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State v. Buckhalter

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

August 8, 2013

STATE of Mississippi
v.
Nina BUCKHALTER a/k/a Nina R. Buckhalter a/k/a Nina Rozanne Buckhalter.

Page 1016

Office of the District Attorney, Fifteenth District by Lauren B. Harless, Douglas E. Miller, Haldon J. Kittrell, attorneys for appellant.

Robert B. McDuff, Jacob Wayne Howard, Jackson, Karl C. Hightower, Farah Diaz-Tello, attorneys for appellee.

Page 1017

DICKINSON, Presiding Justice

¶ 1. The Lamar County grand jury indicted Nina Buckhalter for culpable-negligence manslaughter after she gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. The circuit court dismissed the indictment, finding certain language in the manslaughter statute to be " vague and ambiguous," when applied to " a woman who has caused the miscarriage or stillbirth of her unborn child." The State [1] appealed. Because we find the indictment was fatally flawed, we affirm its dismissal without reaching the issue addressed by the circuit court.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. In her thirty-first week of pregnancy, Nina gave birth to a stillborn child, Hayley Jade Buckhalter. A Lamar County grand jury indicted Nina for culpable-negligence manslaughter under Section 97-3-47,[2] which defines manslaughter as the " killing of a human being, by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another. " [3] The indictment alleged that Nina

did willfully, unlawfully, feloniously, [k]ill Hayley Jade Buckhalter, a human being, by culpable negligence, contrary to and in violation of Section 97-3-47, of the Mississippi Code of 1972, as amended; against the peace and dignity of the State of Mississippi.[4]

¶ 3. The indictment failed to disclose how Nina allegedly caused Hayley Jade's death, but from statements in other pleadings, we assume the State planned to prove at trial that she ingested illegal drugs during the course of her pregnancy.[5] And neither the indictment nor anything else in the record identifies the type of illegal drugs allegedly involved.

¶ 4. Nina filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, arguing the word " other" in the manslaughter statute did not apply to a pregnant woman for the death of her unborn child; and that, at best, the word was ambiguous. The State opposed the motion, but the Lamar County Circuit Court granted it, stating that Section 97-3-47 was " vague as to whether the legislature intended the term ‘ other’ to be specifically inclusive of the pregnant woman herself as against her own unborn child." The State appealed, raising two issues:

I. Whether the circuit court erred by dismissing the indictment upon finding that the manslaughter statute was vague.
II. Whether the circuit court erred by considering the legislature's failed attempts to pass laws that specifically would criminalize a mother's conduct which harms her unborn child.

¶ 5. Because the indictment against Nina was fatally flawed, our analysis of the case must end there. We affirm dismissal of the indictment, but for reasons other than those stated by the circuit judge, and we ...


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