News: CJ Exclusives

Unborn Victims of Violence Act Headed to Perdue

Veto-proof margins in both chambers enact Ethen's Law

Current North Carolina law does not acknowledge the death of an unborn child by the actions of an assailant as a crime. If a pregnant woman is killed, police cannot charge her suspected killer with two counts of murder. House Bill 215, aka Ethen’s Law, would change that.

Ethen’s Law passed both the House and the Senate and is on its way to Gov. Bev Perdue’s desk. If it becomes law, North Carolina would join nearly three dozen other states in recognizing unborn children, along with their pregnant mothers, as potential crime victims. The bill also would signal the first time North Carolina law recognizes life as beginning at conception, which has some pro-choice advocates nervous. They tried to amend the law to delay the onset of criminal liability for attacks on women in early stages of pregnancy. Those attempts were not successful.

“It should have always been a law,” Kevin Blaine said. His daughter, Jenna Nielsen, was murdered when she was 8 ½ months pregnant. The bill is named after Nielsen’s son, Ethen. “Why we had to go through this, I don’t really have an answer for that, but I’m really happy right now,” Blaine said.

The bill addresses more acts of violence than just murder. Attackers could be charged with manslaughter, assault, and battery on unborn children. Suspects can be charged even if they do not know the woman is pregnant; nor must prosecutors prove a defendant intended to kill the unborn victim.

The bill passed both chambers with veto-proof majorities. The final House vote Tuesday was 77-40. The Senate passed it earlier by a 45-4 margin. Perdue’s office has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the bill.

At least 35 other states and the federal government offer at least partial protection for unborn victims. Twenty-five states have laws similar to the North Carolina bill. California passed its version of the law after the Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate in 1969, according to Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, the sponsor of H.B. 215. Tate was 8½ months pregnant at the time.

Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, said the bill first was introduced in North Carolina in 1987. It never was given a hearing.

“All the victims of this state have ever asked for is a hearing, because we know if we ever got a hearing on what was happening to pregnant women in this state … it would pass unanimously,” Folwell said.

Blaine was not the only parent of a victim lobbying for the bill. Effie Steele ushered the bill through every step of the way this session. Steele’s 21-year-old daughter was murdered by Kenneth Robinson when she was nine months pregnant. During the investigation, it was discovered that Robinson had been molesting Steele’s daughter, Ebony Robinson, for years. He is now serving life in prison.

“It’s not going to help our case, because the person who murdered our grandbabies won’t be charged,” Steele said, “but the next person who kills or murders a pregnant woman will think about it and will get justice.”

The bill does not allow prosecutors to charge suspects for cases filed before to the bill becomes law. If Perdue does not veto the bill, it will take effect Dec. 1.

Anthony Greco is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.