February 21, 2009

Woman faces charge of killing unborn child during August suicide attempt

A Rock Hill woman has been charged with homicide by child abuse after police say her unborn baby died when the mother tried to commit suicide by jumping out a window.

Jessica Marie Clyburn, 22, was booked on the charge Thursday evening, though her baby died after the suicide attempt last August, according to an arrest warrant.

Police say Clyburn was eight months' pregnant when she jumped from a fifth-floor window Aug. 17 at the Cobb House apartments on East Main Street and landed on a canopy four stories below. She was taken to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte for treatment, and it was discovered that her baby had died from the fall, the arrest warrant notes.

Clyburn told police she jumped because she was afraid her unborn child's father, whom she lived with, was going to leave her, according to the original police report from August. The report states Clyburn's mother told police her daughter suffers from bipolar disorder and epilepsy.

It took six months to charge Clyburn because police were waiting on forensics evidence to come back from the North Carolina medical examiner, Rock Hill police Lt. Brad Redfearn said.

After police got the forensics report, which confirmed that Clyburn's baby died in the fall at the apartment complex, the charge was made, Redfearn said.

"Anything you do to a child that causes them harm and causes them to die is homicide by child neglect," Redfearn said. "She's ultimately responsible for that child. She is responsible for that child's safety."

A charge of homicide by child abuse is often controversial when it involves an unborn baby. The S.C. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that a fetus able to survive outside the womb is considered a person under child-abuse and neglect laws. That threshold is generally around 25 weeks.

Some feel charge is absurd

Much of the debate over the charge centers around women who are prosecuted after their babies die because of the mother's drug use during pregnancy.

Opponents say the charge is absurd in those cases because it fails to address the true problem drug addiction -- and get the mothers the help they need.

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit National Advocates for Women, said charging Clyburn is equally "sadistic."

"You clearly have a person who obviously has psychiatric problems. To respond by prosecuting her for murder is so irrational and cruel, I don't even know where to begin," she said. "I think this is a good example of how South Carolina is leading the nation in just counterproductive punishment."

A more productive approach would be to find psychiatric care for Clyburn, Paltrow said.

Instead, she said, the government is "policing pregnant women" and choosing to see Clyburn and others as people who tried to hurt an unborn child, not as people who need help.

"I don't want to in any way suggest that there isn't another loss and that we shouldn't take this seriously," Paltrow said. "(But) These women aren't thinking, 'Gee whiz how can I be cruel to my unborn child?'"

Solicitor Kevin Brackett declined to comment on Clyburn's charge Friday, saying he didn't know enough about the case.

"The strong tendency in South Carolina is to respect the rights of the unborn and to make sure those rights are protected by law," he said, speaking in general terms. "This has been a trend in South Carolina, and certainly I think that's what was at the basis of these charges.

"There's obviously a lot of work to be done looking into the matter to see what, if anything, should be done to this woman," Brackett said.

The number of women charged with homicide by child abuse where a fetus was involved wasn't available Friday. Most people prosecuted on the charge end up pleading to a lesser offense and get probation or have pre-trial intervention, said Rauch Wise, a Greenwood attorney who has represented four women who faced the charge.

Compounding a tragedy?

Of the women Wise has represented, two cases were dismissed before trial, one was dismissed on appeal, and another was reversed on post conviction relief.

"What the state is doing is taking one tragedy and compounding it," Wise said of Clyburn's case.

"I don't want to make light of this person's tragic situation," he said, "but I truly wonder if the state would take the same position ... if she had elected to claim the viable fetus on her income tax return for the previous year."

Clyburn was being held Friday without bond at Moss Justice Center in York.

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