Punishment for killing a fetus among NC laws taking effect

Posted November 30, 2011 12:01 p.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2011 4:27 p.m. EST

— More than four years after a pregnant woman was killed outside a Raleigh convenience store, a law named for her unborn son that criminalizes the murder of a fetus will take effect Thursday.

State lawmakers passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, often referred to as Ethen's Law, in April. The legislation deems that anyone who commits murder, manslaughter or assault against a pregnant woman is guilty of the same crimes against the fetus, regardless of whether an attacker knows about the pregnancy.

Ethen Nielsen was the unborn son of Jenna Nielsen, who was eight months pregnant when she was stabbed to death in June 2007 while delivering newspapers to a convenience store on Lake Wheeler Road. The case remains unsolved.

Previously, North Carolina didn't recognize the death of a fetus as a separate crime, only as an aggravating factor that could increase the penalty of someone convicted of harming the mother.

Data compiled by the state Department of Health and Human Services show that 26 pregnant women were killed in North Carolina between 2004 and 2009.

Kevin Blaine, Jenna Nielsen's father, was among the relatives of pregnant murder victims, who have lobbied for years for a fetal homicide law in North Carolina, to gather Wednesday to celebrate the new law.

"It's the first day I've gotten to smile for a long, long time," Blaine said.

Effie Steele's daughter, Ebony Robinson, was nine months pregnant when she was killed in Orange County in 2007.

"When I found out there was no law on the books that would charge the murderer for killing my grandbaby, I was outraged. I just could not believe it," Steele said. "Even though he was in the casket with Ebony and even though he was a baby – he was a full-grown baby – the murderer was not charged. Now, we have a law ... that will change that."

The North Carolina law includes a provision that states it doesn't apply to physicians who perform legal abortions.

Thirty-eight other states already have fetal homicide laws.

Other laws that take effect Thursday include the following:

  • Laura’s Law, which increases jail time, monitoring and other penalties for repeat driving while impaired offenders.
  • Run and You’re Done, which allows law enforcement officers to take the car of someone who leads police on a high-speed chase.
  • The Castle Doctrine, which gives people at home, at work and in their cars more legal right to use deadly force if they believe someone is about to cause them serious harm. The new law also allows concealed handguns in city and state parks and rest areas, and cities can’t restrict that right except at recreational areas like athletic fields.
  • The Motorcycle Safety Act, which adds a new $200 fine for drivers who pull into a motorcyclist’s lane and a $500 fine for causing a motorcyclist to crash.
  • A law that makes it easier for people who committed non-violent felonies before turning 18 to have those crimes removed from their publicly available criminal record. Law enforcement agencies would still be able to see the expunged charges.