(CN) – A divided Eighth Circuit panel reinstated an involuntary manslaughter charge Friday against a South Dakota woman whose son died hours after birth and was found to have illegal drugs in his system.
Samantha Flute, a Native American, gave birth in August 2016 to a baby boy at a hospital in Sisseton, South Dakota, after testing positive for cocaine and various prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
Four hours later, the premature baby died from combined drug toxicity as a result of the drugs Flute ingested while he was still in utero, according to the findings of a forensic pathologist.
Federal prosecutors charged Flute with one count of involuntary manslaughter committed within Indian country, claiming she killed the baby by ingesting “medicines in a grossly negligent manner.” She reportedly admitted that she knew ingesting the drugs could harm her baby, but said she needed to get high.
A federal judge dismissed the charge, finding that a separate statute prohibits “prosecution . . . of any woman with respect to her unborn child.” The judge called that provision “a clear statement from Congress that the federal assault and murder statutes cannot be applied to the pregnant woman herself for any actions she takes with respect to her unborn child.”
However, the Eighth Circuit reversed that ruling Friday in a 2-1 decision, rejecting Flute’s argument that the baby boy was not yet a human being when the injuries were sustained in utero.
The majority of the three-judge panel pointed to the Born Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002, which says the term “human being” includes “every infant member of the species homo sapiens who is born alive at any stage of development.”
“The uncontested fact that Baby Boy Flute survived for several hours after his birth—complete expulsion or extraction from his mother—until succumbing to the drugs in his system would establish that he was ‘born alive.’ Because he was born alive, under the plain language of these statutes, Baby Boy Flute was a ‘human being,’” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby E. Shepherd, a George W. Bush appointee.
Shepherd continued, “And because the language of the manslaughter statute plainly encompasses the death of a born-alive child—a child at the earliest possible moment that it exists outside of the womb—the statute necessarily extends to conduct that occurred in utero and caused death to this born-alive child. Baby Boy Flute’s death and Flute’s conduct while pregnant thus fall within the ambit of the involuntary manslaughter statute.”
The majority also found that the district court misinterpreted the law it relied on in dismissing the manslaughter charge.
“No applicable exception for conduct of a mother that causes injuries sustained in utero and resulting in death after birth exists,” the ruling states. “We therefore conclude that the district court erroneously dismissed the indictment on the basis that the federal involuntary manslaughter statute does not extend to cover Flute’s conduct.”
Shepherd was joined in the majority by U.S. Circuit Judge David Stras, an appointee of President Donald Trump.
U.S. Circuit Judge Steven Colloton, another George W. Bush appointee, dissented, writing that Congress “has not adopted a manslaughter statute that imposes criminal liability on a mother for prenatal conduct that results in the tragic death of her child.”
“The common-law meaning of manslaughter did not encompass prenatal neglect by a mother that later caused the death of her child born alive. Research reveals no decision in England or the United States before 1909 holding that a mother’s prenatal neglect constituted manslaughter,” Colloton wrote. “Congress in 1909 adopted the common-law definition of manslaughter in § 1112(a); nothing in the statute dictates that its scope is broader than the common-law meaning. No federal statute enacted after 1909 has expanded the manslaughter statute to encompass a mother’s prenatal neglect.”