OCEAN CITY – One week after the charges were dropped against accused murderer Christy Freeman, a stunned local community is still looking for answers to questions such as why the murder charges were dropped, why aren’t there any other charges the accused can be charged with and why isn’t there a law against storing human remains in and around one’s house, but the answers to all of those questions are varied as the number of questions themselves.
Last Thursday, Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd announced a grand jury did not hand down an indictment for murder on Freeman, based on the findings of the medical examiner on the remains of fetuses found stored in plastic bags in and around Freeman’s residence on Sunset Ave. in Ocean City. Essentially, the prosecutor said the medical examiner could not conclusively determine there was evidence any of the fetuses found in and around the home were ever alive, and without proof of life, there could be no charge of murder.
The decision touched off a wide range of emotion in the community where the accused lives and works from anger, rage and frustration to sympathy for Freeman and her family for all they had been through. Many have questioned how the sensational case, which had garnered so much national attention, could simply end so quickly with the accused allowed to walk out of jail and resume her life as if nothing had ever happened.
For many, the case has now moved from a sensational murder trial to a philosophical debate about the rights of an unborn child and a mother’s right to terminate a pregnancy either naturally or intentionally.
The Freeman case basically boiled down to a series of miscarriages over a five-year period, and despite the unseemly method of saving the remains, prosecutors had little choice but to drop the charges against the mother. However, the debate, which has its roots in the pro-life, pro-choice argument, has turned to an exception in Maryland’s fetal homicide law, which exempts from prosecution of a mother who causes the death of her unborn child.
The law was adopted in Maryland in 2005 in reaction to the Lacy Peterson case in California during which the victim’s husband was charged and ultimately convicted of murder in the death of his wife and her near-term infant. Maryland lawmakers saw fit to include an exemption in the bill to protect a mother’s rights when it came to her unborn child. For that reason, many believe the issue is one for state lawmakers to address and not one for prosecutors and police officers to decide.
For example, Dr. Neil S. Kaye, a noted forensic psychiatrist highly regarded as an expert in filicide and neonaticide, told The Dispatch in August he thought the case against Freeman should more appropriately be handled by social services agencies and not in a court of law despite the extremely unusual circumstances. Contacted this week, Kaye said his prediction played out with the decision last week to drop the charges.
“Get rid of the media and the sensationalism and there really isn’t much of a case,” he said. “Unless people want vengeance for the sake of vengeance, an increasingly popular conservative American value, these things don’t belong in the legal system.”
Others, however, believe the legal system is exactly where the Freeman case should have landed. For example, Fox News legal analyst Megyn Kelly said during an interview with Bill O’Reilly this week the prosecutors had an obligation to make the Freeman case a test case for the Maryland law, despite the findings of the medical examiner.
“If you look at the law in Maryland the way it’s written, it’s not favorable to cops and prosecutors under these circumstances,” she said. “But they had an obligation to get this case in a court of law and test this law to see if they can get it revised, or at least get the legislature to weigh in.”
Another legal expert, Lis Wiehl, who is an associate professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law, said on the same program she disagreed with the notion the case should have been rushed into a courtroom, despite the circumstances. Although she would like to see Freeman prosecuted, Wiehl said the courtroom was not the appropriate place for the issue.
“I agree, but it’s not for the prosecutor to do that,” she said. “That’s for the legislators to make laws and change laws.”
The one issue most in the community keep coming back to the storing of human fetal remains in and around Freeman’s home for years in some cases. However, there is nothing on the books in Maryland to prevent the mother from keeping the remains in her home.
Some states have laws on the books about the abuse of a corpse, while others have explicit regulations about the disposal of human remains. In fact, 26 states have specific regulations about the disposal of pathological waste and many are particular about the disposal of fetal remains including the length of the gestation period, but Maryland is among the states that doesn’t address the issue.
Another question that came up often in the days following the dismissal of the charges against Freeman last week concerned her alleged cocaine use during her pregnancy. Todd alluded to the fact the medical examiner suggested Freeman’s cocaine use could have contributed to the miscarriage, but the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled just last August women who use cocaine or other drugs while pregnant cannot be prosecuted under the state’s reckless endangerment statute for harming the children they are carrying. The high court’s decision reversed reckless endangerment convictions of two separate mothers in Talbot County who were tried, convicted and sentenced to lengthy jail terms when their newborns were found to be addicted to cocaine.
The appeals court later overturned the convictions by a narrow 4-3 majority. In his majority opinion, Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote, “To hold otherwise would mean that pregnant women could be subject to prosecution for a whole host of questionable activities. Under that theory, everything from consuming alcoholic beverages to smoking to failing to wear a seat belt … could conceivably be considered reckless endangerment.”