Death penalty in Cleveland horrors? Wait, who died?

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Once again, let’s turn to the dictionary and that tricky word “fetus,” which has through the decades been at the heart of so many bitter newsroom arguments about abortion, morality, religion, science and law.

fe·tus … pl. fe·tus·es

… 2. In humans, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo.

Obviously, your GetReligionistas have been discussing this term lately because of the ongoing, and ongoing, trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell and the fact that some elite media have been saying things like the following (care of the industry scriptures, The New York Times):

PHILADELPHIA – Through four weeks, prosecutors have laid out evidence against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion provider on trial on charges of killing seven viable fetuses by “snipping” their necks with scissors and of causing the death of a pregnant 41-year-old woman during a procedure.

The problem, once again, is that at the heart of the Gosnell nightmare were the reports that he was DELIVERING late-term fetuses and THEN killing the infants — after delivery. In other words, these infants were no longer “fetuses,” according to the dictionary, when the abortionist snipped their spinal cords.

Now, we are seeing some interesting, and related, issues emerging in Cleveland, where prosecutors are preparing to throw the book at the alleged kidnapper and torturer Ariel Castro. Note the language in this New York Times report, which resembles that seen in many other mainstream media accounts. Here is the lede:

CLEVELAND – As more grim details emerged … about the long captivity of the three women rescued from imprisonment in a dilapidated home here, one official compared the victims to survivors of a P.O.W. camp, and prosecutors said they would seek murder charges against the man held in the abductions, accusing him of forcing at least one of the women to miscarry.

Timothy J. McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said the miscarriages, which at least one of the women described to the police, could be grounds for seeking the death penalty for the suspect, Ariel Castro. Mr. Castro, a former bus driver, enticed the women off the street with offers of a ride home, the authorities say.

And later on, there is this linked to the torture of Michelle Knight:

Immediately after police officers broke into Mr. Castro’s fortified home on Seymour Avenue on Monday afternoon, Ms. Knight told her rescuers that Mr. Castro had impregnated her multiple times.

“She stated that Ariel would make her abort the baby,” the police wrote in a report obtained by The New York Times. Mr. Castro would starve Ms. Knight for weeks, she told the police, then repeatedly punch her in the stomach “until she miscarried.”

Mr. McGinty said at a news briefing that Ohio law allowed for the death penalty for “aggravated murder during the course of a kidnapping” and that he was studying whether to seek capital murder charges from a grand jury because of the forced miscarriages.

Note the lack of “fetus” language and the fact that the word “baby” is quoted from a police report. This is careful writing.

The USA Today team was not quite as careful:

CLEVELAND – The man accused of holding three women captive in his house for more than a decade could face the death penalty if it’s determined he is responsible for the deaths of the victims’ unborn children, prosecutors said Thursday.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said pending further police investigation, Castro, 52, could face charge of murder in the course of kidnapping, which carries a potential death penalty. McGinty will present the case to the grand jury and could seek aggravated murder charges for each of the pregnancies.

Clearly, journalists are struggling here to try to determine how to answer a question that, in court debates, has often turned on theological issues linked to personhood, ensoulment, human rights, etc., etc. To be blunt: Precisely when does an undesired “fetus” turn into a “unborn child” when the biological, dare I say “journalistic,” realities are the same?

Now, from the perspective of the journalists defending a consistent use of the term “fetus,” even when the term is inaccurate (see Gosnell coverage), here is the hard-news question of the moment. If the prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty for Castro in this case, who did he kill? What human persons with full dignity and legal rights, under this nation’s current legal regime, died during these alleged crimes?

Just asking. Try covering that story without facing religious questions.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Guy Est

    Oh, come, come now. We all know that the product of rape is the lowest of the low, beneath contempt. Castro merely did what every right-thinking reader of the New York Times would have wanted done. Every product of rape must be destroyed.

    So what about the little six-year-old girl who survived?

  • Jerry

    First, I agree with the points you made in this post. But there’s another important journalistic issue.

    One other thing we need in coverage is journalistic humility. We had many ignoring the Gosnell story because his presumed guilt made them uncomfortable. And we had some attacking the lack of coverage because of his presumed guilt. Now we have a hung jury which means that the facts of the case are not obvious to those who are charged with deciding guilt or innocence.

    So we need both even-handed and balanced use of language and journalistic humility.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ the Old Adam

    I’m all for the death penalty in this case. Those men stole the lives of those women and ought lose theirs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-OKeeffe/100002559433793 Martha O’Keeffe

    These pregnancies occurred as a result of rape. If the prosecution does go for “murder during kidnapping” it will in effect be saying the women should have been permitted to continue an unwanted pregnancy that was forced upon them by violence. Does anyone really want to touch that with a ten-foot barge pole?
    I think the only way this would work would be (a) a charge of procuring a miscarriage illegally (that is, not by qualified medical persons or trained) and (b) everyone winking at the fact that this is only to get the death penalty for this guy not because of the induced miscarriages but for the kidnapping and abuse of the three young women.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.hopwood.14 Joe Hopwood

    It has long been proposed that only the mother has the right to abort the unborn. No new ground here. Must be a slow news day.

    • LaughingTulkas

      The question is whether the involuntary killing of the unborn is murder. If it’s not a human being, then there is no murder, only an assualt leading to the unfortunate destruction of a fetus. Either ammend the aggravated murder statue or admit that abortion is a legalized destruction of a human. The child can’t be only be a human when/if the mother wants it to be.

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  • JoFro

    Using that logic, your statement does not make sense! He didn’t kill them. He kidnapped them and forced them to live in a tiny space for years. He took away a huge chunk of their lives. Using your logic, he should be sentenced to a solitary cell for the rest of his pathetic life, rather than be given the death penalty!

  • David D

    Ohio’s aggravated murder statute prohibits the “unlawful termination of another’s pregnancy”, which is defined as “causing the death of an unborn member of the species homo sapiens, who is or was carried in the womb of another, as a result of injuries inflicted during the period that begins with fertilization and that continues unless and until live birth occurs.” It says it doesn’t apply to “any pregnant woman or her physician from performing an abortion with the actual consent of the pregnant woman.” So, the law focuses (properly, I think) on the violence done to the pregnant woman without her consent, not whether the woman would have otherwise carried her rapist’s child to term. She could very well have welcomed the miscarriage, yet it’s still a crime.

    • LaughingTulkas

      You miss the point, it can’t be aggravated murder if no one died! And if it is murder, then abortion is simply legalized murder. So at the least we have a contradiction between what pro-abortionists call “undeveloped tissue” and what the law calls “an unborn member of the species homo sapiens.” Either it’s a person, and abortion is the legal killing of that person, OR it is not aggravated murder, but an aggravated assault causing the unfortunate destruction of undeveloped tissue that could have become a person. It can’t be both.

      • David D

        I see your logic, but the statute makes a clear distinction: It says it applies to “the death of another or the unlawful termination of another’s pregnancy”. Meaning, they’re different things. So I understand some people want to make the argument you’re making, but the text of the law doesn’t necessarily support it.

        Anyway, a pretty horrible situation for people to be trying to score political points from. I hope no one thinks it would be good journalism to ask the Ohio victims if they had wanted to keep their pregnancies.

        • LaughingTulkas

          On the contrary the law specifically states that the unborn is a member of the species homo sapiens*, meaning it is human. Murder is defined in the dictionary as “the premeditated unlawful killing of one human being by another.” Here the law makes clear that the unborn is a member of our species, one of our own kind, and not simply extra tissue, which means that causing its death is murder.

          *section 2903.09B

          • David D

            If that’s true, then why doesn’t the statute say simply “the death of another”? The only logical reason I can see is that either the fetus is not considered a person or terminating a pregnancy is not considered death. The woman is considered a person, though.

          • LaughingTulkas

            All I did was quote the statue, there is no question “if that’s true,” it’s just a fact. Look up 2903.09B if you want!

          • David D

            The statute doesn’t say explicitly that a fetus is a person, so if true, it must be implicit. My question to you is, if the Ohio statute implicitly considers a fetus a human being just like a living person, then why does it have a separate prohibition against “the unlawful termination of another’s pregnancy”? Why isn’t making “the death of another” illegal sufficient to cover the case of killing an unborn person as well as a born person?

          • LaughingTulkas

            Did I say person? Nope. I said human being. Murder is also defined not as the killing of a person, but the killing of a human being. If I pull the plug on a human in a vegetative state against the will of the family, am I liable of murder for the killing of a human being? Absolutely. Did I destory a person? Not so clear (strong case could be made otherwise).

            What the statute clearly states is that the unborn are “members of species homo sapiens” and not simply “tissue attached to a member of species homo sapiens.”

            As for your question, the awkward wording and doublespeak is because they have to fit legal abortion into the equation while keeping the murder charge for pregancies ended involutarily. It doesn’t end up making much sense, which is exactly the point I (and the blog) are making.

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