Bad Teen Mother Meets Prosecutorial Overkill

No one disputes that unmarried seventeen year teen mother Cheyenne Corbett is an abysmally bad mother.  According to prosecutors, on Sunday morning, after at least four months of fraudulently denying that she was pregnant, she gave birth in a shower in her Mesa County home where she lives with her “adopted mother and step-father.”  When she went to a hospital afterwards, her lies, selfishness and post-birth incompetence contributed to delays in her child receiving post-natal care, that caused the newborn baby to die. 

It is not at all obvious, however, that the appropriate response is the charge that Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger brought: “Corbett has been charged as an adult with first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death.” (Emphasis added.)Existing Colorado Law

Prior to this year’s legislative session, Miss Corbett would be facing life in prison without possibility of parole, for the crime of which she is accused (the death penalty is not an option because she was a juvenile at the time of the death).  Now, because she was a juvenile at the time, if she were to plea guilty to, or be found guilty of this charge, she would be eligible for parole when she turned 57 or 58 years old.

By comparison, the average adult sentence for second degree murder in Colorado is 33 years, and the average adult sentence in Colorado for vehicular homicide is 12 years (manslaughter sentencees would be similar), in both cases with a possibility of early release for good behavior after 75% of the sentence is served.  The maximum sentence she would have faced as a juvenile offender would have been seven years.

In principal, the punishment Miss Corbett is facing is one that Colorado generally reserves for only the worst of the worst criminals.  It is Colorado’s most serious class of felony.  In Colorado the first degree murder statute applies to:

(a) intentional killings committed after deliberation;
(b) murders in connection with serious felonies;
(c) legal executions obtained through perjury;
(d) deaths as a result of “universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to human life generally”;
(e) deaths from overdoses of drugs sold on school grounds to minors; and
(f) the knowing murder of a child under the age of twelve by a person in a position of trust.

Section 18-3-101, Colorado Revised Statutes.

In this case, the pertinent prong of the statute is (f), and many of the elements may be points that the prosecution can prove without too much difficulty.

There is no doubt that we have a dead child under twelve in this case.  There is no doubt that a mother is a person in a position of trust with respect to her child.  There doesn’t seem to be much dispute that the child was born alive.  It seems likely that some of the actions or inactions by the child’s mother had something to do with the death.

The real hard issue in this case is “mens rea,” which is the legal term for criminal culpability.  The law requires that the prosecution prove that Miss Corbett acted “knowingly” in causing the death of the newborn beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction.  If a jury finds that she was merely reckless in causing the death, the offense would be manslaughter, which carries a much lighter sentence.  If the jury finds that she was merely criminally negligent in causing the death, the offense would be criminally negligent homicide, which carries an even lighter sentence than that.  And, both the prosecution and defense may have to make some high stakes gambles about whether or not to give the jury the ability to consider lesser charges at all.  Either might prefer, for a varity of reasons, to try to force the jury to make an all or nothing finding of first degree murder or an acquittal, instead.

Under a fairly new Colorado law passed in response to similar incidents, if she had left the baby at a fire station instead, she would have been immune from legal responsibility, and the baby might have lived.

Similarly, if she had chosen to obtain an abortion, rather than carrying the baby to term, she would have had no civil or criminal liability.

Is This Justice?

Corbett’s behavior is sometimes called neonatal homicide.  A 2005 New York Times review of a number of recent cases of this type in New York show that the criminal justice system’s response to these cases varies enormously with one court imposing draconian life sentences with a possibility of parole, and another courts in a similar case imposing a sentence of two to six years in prison that resulted in parole after four or five years.

It isn’t at all clear that Colorado has made that distinction between first degree murder cases and other homicide charges in a manner that really reflects the relative culpability of people who commit homicides in Colorado. 

This case, and it is typical of neonatal homicide cases in many respects involves a girl who is:
* unmarried
* a minor
* who has by virtue of social pressure or personal psychological inability to cope public denied the existence of her pregnancy for many months
* who chose to carry a baby to term rather than getting an abortion
* who obtained, at least, some prenatal medical care
* who has probably been through some emotionally complicated events that have caused her to be both adopted, and then to have a stepfather,
* who is acting in a manner that may have caused the death of the newborn in the immediate wake of a completely unassisted labor and delivery; and
* who is in personal medical distress sufficient to require her to go to a hospital herself.

Does it really do justice to assign the same degree of culpability to a girl in this situation, that we assign to serial killers, premeditated assassins, cop killers, and people who kill in the context of other brutal crimes like rapes and armed robberies?

Does it really do justice to punish this girl’s actions more severely than those of serial rapists, many kidnappers and drug kingpins who ruin dozens of kids lives by turning them into addicts without killing them?

But, if Miss Corbett is convicted of first degree murder, neither the judge, nor the jury, nor the prosecutor at that point, can offer her any mercy for 40 years.  Her only opportunity for a more lenient sentence at that point is clemency or a commuted sentence from the Governor.

There is no doubt that Miss Corbett made some bad choices.  They started when she had sex with her boyfriend and wound up pregnant.  They continued when she failed to get help as her pregnancy advanced.  Her friends and the adults she lived with made even more bad choices by not confronting her with the urgency of the situation more forcefully.  And, when those choices extended to lying, as she is alleged to have, in ways that denied her child medical help which could have been available at no risk to herself, those choices probably should rise to the level of being criminal offenses. 

But, it is also hard to look at the situation and not recognize that Miss Corbett is a victim as well as a perpetrator in this chain of events.  Up close, neonatal homicides by teen mothers look a lot closer in culpability to the culpability of an alcoholic who gets drunk, drives, and kills someone in a traffic accident, which is what we call vehicular homicide in Colorado, than they do to premeditated murders.  An average person convicted of vehicular homicide in Colorado will be out of prison in nine or ten years. 

Also, often, the mothers who contribute to the newborn’s death suffer emotionally more than any of the other survivors as a result of the death of the mother’s own child, even in the absence of a harsh criminal punishment.

Women who fail to cope and made deadly bad decisions in the immediate throes of a solitary labor and delivery, even if they end up in that position through previous bad decisions often driven by shame or immaturity, are very rarely menances to society at large that we need to protect the rest of the community from by locking them up for twice as long as they have already lived so far, in a prison.  This doesn’t mean that society shouldn’t punish teen mothers who make a series of bad decisions that have life or death consequences.  But, it does case real doubt on the status quo that is playing out this week in Mesa County, Colorado in Miss Corbett’s case.

The D.A.’s perspective

Under Colorado law, the decision to charge Miss Corbett as an adult is one that is made unilaterally by the District Attorney, without judicial review.

But, the District Attorney has a strong incentive to charge the most severe plausible crime.

Why?  To avoid the time and expense of a trial.

The Mesa County’s District Attorney’s office needs to process the average felonies for a pittance to keep the system moving.  Even a single murder case that goes to trial puts an immense strain on the offices budget for all of its other cases.

The more time a defendant faces in a worst case scenario, the more likely a defendant is to make a deal to avoid that possibility, even if there is significant doubt about whether that defendant has committed any crime at all, or there is significant doubt about whether the defendant has committed a crime as serious as the one to which he or she pleas.

The D.A. also wants a plea badly because that insures that no one who is actually guilty of something is acquitted because the jury had a reasonable doubt about guilt or innocence. 

Even if the jury only convicts on some counts, a judge can make a decision on a sentence within the range of legal sentences for the crime of conviction that may reflect even conduct tht the jury acquitted a defendant of, so the D.A. has a strong incentive to get a conviction for something, at least.

The District Attorney’s power to charge juveniles as adults was created to allow seriously bad actors with the maturity of most adult criminals to receive punishment proportionate to their crimes, not pressure immature seventeen year olds who made deadly bad decisions to plea guilty, even if the prosecution’s case on the critical issue of “mens rea” (i.e. mental culpability) is questionable. 

When District Attorney Pete Hautzinger chose to act otherwise, he abused the trust that the People of Colorado have given him to make that decision.

It is possible that the bad choice made by Pete Hautzinger, which compounded the many bad choices already made by Miss Corbett and her friend and family, can be remedied.  This case is still in the earliest stages and a reasonable plea bargain is still possible.  But, I don’t have a lot of faith that we will see that happen.  Many cases like this one end badly.