No Heartbeat

06.19.14

Charged With Murder for a Miscarriage in Oklahoma

A woman survived kidnapping, rape, and savage beatings—but her unborn child did not. Now Oklahoma City police are calling the death a homicide, and her missing ex is wanted for murder.

The woman was six weeks pregnant when her ex-boyfriend allegedly locked her in a room for three days without food and repeatedly raped and sodomized her while savagely beating her with his fists, a hard-soled sandal, and the buckle end of a belt.

“Beaten to the point she was almost unrecognizable by her family,” says a June 16 affidavit filed by the Oklahoma City police. “[The woman] had both eyes swollen shut, severe bruising all over her body, severe trauma in her vagina, and numerous deep cuts from the belt buckle.”

But the woman survived, and a June 13 ultrasound exam produced the image on the monitor screen that the hospital staff was hoping to see.

“A baby was visible,” the affidavit says.

And within that image was the tiny pulsing of a heart, persisting despite the horrific violence but imperiled by a continuing result of the battering that was beyond the ability of the medical team to remedy.

“[She] had been hemorrhaging since she arrived,” the affidavit notes.

On the third day, a second exam was conducted.

“On 6-16-14, an ultra sound showed no baby present.”

Where there had been that tiny pulsing, there was nothing at all. The affidavit adds that the woman’s “hormone levels had returned to normal, indicating she was no longer pregnant.”

Had the woman been in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, or one of the 11 other states that have no fetal homicide law, the sudden absence of the baby and the accompanying heartbeat would not have been considered a violent death.

But she was in one of the 38 states that do have a fetal homicide law. And Oklahoma is one of 23 where it applies from the moment of conception. Title 21, Chapter 24 of the Oklahoma statutes holds that “Homicide is the killing of one human being by another…and ‘human being’ includes an unborn child.”

“If you are pregnant at all and the baby dies as the result of an attack like this, it is carried as homicide and the person is arrested for murder.”

This law and similar provisions in other states were passed with the enthusiastic support of the right-to-life crowd and despite the misgivings of pro-choice folks. Both sides seem to view it as a possible first step toward outlawing abortion.

For now, anyway, and likely for as long as federal law is clear about a woman’s right to choose, the Oklahoma statue includes a provision that “homicide shall not include…acts which cause the death of an unborn child if those acts were committed during a legal abortion to which the pregnant woman consented.”

The provision emphasizes: “Under no circumstances shall the mother of the unborn child be prosecuted for causing the death of the unborn child unless the mother has committed a crime that caused the death of the unborn child.”

The mother in Oklahoma City could have chosen to have an abortion. But she had not. And it was effectively she—nobody else—who had decided that the pulsing within her womb was a life with all the legal protections accorded any other life. The Oklahoma City police classified the case as Homicide No. 26 of 2014. The charges against the ex-boyfriend now included first-degree murder.

“If you are pregnant at all and the baby dies as the result of an attack like this, it is carried as homicide and the person is arrested for murder,” says Sgt. Gary Knight.

The other charges included aggravated assault, four counts of rape, and three counts of kidnapping and pointing a firearm. The two other counts of kidnapping were lodged because the woman’s two sons, aged 8 and 3, had been held captive along with her. The 8-year-old identified the attacker as his mother’s ex-boyfriend, 31-year-old Christopher Whitfield, adding that the man had been armed with a pistol.

“Whitfield put the pistol to the boy’s head,” the affidavit says. “Whitfield told the boy if he tried to escape he would kill him.”

The affidavit goes on to report that the boys were held behind a barricaded door in one part of the residence while the mother was dragged into a back bedroom.

“[The 8-year-old] was able to give officers a detailed account of what happened during his captivity, including descriptions of hearing his mother being beaten,” the affidavit says.

Late Wednesday morning, the Oklahoma police said Whitfield was still at large. He is almost certain to be caught.

If he is convicted of taking what a mother-to-be had chosen to keep as a life, he will be one person whom the pro-choice folks and the right-to-life crowd can agree to call a murderer.

But first-degree murder can carry the death penalty in Oklahoma. And given the botched execution there in late April, the pro- and anti-capital punishment people might get involved in this case before it is done.