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January 28, 2003

What is Murder- Mother's Addictions?

In my post on Al Sharpton and elaborated in my What is Murder? post, a number of commenters objected to my use of the word "murder" associated with the illegal speeding and reckless driving leading to the death of the black child in Crown Heights, which helped incite the riots there.

Just to reinforce how common such use of murder is when the reckless actor is poor or the wrong color, the South Carolina Supreme Court has upheld a homicide conviction against a woman whose cocaine addiction allegedly led to a stillbirth. See the decision here.

The 20-year prison sentence was upheld by the court as valid since "The penalty is no harsher than that imposed upon any other individual charged with murder." Or as the court noted, such a conviction does not require intent:

In reckless homicide cases, we have held that reckless disregard for the safety of others signifies an indifference to the consequences of one's acts. It denotes a conscious failure to exercise due care or ordinary care or a conscious indifference to the rights and safety of others or a reckless disregard thereof.
But as I've noted, when poor mothers are being sent to jail because of drug addictions, their irresponsibility is easily deemed criminal and even homicide. But when the victims of reckless disregard for life are themselves poor and non-white, suddenly intent becomes the supreme issue.

It's double standards across our criminal justice system, which is why white collar polluters or other assaults on poor communities rarely get punished by prison but crack mothers get maximum sentences without a blink.

Posted by Nathan at January 28, 2003 01:24 PM

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Right on.

Posted by: ryan barrow at January 28, 2003 01:48 PM

So your use of "murder" is OK because it's just like ... a racist ruling by the SC of South Carolina.

I, and presumably you, think the woman in question should not have been charged with murder. So if the Crown Heights case is similar, we shouldn't refer to murder there either. And if it's not, why did you bring this one up?

Posted by: JW Mason at January 28, 2003 01:51 PM

No, my point is that "murder" as a legal category does not require intent, a well-established principle, even if it's usually applied in a racist and class-based way.

But the problem I have with the South Carolina decision is not that it convicted a mother for murder due to reckless disregard for her child, but that it did it based on a fetus-- this is not only racially biased in application but a stalking horse for antiabortion forces.

But I do believe that a range of "reckless disregard for life" acts, from reckless driving (a la Crown Heights) to polluters, should be targetted under criminal homicide statutes when non-fetus humans are killed due to that knowing recklessness.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at January 28, 2003 03:31 PM

TalkLeft has a good post reviewing the SC case as a lawyer, with more details.

Posted by: John Isbell at January 28, 2003 09:57 PM

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