Justices hear ‘ice’ baby case
The isle high court must rule whether drug use during pregnancy can constitute manslaughter
The Hawaii Supreme Court will have to determine whether the Legislature intended to prosecute any mother whose reckless behavior before birth resulted in the death of her baby.
That is one of many issues the court needs to resolve in deciding the appeal of a baby manslaughter case that has no legal precedent here, say attorneys for Tayshea Aiwohi.
All five justices heard oral arguments yesterday in the case of Aiwohi, who was indicted for manslaughter in 2003 for recklessly causing the death of her newborn son through methamphetamine poisoning. She is the first in Hawaii to be prosecuted for conduct during pregnancy that resulted in a death of a baby born alive.
Under an agreement, Aiwohi pleaded no contest to manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years' probation with no jail. She appealed her conviction, asking the high court to overturn the trial court's decision to allow her case to proceed. If the Supreme Court rules in her favor, it would effectively dismiss the case against her.
A large crowd watched yesterday's arguments in the closely followed case. The attendees included Aiwohi, her family, law students, defense attorneys, prosecutors and bounty hunter Duane "Dog" Chapman, who hired Aiwohi as an executive assistant at his bail bond company.
Treyson Aiwohi died July 17, 2001, two days after he was born at Kaiser Moanalua Medical Center. An autopsy revealed toxic levels of methamphetamine and amphetamine in his system. His mother admitted to smoking crystal methamphetamine three days in a row before giving birth, including taking a "hit" on July 15, 2001, the day she delivered.
Defense attorney Todd Eddins argued yesterday that the manslaughter statute -- recklessly causing the death of another person -- should not be construed to incarcerate mothers on the theory that their conduct while pregnant results in harm to their newborn child.
To prosecute an individual for manslaughter, the statute requires that harm be brought against another person -- defined in the Hawaii Penal Code as a "human being born and alive," Eddins said. Treyson was not legally a person because he was still a fetus at the time his mother was smoking ice.
It is inconceivable that when the Legislature enacted the manslaughter statute more than three decades ago, they intended to include the conduct of a mother against her unborn child, Eddins said.
If that was so, it would result in "absurd and counterproductive efforts," that would deter mothers from seeking prenatal care or, worse, lead them to get abortions, he argued. It should be left up to the Legislature to decide whether these prosecutions should occur, he said.
Deputy Prosecutor Glenn Kim, who handled the case against Aiwohi, argued that the language in the manslaughter statute is plain and that the justices do not have to decide the Legislature's intent.
Aiwohi's voluntary conduct -- "bingeing" on ice prior to the baby's birth -- was sufficient to cause the ultimately fatal levels of methamphetamine in the baby's blood that caused his death two days later, he said.
"Here, we're talking about injury to a fetus that subsequently killed a live child," he said.
The baby was a born alive and therefore legally a person, Kim argued.
There was evidence that Aiwohi nursed her baby after he was born, which probably contributed to the levels of methamphetamine later found in his system, Kim said. Proving just how much would have been a problem, and he conceded that it was not likely the state could have sustained its burden of proof, he said.
There have been many other prosecutions nationwide involving mothers who ingested drugs or alcohol prior to the birth of their babies, but only one in Florida has been charged with manslaughter, a case that was later overturned.
"So if we rule your way, we may be the only one?" Justice Simeon Acoba asked Kim, who responded by saying, "That wouldn't make it wrong."
Chief Justice Ronald Moon made no indication when they would rule, but it could happen before year's end.