The town of Pleasant Grove, about ten miles outside of Birmingham, Alabama is a quiet place with one grocery store, a few restaurants and a gun shop. But recently, it has been in the international spotlight.
Last December, in the parking lot of a local Dollar General, Marshae Jones, now 28, got into a fight with 23-year-old Ebony Jemison. Officials say Jones, who was five months pregnant at the time, started the fight, which led Jemison to shoot Jones in the stomach in self-defense, killing the fetus.
Initially, charges were filed against Jemison, but two months ago the Jefferson County Bessemer Cutoff grand jury dropped those charges and indicted Jones instead. They wrote Jones “did intentionally cause the death” of her fetus by “initiating a fight knowing she was five months pregnant.”
The charges against Jones were made public last week when she was arrested and later released from jail on a $50,000 bond. Since then, the case has drawn outrage from women’s rights groups and legal advocates, and more than 50,000 people have signed an online petition to drop the charges.
In December 2018, a pregnant woman named Marshae Jones of Pleasant Grove, Alabama was shot resulting in a lost pregnancy. Last week, a grand jury brought manslaughter charges against her, concluding that she instigated the altercation that led to the shooting. pic.twitter.com/Dqikn1Obma
— Southern Poverty Law Center (@splcenter) July 2, 2019
In the same shopping plaza where the fight happened in December, a regular breakfast crowd gathers most mornings at Jack’s restaurant. Some say they don’t think the indictment against Jones is fair.
“I don’t think she should have been charged with killing the baby,” says Fred Gipson. “That don’t make sense to me. She didn’t want the baby dead.”
For others, it is not so clear. Anna Lake has been following the story in the news and says she is not sure about the legal details, but when a woman is pregnant, Lake says, she is responsible for protecting her fetus.
“I definitely think the baby was a life that was lost because of the unfortunate circumstances,” Lake says.
The state of Alabama agrees. Under a 2006 Fetal Homicide Law, it recognizes a fetus as a person in cases of criminal homicide or assault. So when Jones allegedly started the fight that led the other woman to shoot her in the stomach, the grand jury said she intentionally caused the death of a separate person – in this case, her own fetus.
But Jones’ legal team, White Arnold & Down P.C., says state law doesn’t allow for a woman to be prosecuted for manslaughter in the death of her fetus.
“I don’t know why this was manipulated to get this result, but it is unprecedented,” says Mark White, one of the defense attorneys on the case.
He also says the charges against Jones are irrational, because Jones did not intend for Jemison to shoot her in the stomach.
When it comes to recognizing the rights of a fetus, Alabama already stands out, according to Jenny Carroll, a law professor at the University of Alabama and a former public defender. Hundreds of women have been prosecuted for using drugs during pregnancy under the state’s Chemical Endangerment Law. Alabama recently passed one of the strictest abortion bans in the country. And now, a local grand jury has filed charges against Marshae Jones.
“The way the state is treating the fetus,” says Carroll, “in this case, and in all these other laws we’ve just talked about, is it is creating new liability for mothers that doesn’t exist for anyone else.”
Shortly after the indictment of Jones became public last week, Yellowhammer Fund, a Tuscaloosa-based organization that helps women pay for reproductive healthcare and abortions, announced it would provide financial assistance for Jones. It paid the $50,000 bail to get her out of jail and is also paying her legal fees.
We’re gonna get #MarshaeJones out and get her justice! Losing a pregnancy should never be criminalized. Donate at https://t.co/4UVkbUGOJV or https://t.co/YvKk0r0dKm with the note MARSHAE. #reprojustice #reproductivejustice https://t.co/w5w4VPzM4H
— Abortion Should Be Free (@YellowFund) June 27, 2019
Executive director Amanda Reyes says the charges against Jones are an attack on the rights of pregnant people.
“In this indictment and in this whole process, Marshae Jones has been erased,” Reyes says. “She’s been erased as a victim.”
In the same Pleasant Grove parking lot where the fight broke out last December, resident LaTasha Currington says she understands the woman who shot Jones was allegedly acting in self-defense and she also feels the fetus counts as a person. But Currington doesn’t think Jones should go to jail.
“She lost her child,” Currington says, “then she has to pay for losing her child. That’s kind of harsh and sad at the same time.”
Jones’ case is under the jurisdiction of Jefferson County Bessemer Cutoff District Attorney Lynniece O. Washington, who is the state’s first black woman to serve as district attorney. In a statement last Thursday, officials with Washington’s office said they “feel sympathy for the families involved, including Ms. Jones, who lost her unborn child.” They said they are evaluating the indictment against Jones and have not yet made a decision about “whether to prosecute it as a manslaughter case, reduce it to a lesser charge or not to prosecute it.”
After being out of the country last week, Washington gave a speech at Boutwell Auditorium over the weekend and responded to criticism her office has received about the Jones’ indictment.
“I took an oath to serve,” Washington said. “I am a black woman in black skin. So, don’t tell me how I don’t appreciate the sensitivity of a woman and the rights of women.”
In the meantime, Jones’ legal team filed a motion Monday to dismiss the charges. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for July 9.