A Tragic Case Tests the Powers of Statutory Interpretation
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.
As noted here previously, the New York Court of Appeals recently reviewed People v. Jorgensen, a case of a woman whose reckless driving caused her unborn child to suffer injuries that led to the child’s death six days after birth. Among other charges, the prosecution sought to convict the woman of second-degree manslaughter for recklessly causing the death of “another person,” the person here being the defendant’s baby daughter. The first jury to hear the case failed to reach a unanimous verdict. The jury in a second trial returned a verdict of guilty, which was affirmed by the Appellate Division, Second Department.
The legality of the conviction presented the Court of Appeals with a matter of first impression. Case law in the Appellate Division had previously upheld manslaughter convictions of defendants whose reckless acts directed against a pregnant woman resulted in the death of the child after birth. The issue now was whether a similar manslaughter conviction could be lodged against a pregnant woman for her own recklessness.
Writing only for himself in dissent, Judge Fahey marshaled powerful arguments that the applicable N.Y. Penal Law statutes, when read together and in their plain meaning, demonstrated that the defendant was guilty of manslaughter. He noted that recklessness, as defined by N.Y. Penal Law § 15.05(3), provides responsibility for future consequences of a defendant’s disregard of substantial and unjustifiable risks, and the consequence in this case was the death of a person born shortly after the reckless act.
The Court’s majority, however, reversed the conviction. The majority did not dispute that the victim of defendant’s reckless conduct was a person under the law at the time she died. Indeed, the majority’s own report of the facts and issues refers to the victim as a “baby” and as a “child.” Nevertheless, as a predicate for moving beyond the plain meaning of the applicable statutes referenced by Judge Fahey, the majority purported to find an ambiguity in their references to “person.”
It seems, however, that the ambiguity found by the majority does not in fact involve possibly different meanings of the word “person” as used in the statutes. The majority does not explicitly identify conflicting meanings of “person.” Moreover, the majority does not dispute the propriety of the manslaughter convictions in the Appellate Division cases referenced above, but simply distinguishes them as not involving charges against a pregnant woman.
Instead, what concerned the majority was that other Penal Law provisions in which the legislature provided for a pregnant woman’s responsibility for harm caused to her fetus, such as through self-abortion acts, classify the offense in question as a misdemeanor and require proof of the pregnant woman’s intent. Accordingly, the majority framed the statutory interpretation issue as: “whether the legislature intended to criminalize a mother’s own reckless conduct” – not the conduct of another – in a situation such as in this case.
Because the only penal statutes that unambiguously hold a pregnant woman criminally responsible for the death of a child she is carrying do so in a very different context, require proof of her intent, and provide only for a misdemeanor charge, the majority decided that a felony conviction based on a pregnant woman’s recklessness is not supported “under the current statutory scheme.” In the majority’s view, manslaughter liability in a case such as this is a matter for the legislature to decide prospectively after full consideration. It should not be initiated by a prosecutor’s charging decision and decided by a court without sufficient guidance by the legislature.
A complication in this case was that the defendant, when taken to a hospital after the accident, consented to an emergency cesarean section. In doing so, she was trying to save her child’s life. But the fleeting success of this effort also provided the basis for a manslaughter charge against her.
Seven years ago, defendant’s careless act placed in mortal danger the daughter she had been carrying in her womb for 34 weeks. It took two jury trials before the prosecution could obtain a manslaughter conviction against her. Because of the statutory ambiguity found by the Court of Appeals, the defendant’s conviction is reversed, and she will not have to serve the three to nine year sentence set by the trial court.
Sometimes life imposes harsher suffering than any sentence provided by law would.
- 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).