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Mom’s Conviction Tossed for Baby’s Death in Crash

(CN) - New York State's highest court overturned the manslaughter conviction of a pregnant Long Island woman whose baby died after a car crash because the woman wasn't wearing a seatbelt.

Jennifer Jorgensen was 34 weeks pregnant when she was hit driving down Whiskey Road in Suffolk County in May 2008, and hit Robert and Mary Kelly head-on. The couple died in the crash.

Jorgensen had an emergency cesarean section, but her baby died six days later.

Prosecutors indicted her a year later, arguing that Jorgensen was speeding, not wearing her seat belt, was high on drugs and alcohol when she hit the other car, and that her reckless conduct not only killed the Kellys, but also her six-day-old child.

A jury cleared her of all counts except for the manslaughter charge stemming from the death of her child. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction in 2014.

But the New York Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed, hanging its decision on legislative intent in its 8-page ruling.

"The underlying facts and circumstances of this appeal are tragic to all parties involved," Judge Eugene F. Pigott, Jr. wrote.

Legislators "did not intend to hold pregnant women criminally responsible for conduct with respect to themselves and their unborn fetuses, unless such conduct is done intentionally," he wrote.

State legislators have put down laws to criminalize self-abortions, but has left the question "ambiguous" as to whether it's a crime to be reckless while pregnant.

"We conclude that the legislature did not intend to impose greater punishment on pregnant women for their alleged reckless conduct toward a fetus than for their intentional conduct," Pigott wrote.

"Had the legislature intended to include pregnant women in the class of individuals who may be guilty of manslaughter in the second degree for reckless acts committed while pregnant, resulting in the eventual death of their child, it could clearly have done so," Pigott wrote

And since the baby did not die while in the womb, Jorgenson "could not have been prosecuted under the manslaughter statute because the fetus would not have fallen under the definition of a 'person'" under the law, the said.

Her conviction had the potential to opens doors for pregnant women to be prosecuted for ignoring doctors' orders for bed rest, taking drugs, shoveling a walkway, playing sports, carrying groceries or ignoring dietary restrictions.

"At present, such conduct, if it caused a stillbirth, would not result in criminal prosecution of the mother if the fetus died in utero," the court said. "Any changes in the law with regard to such matters would be within the province of the legislature."

Judge Eugene M. Fahey Fahey dissented, stating: "I conclude that the baby was a person in the eyes of the penal law, that the mother can be held accountable ... for the baby's death, and that the appellate division's order should be affirmed."

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