than eight weeks.

But an amendment proposed by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee eliminated that provision while allowing a judge to consider imposing a tougher penalty when the mother and unborn child are killed.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Leon Rideout, R-Lancaster, whose daughter lost her unborn child in a traffic accident last June. He pleaded with fellow House members in opposition to amendment, which was passed, 176-116. It then rejected a floor amendment offered by Rideout that was similar to the original bill, 170-114.

(UPDATE: As a result, Rideout said Friday, the House actually voted "not to join 38 other states with a fetal homicide law. It remains one of 12 states without a fetal homicide law.

"The amendment to HB1503 actually does very little. It does allow a judge to choose a harsher sentence. It is not required. In its current form, HB 1503 is not a fetal homicide law. It also does not apply if the mother lives," said Rideout.)

The amended bill is expected to pass the state Senate and then go to the desk of Gov. Maggie Hassan, who so far has been noncommittal on the issue.

Her spokesman, Marc Goldberg, said, "The governor will continue to listen to all points of view as the measure moves through the legislative process."

Two years ago, a similar bill passed by wide margins in the House and Senate, but was vetoed by then-Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat.

In December, homicide prosecutors charged Sunapee resident Robert Dellinger with two counts of manslaughter in a Dec. 7 collision on Interstate 89, which killed Vermont residents Amanda Murphy, 24, and Jason Timmons, 29.

Murphy was eight months pregnant, but prosecutors were unable to bring a third charge of manslaughter against Dellinger because the state has no fetal homicide law.

In 2009, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled a fetus must be born alive and have an existence separate and independent of the mother for charges to be brought in its death. At that time, the court suggested that lawmakers clarify the relevant statutes with regard to the unborn.

Rideout told the New Hampshire Union Leader last December that his daughter was in an accident on June 4 in North Stratford. Ashlyn Rideout, 22, was seven months pregnant when a driver collided with her car.

Rideout said his daughter was taken to Littleton Regional Hospital. Doctors wanted to take her by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, but when efforts to stabilize her failed, they did an emergency Caesarian section.

The baby, Griffin, was born without a heartbeat, and did not respond to doctors' attempts to resuscitate him.

Under the bill, a person found guilty of manslaughter that causes a miscarriage or stillbirth faces a maximum prison term of 60 years. A person found guilty of negligent homicide that causes a miscarriage or stillbirth faces a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

Also under the bill, a person found guilty of negligent homicide when under the influence of alcohol, a controlled drug or "any combination" of the two while operating a motor vehicle or boat faces a maximum prison term of 25 years.

Abortion rights groups have strongly opposed the bill. Last month, NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire executive director Laura Thibault testified, "This bill opens the door to pregnant women being targeted for their behavior during pregnancy. Under fetal homicide laws in other states, even those that exempt women from criminal liability, pregnant women are more likely to be punished for behaviors that are not criminalized for other people. For example, in Pennsylvania, Texas, Missouri, and California, pregnant women with drug abuse problems have been arrested and prosecuted for harm to their fetuses."

Rideout on Thursday complained strongly about the amendment to disallow prosecutions for unborn children who are killed, even if the mother is not.

He said it is "no compromise. It gives the appearance of doing quite a bit but in reality it does not."

Rideout said the amended bill "says, 'Go ahead and kill. Just make sure you don't kill the mother.'"

By passing the amendment, he said, the House was saying "there is no justice for your unborn child.

"Is that the legacy this Legislature wants to leave?

"The fact that my daughter, Ashlyn, is alive makes the death of Griffin no less of a crime," Rideout said.

"By voting for this amendment, we would also be saying that it is not a crime to kill an wanted unborn child," he said. "New Hampshire families deserve more than second-rate justice."

But Rep. David Huot, D-Laconia, said current statutes "have not addressed the issue of a pregnant woman being killed. This seeks to address that. Essentially, the penalties are doubled."

He said it addresses the issue "without departing from our existing statutory scheme" and "doubles the penalties under the current statues."

"I don't understand," said Rep. Jane Cormier, R-Alton, "how this kind of bill becomes so polarized under the issue of abortion. If the child you are eagerly awaiting was killed in a criminal action, you are not allowed by the law of the state to acknowledge that child. This is appalling.

"Take politics out of it and think about it if you were a mom and dad and you had no recourse for justice for the loss of our child," Cormier said.

But Rep. Shannon Chandley D-Amherst, favoring the amendment, called Rideout's proposal "misguided."

She said the bill "strikes a balance" and recognizes the "irreplaceable loss, while defining accurately the true victim of the crime as the pregnant woman. It is undoubtedly she who has been harmed, she is the victim and it is she for whom we must seek justice."

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