Massachusetts Murder Shocks the World: Fetus Cut From Victim’s Womb: A Primer On The Legal Charges So Far

In my previous post on this shocking story, I discussed the horrific details of how the stench of rotting flesh led a Worcester, Massachusetts landlord to discover the apparently murdered body of one of his tenants, 23 year-old Darlene Haynes. His discovery afterward that the once-pregnant victim’s abdomen had been sliced open, the fetus ripped from the womb and stolen, has sent shock waves through the world. News outlets from Britain to Australia have reported this event, and once the murderer(s) and “kidnappers” of this now-born baby are found, charged and tried, the story will only get larger still. So far, only one suspect has been arrested in this case: One Julie A. Corey, a 35year-old woman who was found in a New Hampshire homeless shelter with a newborn baby that authorities believe was ripped from the Massachusetts murder victim’s uterus.

As sickening as this case is, it presents interesting legal questions – at least, from a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney‘s perspective I want to address these, initially, here.

Why has the defendant not been charged with murder? Because while authorities believe that Julie Corey was either involved in this Massachusetts murder or possibly committed the murder herself, they have yet to either secure enough forensic evidence to support a charge of murder, or obtain a confession from Corey. Investigators are now developing that evidence.

Why has the defendant only been charged with kidnapping? Because at this stage in the investigation, the only thing that police can determine is that Corey did not, as she claimed to several persons, deliver that baby (or any baby) in the past week, or recent past. Hence, because this premature infant could not be hers, and because she can not produce any documentation supporting legal custody of this child, the appropriate legal charge at this stage is “kidnapping.” DNA testing is presently being done on both the victim and the baby, and that will confirm for certain whether or not this baby was taken from the mother’s body. Regardless, kidnapping in Massachusetts is a felony charge, carrying a lengthy state prison sentence.

But if police suspect Corey actually cut this baby out of the victim’s body, why aren’t there more serious charges than just kidnapping? Depending on the evidence investigators obtain, there may well be – soon. But it’s important to understand: Two separate acts of violence seem to have been committed against this victim: One, the apparent blunt force trauma to the victim’s head, which at this point investigators believe killed the victim – or at the least rendered her unconscious; and two, the act of cutting into the victim’s abdomen to pull out the fetus. An autopsy will first need to be completed on the victim, to determine what the exact cause of death was, and whether or not she was still alive (conscious or not,) at the time her abdomen was sliced open and the fetus removed.

If the autopsy confirms that the mother was killed by blunt force trauma to the head and police can develop enough evidence to tie Corey to this act, she will be accordingly charged with this Massachusetts murder, most likely murder in the first degree. If police determine that someone else actually struck the blows that killed the mother, but determine that Corey was involved, present or assisted in the killing, she can be charged with accessory to murder (before or after the fact.) If the investigation determines that Corey was the person who sliced into the mother’s abdomen and pulled out the fetus, she can be charged with mayhem and battery. (Mayhem basically involves mutilation or dismembering of a body.) If the victim was unconscious at the time of the mayhem, then no assault charge would result. If the autopsy determines the victim was conscious at the time of the attack, assault charges would likely be filed.

• What’s even more interesting here, is the “kidnapping” charge. Consider: I’m sure you’ve heard of the savage stories of people sometimes being unwittingly drugged at a bar, for example, then dragged off somewhere, to have a kidney cut out of them. These horrid stories reflect the growing black market trade for human organ transplantation (most often occurring abroad.) If occurring in Massachusetts, the most likely charges that would stem from such an incident would be: assault, battery, mayhem and possibly attempted murder. Kidnapping? Of course not – though something was illegally and violently removed from the victim’s body, a kidney is a human organ, not a human being. But something was removed from this victim’s body here – so why the “kidnapping” charge? Because at 8 months, a fetus is legally considered “viable” – that is, it can live outside the mother’s womb – and hence the law considers the fetus a “person”. That is why you’ve been reading and hearing this fetus referred to as a “baby”. If the fetus had been under 6 months in development, a charge of kidnapping would not be likely. Rather, the charges of battery, mayhem and attempted murder would be filed.

I’ll continue to monitor legal developments on this story.