RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A new North Carolina law that creates separate crimes against mother and unborn child when a pregnant woman is physically attacked will hold assailants more accountable for their actions, supporters said Wednesday.
The fetal protection law is among 35 mostly criminal laws approved earlier this year that will take effect Thursday. Other new laws include one that allows authorities to seize cars followed in serious police chases and sell them after a conviction and one that gives homeowners the benefit of the doubt that shooting an intruder was justified.
Some lawmakers have been pushing for legislation similar to the Unborn Victims of Violence Act for more than two decades. This year’s new Republican majority served as the impetus to get the legislation through. Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue signed the bill into law in April.
In addition to crimes against the woman, prosecutors can now charge someone with murder or manslaughter for causing the death of an unborn child, which can carry a sentence of up to life in prison without parole. A defendant also can be charged with assault if the mother gives birth after she’s attacked and the child is seriously injured or born prematurely. The fetal crime can occur any time after conception and the attacker doesn’t have to know the woman is pregnant.
“I’m just so thankful that we got this bill passed,” said Effie Steele of Durham, whose 21-year-old pregnant daughter Ebony Robinson was shot to death in 2007. The killer is serving a life sentence for her murder. Her daughter’s expectant son also died.
“It took a long time in coming, but everything worth having is worth fighting for,” she said.
The new law specifically states that it doesn’t apply to legal abortions. Data collected by the state Department Health and Human Services shows 26 pregnant women were victims of homicide between 2004 and 2009.
“This law is about murderers and thugs, and how we’re going to treat them,” said Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, the chief sponsor of the law. “If this prevents one pregnant woman from being murdered, then it will be successful.”
About three dozen states and the federal government already recognize an unborn child as an additional victim of crime. The measure is also known as Ethen’s law in honor of the unborn son of Jennifer Nielsen, who was killed in 2007 as she delivered newspapers in Raleigh. Nielsen’s father, Kevin Blaine, has pushed for years for the bill.
“Hopefully we won’t ever have to use this law,” Blaine said, but “at least now we have a way to protect our unborn children.”
Another law named for a victim of crime — 17-year-old Lauren Fortenberry of Gaston County — also will take effect Thursday as a way to get impaired drivers off the road.
“Laura’s Law” requires repeat driving-while-impaired offenders whose cases have other aggravating factors to receive from one to three years in prison and face fines of up to $10,000. The court could require electronic alcohol monitoring of some offenders. Fortenberry was killed last year when a motorist with multiple drunken driving offenses collided with another car.
A law called “Run and You’re Done” attempts to prevent high-speed chases on busy roads and interstates that could lead to death and injury for innocent motorists.
A car driven by a suspect charged with a felony for a police chase will be seized by the local sheriff. The vehicle will be sold if the suspect is convicted of the felony, with proceeds going to the local school districts. There are exceptions to a sale, such as when a teenage suspect without a previous record used the car of a family member.
Gun-rights advocates praise a new law that gives citizens more legal standing to fire their lawful weapons to protect themselves from illegally entering their homes, cars or businesses.
A shooter will now be presumed to be exempt from criminal or civil liability because the person was worried they would be seriously harmed or killed by the intruder. The previous law said the shooter inside a home may have to justify why they fired. Prosecutors could still attempt to persuade a judge the shooting crossed the line.
Other laws taking effect Thursday:
— make it illegal for someone to dismember a body to hide a possible crime or evidence of an unnatural death. The law was in response to the death of Zahra Baker, a 10-year-old girl with disabilities who was dismembered. Her stepmother, Elisa Baker, pleaded guilty in September to second-degree murder and was sentenced to prison.
— require crime investigators to turn over any evidence in all felony cases, whether or not prosecutors have formally asked for it. The law is designed to ensure that defense attorneys get potential evidence from crime labs and other police sooner.
— allow a judge to remove a nonviolent felony from the criminal record of a first-time offender who committed the crime under the age of 18 if the person seeking the expunction has stayed out of trouble, with other requirements and exceptions.
— require all felony offenders released from prison to be supervised by probation officers for nine months or a year, depending on their crimes. Such supervision has been limited to the worst offenders.
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