The NY Court of Appeals Issues a Difficult Decision on Personhood
POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
Does New York’s Penal Law subject a pregnant woman to a manslaughter charge for the death of her child if, while driving a vehicle recklessly, she causes a collision that injures her fetus and as a result of these injuries, her child dies days after being delivered?
As noted here previously, the New York Court of Appeals was confronted with this question this year in a case arising from a May 2008 car accident in which a woman, Jennifer Jorgensen, while driving in Suffolk County, swerved out of her lane and crashed into a vehicle traveling in the opposing lane. Two people in the other vehicle were killed, and Jorgensen’s child, after delivery through emergency caesarian section, died six days later from injuries suffered in utero from the accident.
Suffolk County prosecutors pursued three manslaughter counts against Jorgensen for recklessly causing the death of the two people whose vehicle she struck and for the death of her child. A jury found Jorgensen not guilty on the counts relating to the people in the other vehicle but convicted her on the count relating to her child. Jorgensen appealed her conviction on that count.
The NY Court of Appeals’ review of this matter was not about sufficiency of the evidence considered by the jury. Rather, all judges agreed that the issue on appeal involved a question of statutory interpretation.
In a decision issued on October 22, 2015, Judge Eugene Pigott, writing for a 5-1 majority, framed the issue as follows: “did the legislature, through its enactment of [the relevant] statutory provisions, intend to hold pregnant women criminally responsible for engaging in reckless conduct against themselves and their unborn fetuses, such that they should be subject to criminal liability for prenatal conduct that results in postnatal death?”
Upon review of Penal Law §§ 125.15(1) addressing reckless manslaughter and 125.05(1) defining personhood as relating to homicide, the majority decided that the answer to the above question is NO. Given the unusual facts and issues in this case of first impression, the majority dismissed the count in question and stated that criminal liability for a case such as this “should be clearly defined by the legislature, not the courts;” nor should it “be left to the whim of a prosecutor.”
Judge Fahey in his dissent insisted that the wording of the statutes in question showed the legislature’s intent to criminalize an act such as that involved in this case. In support, he pointed to Appellate Division case law on related issues finding homicide liability based on acts committed against a pregnant woman that caused the death of the child after being born alive.
The majority opinion resolved this case in the defendant’s favor, based on the current statutory scheme. The court’s resolution suggests that the legislature could amend its statutes to provide a different outcome in the future, should an unusual case like this arise again. Whether the legislature will do so is an open question. Consideration would need to be given to the tragic circumstances in cases such as this one.
- People v. Jorgensen, No. 179, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 07699, 2015 WL 6180890 (Oct. 22, 2015) (Court’s Official PDF copy).
- People v. Jorgensen, 978 N.Y.S.2d 361 (App. Div. 2d Dep’t 2014).
- NY Court of Appeals, Oral Argument Archive – September 2015 (access webcast and transcript of oral arguments).