The state Supreme Court upheld a Wilkes-Barre man’s conviction under Pennsylvania’s fetal homicide statute rejecting a claim the law is unconstitutional because it is too vague regarding the viability of a fetus.
The unanimous decision including a concurring opinion by Justice Max Baer in which he cautioned that the court’s opinion should not be interpreted as an effort to define “a fetus as a life-in-being” or endorsing the notion that interrupting the gestational process is the killing of human life.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and decisions that followed it remain the controlling law in the interest of states protecting fetal gestation from the beginning of pregnancy through birth.
The decision comes in the appeal of Matthew Bullock, who was convicted in October 2003 of the murder of his girlfriend Lisa Hargrave and the voluntary manslaughter of the woman’s unborn child, according to the opinion in Commonwealth v. Bullock.
Bullock gagged, bound and repeatedly strangled Hargrave after both took cocaine at a New Year’s Eve party in 2002. He left Hargrave, who was about 22 weeks pregnant, in a closet where police found her body after Bullock turned himself in six days later, the opinion says.
The Supreme Court opinion by Justice Thomas G. Saylor affirms an opinion by the Superior Court.
Albert J. Flora, of the Luzerne County Public Defenders Office, represented Bullock. He could not be reached for comment. Scott C. Gartley, of the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, argued in the appeal. He was unavailable for comment yesterday
Bullock argued initially the fetal homicide statute violates due process under the “void-for-vagueness” doctrine. He claimed that without a requirement that the fetus be viable outside the womb at the time of death, the statute fails to provide fair warning of what behavior is prohibited.
Saylor remarked that the void-for-vagueness doctrine “requires that a penal statute define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
The statute’s definition including all stages of gestation from fertilization to birth is straightforward, Saylor wrote. Citing Commonwealth v. Booth, Saylor noted that the court has determined a mother and unborn child to be separate entities and that medicine is able to prove the corpus delicti of the homicide of an unborn child.
Read more about it in Friday’s Legal.