Laci law impact remains unclear

Databases show no prosecutions utilizing the federal statute

August 31, 2008 

laci

Laci Peterson

UNKNOWN — The Modesto Bee

WASHINGTON -- Some gruesome killings could put Laci Peterson's legal legacy to the test.

In 2004, after a high-profile trial, a jury in San Mateo County convicted Peterson's husband, Scott, on two counts of murder. The victims were Laci Peterson, who was eight months pregnant, and her unborn son, Conner.

Congress commemorated the slain Modesto woman by passing the controversial Laci and Conner's law, making it a federal crime to kill an unborn child.

Supporters said the measure would fill a law enforcement loophole.

"Police and prosecutors ... have shared the grief of families, but have so often been unable to seek justice for the full offense," President Bush said at the time.

The rhetoric was emphatic on all sides. The bill was a lifesaver, supporters said. It would undermine women's rights, opponents feared.

In calculating the consequences of Laci and Conner's law, however, the jury is still out.

So far, Bureau of Justice Statistics databases don't show any federal prosecutions under the law, also known as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Supporters of the law say they haven't heard of any.

The apparent absence of federal prosecutions undercuts Bush's claim that prosecutors had "so often" been blocked from seeking justice until the law was passed. Moreover, most homicide prosecutions occur in state, rather than federal, courts.

Several recent military homicides could be prosecuted under the federal statute but probably won't be.

In North Carolina, Army Sgt. Edgar Patino Lopez is charged with murdering 23-year-old Megan Touma, a pregnant Army specialist with whom he allegedly was having an affair. Touma's body was found in a Fayetteville motel in June.

Six months earlier, officials found the burned body of Marine Lance Cpl. Ma- ria Lauterbach. Lauterbach, too, was pregnant when she was killed, and her body was placed in a shallow grave near North Carolina's Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base. Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean is in Mexico awaiting extradition in the case.

North Carolina isn't among the 35 states that have fetal homicide laws. There's no indication that either Touma or Laurean will be prosecuted under the federal law.

Law has additional value

But counting prosecutions isn't necessarily the only measure of legislative impact.

"We think there are several types of value to this law," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, an advocacy group opposing abortion. "One is deterrence. Hopefully, people will take this into account when they beat up on a woman."

Deterrence is hard to prove: Why does someone not commit a crime? Political influence is another potential consequence, though tracking it can be equally tough.

After Bush signed the federal law on April 1, 2004, a dozen additional states adopted similar measures. Perhaps Congress inspired the states. Or perhaps lawmakers simply were sharing the same political momentum swollen by Peterson's murder.

Peterson disappeared in late December 2002, about two months before her expected due date. Her body and that of a fetus were found on the shore of San Francisco Bay in April 2003, the same month that police arrested Scott Peterson.

The case prompted Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha of Modesto, to champion the federal fetal-homicide legislation, which had previously stalled on Capitol Hill.

"Our grandson (Conner) did live," Rocha declared during her lobbying campaign. "He had a name, he was loved and his life was violently taken from him before he ever saw the sun."

Congressional critics thought that the federal statute conflicted with the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision recognizing a constitutional right to an abortion. While explicitly exempting abortion, the federal fetal-homicide law defines the protected unborn child as spanning "any stage of development ... in the womb."

Because it hasn't been applied yet, the federal law hasn't been challenged. State courts, though, have upheld comparable state laws.

Most recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in December 2006 upheld the conviction of Wilkes-Barre resident Matthew Bullock.

Bullock and his live-in girlfriend, Lisa Hargrave, were under the influence of cocaine and alcohol at a 2002 New Year's Eve party.

Bullock eventually asked Hargrave to abstain because she was 22 weeks pregnant. She refused. They struggled, he strangled her, then stuffed her body in a closet for a week before contacting police.

A jury found Bullock "guilty but mentally ill" of third-degree murder and voluntary homicide.

Concept not 'difficult to grasp'

"The concept of a fetus or unborn child as a potential victim of violence is neither obscure nor difficult to grasp," the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared in dismissing Bullock's challenge to the state's fetal-homicide law.

Convicted Missouri murderer Lisa Montgomery showcases a subtler influence from the federal law.

Last October, a federal jury convicted Montgomery of killing Bobbie Jo Stinnett and cutting her unborn child out of the womb with a kitchen knife. The child, now named Victoria Jo Stinnett, survived, and Montgomery wasn't explicitly charged under Laci and Conner's law.

The federal law did, though, help put Montgomery on death row. Montgomery challenged the accompanying charges of kidnapping, a capital offense when it results in someone's death. She argued that Victoria Jo was still a fetus and not a separate person when Bobbie Jo Stinnett died, and that meant there couldn't have been a kidnapping that resulted in death.

Citing Laci and Conner's law, a federal judge last year rejected the argument.

"Congress ... made it evident that the protections of federal criminal law may be extended to an unborn crime victim," U.S. Magistrate Judge John T. Maughmer noted.

Montgomery is appealing, with briefs due Sept. 15.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.

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