In the days since police officers arrested Marshae Jones, saying she had started a fight that resulted in her unborn baby getting shot, the hate mail has poured in.
"I will encourage all US business owners to boycott your town," a woman from San Diego wrote on the Facebook page of the Pleasant Grove Police Department. "Misogynist trash," wrote another. "Fire the chief and arresting officers," wrote a third.
But Robert Knight, the police chief, said his officers had little choice in the matter. "If the laws are there, we are sworn to enforce them," he said. "That's what we're going to do."
Around the US, the case of Jones – who was indicted by a grand jury for manslaughter – has served as a stark illustration of how pregnant women can be judged and punished when a foetus is treated as a person by the justice system.
Activists have also cited it as a demonstration of the dangers of the "personhood" movement, which pushes for the rights of foetuses to be recognised as equal to – or even more important than – the rights of the mothers who carry them. And many are now watching as the movement gains momentum in Alabama, which already has some of the most restrictive reproductive rights laws in the United States.
But in Pleasant Grove, a city of 10,000 people on the western outskirts of Birmingham, the case appears to have caused little controversy. Gun rights are popular here. Reproductive rights are not. Many conversations in the city focused on how harshly Jones should be punished, not whether she was culpable.
Outside Hill's Foodland, the city's only grocery store, two mothers raising money for the Pleasant Grove middle school cheerleading squad said both Jones and the woman who shot her should face some consequences – perhaps anger management classes – for the death of a foetus.
"In the state of Alabama, an unborn baby has the same rights as a living child," said Sharonda Hall (38), who has just earned her bachelor's degree in criminal justice and is hoping to attend law school. "Most people agree with it."
Others said prison time would be appropriate. Inside a local restaurant, the Olipita Mediterranean & American Grill, Forrest Brown (64), a retired musician, said that from what he had heard about the case, he believed the indictment was fair.
“You have to go by the law,” he said. The notion that the law should treat a foetus like a person is widely held in Alabama. Lawmakers passed the most restrictive anti-abortion bill in the country in May, banning abortions at any stage of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A protest against the measure in Birmingham drew only about 2,000 people, in a metropolitan area that is home to more than one million.
In November, Alabama voters approved a ballot measure that amended the state’s constitution to recognise the “sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children.”
In the wake of that vote, a Madison County judge ruled that a 19-year-old man could pursue a wrongful-death lawsuit against a clinic and a pharmaceutical company that provided an abortion pill to his girlfriend. It is that case – not the case of Jones – that pushes the envelope of “personhood” for many in Alabama.
Brent Helms, the attorney who filed the wrongful-death suit on a contingency basis, said that case law had established personhood for foetuses who perish at the hands of reckless people, such as drunken drivers or domestic abusers. His is the first case, he said, to "establish personhood for even an unborn aborted child".
He acknowledged that conferring “personhood” so early in a pregnancy had the potential to affect everything from fertility treatment – which discards fertilised eggs that aren’t used – to the freedom of women who play risky sports or drink wine. “At this stage, we don’t know all of the ramifications,” he said. “Every time I speak to someone, they come up with something new.”
Years of legal precedent have set the stage for this debate in Alabama. Hundreds of women have been prosecuted in the state for exposing their foetuses to controlled substances under a 2006 "chemical endangerment" law, according to an investigation by ProPublica and Al. com.
In Pleasant Grove, three women who were addicted to drugs have been prosecuted for chemical endangerment in recent years. Last year, Jessica Lindsey (29) was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to chemical endangerment for using heroin while pregnant. Raven West, a heroin addict who gave birth to a stillborn baby, received a five-year suspended sentence last year. And Alexandra Laird, who gave birth to two children who tested positive for heroin, received two suspended 10-year sentences and access to a treatment program, according to court records.
The cases have sometimes put police at odds with doctors who argued that prosecuting pregnant addicts discourages them from seeking treatment they need. But in each of those cases, Lt Danny Reid of the Pleasant Grove police, who serves as a spokesman for the 16-officer department, gave passionate public statements about the need to protect the rights of the unborn.
A similar approach can be seen in the case of Jones. Shortly after the shooting, which took place in December, Reid told reporters that the mother’s culpability will be presented to a grand jury. “The investigation showed that the only true victim in this was the unborn baby,” he said then. “It was the mother of the child who initiated and continued the fight.”
Jones was five months pregnant and working at a company in Pleasant Grove that sells fuel for fires, when she got involved in an altercation in the parking lot of the Dollar General store. The fight stemmed from a long-simmering feud with a female co-worker, Ebony Jemison (23), over a man who worked at the same company.
Jones spotted Jemison in the parking lot and started a fight with her, according to a law enforcement officer with direct knowledge of the investigation who didn’t want to be identified. By the officer’s account, Jones was winning the fight and had Jemison pinned in her car.
After taking repeated blows, the officer said, Jemison reached for a gun, and fired point blank into Jones’ stomach. Jones was driven to the hospital in a car that apparently broke down on the way. Paramedics eventually arrived and took her to the hospital, but her foetus – struck by a bullet – died.
This account of the fight differs from others that have been offered in recent days, which have suggested that Jemison fired a warning shot at the ground and the bullet bounced up and hit Jones in the belly. Pleasant Grove officers initially arrested Jemison. But the grand jury declined to indict her, concluding that she had acted in self-defence.
It then took the unusual step of indicting Jones, for “initiating a fight knowing she was five months pregnant.” Police were surprised by the decision, according to the law enforcement officer, but agreed with its logic.
Speaking by phone, the forewoman of the grand jury, Mischelle Cagle, said she was unaware of the national furore. She declined to discuss the details of the case but said it was one of hundreds of cases the jury had heard over the course of a few days. She said the jurors did their best to probe for the truth and follow Alabama law.
"You think certain things, but then when you look at the law, it's different," she said. Since the furore erupted, prosecutors have distanced themselves from the charges. A statement from the office of Lynneice Washington, the district attorney for part of Jefferson County, emphasised that no decision had yet been made about whether to go to trial, file lesser charges against Jones or dismiss the case. A decision is expected within the week.
“Foremost, it should be stated that this is a truly tragic case,” the statement said. “We feel sympathy for the families involved, including Ms Jones, who lost her unborn child.”
Washington, a Democrat, became Alabama’s first black female district attorney when she was elected in 2016 by a slim margin of about 300 votes. The case is being closely watched by liberal reproductive rights advocates in Birmingham, as well as conservative voters in her district.
Jones was taken into custody last Wednesday, and secured bail the next day with the help of her family and the Yellowhammer Fund, an organisation that supports abortion rights. Her attorney Mark White said Jones was resting in an undisclosed location. "She's devastated," he said.
After being shot, Jones lost her baby, her job and her house, which burned down in an unrelated incident, White said. Now she was facing criminal prosecution in a case that could land her in prison for years, depriving her 6-year-old daughter of a mother.
“If you look at the five top stress factors that humans can experience, she may be the only person we’ve encountered that got all five simultaneously,” White said.
White said many lawyers in Birmingham were outraged about how his client has been treated, and had urged his law firm to take her case. His legal team spent the weekend poring over case law and investigating the facts. “By Monday morning, we will file a motion to dismiss that will show this indictment to be illegal, inappropriate and unprecedented,” he said. “The motion will also give examples of the additional dangers this type of prosecution presents for the rule of law.”
Jones’s lawyers have not decided whether to challenge the notion of conferring “personhood” on a foetus, which is enshrined in Alabama law. Indeed, even Jones herself views the foetus who died in the shooting as a baby. She gave it a name – Marlaysia Jones. She had it cremated and the ashes placed in an urn. – New York Times