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Tiffany Marie Roberts, 29, turns to leave the courtroom after charges were dropped against her in Hamilton County Sessions Court Thursday, August 1, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Roberts prematurely gave birth July 21 at 23 weeks to twins with drugs in their system, according to court documents, and she tested positive for multiple drugs on the day she gave birth. The twins died. / Staff photo by Erin O. Smith

Updated at 11:02 a.m. on Thursday, August 1, 2019, with a Facebook post from the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office and again at 8:05 p.m. with more information.

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some text Tiffany Marie Roberts

As debate over fetal rights brews across the country, state prosecutors on Thursday moved to dismiss all charges against Tiffany Marie Roberts, the mother who was accused of first-degree murder after her premature twins died, allegedly as a result of repeated illegal drug use.

Roberts, 29, told police she was "experiencing shortness of breath," after taking an ecstasy pill on July 21 and going to the hospital, where she tested positive for the drug. She was prepped for emergency labor and gave birth to her twins at 23 weeks pregnant. A normal pregnancy lasts 40 weeks.

Both of Roberts' infants tested positive for "several narcotics" at the time of birth; they died on July 23 — two days after being born.

While the hospital listed the infants' cause of death as pulmonary hemorrhage, or acute bleeding from the lung, a ruling on an official cause of death has not yet been made by the Hamilton County Medical Examiner's Office. That's because some toxicology reports are still pending.

Roberts was arrested the same day her infants died and was charged with first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse or neglect and "viable fetus as a victim."

But on Thursday, General Sessions Court Judge Gerald Webb turned to Roberts and said, "Ms. Roberts, the state has moved to dismiss these cases against you" before dismissing all three charges.

An audible "Woo!" could be heard from the back of the room as Roberts, still in shackles and a yellow jumpsuit, left the courtroom.

"It's tragic, obviously, for everybody, especially for the mother and the children," Roberts' attorney, Deputy Public Defender Mike Little said. "I understand the moral concerns in a case like this. ... It's a complex and difficult area of law to settle on for the Tennessee legislature."

"The state, in this case, they did the right thing in agreeing to dismiss this case," he added.

Roberts would not be making any public statements, Little said.

In a Facebook post and subsequent news release, Hamilton County District Attorney's Office spokesman Bruce Garner stated the charges against Roberts were dismissed because the medical examiner said "preliminary findings show the cause of death could not be linked solely with Roberts' alleged drug abuse."

The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy was not available for comment. But Stephen Patrick, assistant professor of pediatrics and neonatologist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said the cause of a preterm birth is often unknown simply because there are so many factors at play.

"Sometimes there is nothing; preterm labor just starts," he said. "Sometimes it's infection. Sometimes it's a medical condition, like high blood pressure. And we also know that having multiples, like having twins, increases your risk of having preterm birth.

"There's really no way you can say that substance use around the time of delivery causes preterm birth within great certainty."

And because of that uncertainty, "state law did not support prosecuting the case," Garner wrote in the news release.

But that reason is not listed in the state's motion to dismiss the case. And even if the deaths could be linked to the alleged drug use, there is no legal basis for the state to move forward with prosecution, Executive Assistant District Attorney Cameron Williams told Webb on Thursday morning.

That's because, while Roberts' infants died after birth, the alleged drug use — which police claimed is what caused their deaths — took place during the pregnancy, meaning they were still considered fetuses.

Tennessee law does not define a "child" as a fetus or embryo of a pregnant woman, therefore "the charge of Aggravated Child Abuse or Neglect cannot appropriately be brought against Ms. Roberts," Williams stated in the motion to dismiss.

And, while an embryo or fetus can be considered the victim of a homicide or assault against a pregnant woman, the law does not apply to the pregnant woman herself. Pregnant women are exempt from criminal liability against their own embryo or fetus under Tennessee law.

There was, however, a Tennessee law in 2014 that made it possible for new mothers to be charged with assault for prenatal drug use. But because of disagreements among lawmakers, that law expired in 2016 and has not been reenacted.

"It had really devastating effects on dissuading people from getting health care or from giving birth in Tennessee," said Nancy Rosenbloom, director of legal advocacy for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says dozens of states have fetal homicide laws allowing criminal charges when fetuses are killed in violent acts, according to the Associated Press. One more recent case was a pregnant Alabama woman who was charged with manslaughter in June after she was shot in the stomach during a fight and her fetus died. Those charges were dropped.

Patrick said Roberts' case highlights a need to change the way substance abuse is approached.

"We know that there are fundamental changes that happen to the brain in terms of substance abuse disorder," he said. "Arresting a pregnant woman like this and charging [her] with murder doesn't deter other people from using the substance, in part because the brain has been rewired."

It's also not an effective policy, he said.

"One of the things that we really need to do ... is improve access to treatment," he said. "Across the state of Tennessee, pregnant women can't get into treatment for substance abuse disorder. It's really difficult. There aren't enough providers ... that provide addiction care, as well as prenatal care."

For Rosenbloom, she said the fact that Roberts was arrested at all "is really a chilling reminder that people with the capacity for pregnancy are not yet viewed as worthy of equality in the United States."

"That type of thinking results in pregnant women having fewer rights," she said, noting that alleged drug use alone wouldn't normally be a crime.

"The police had a theory that, because this woman was pregnant, now it must be a crime. ... It turned out that neither science nor law really supports that," she said.

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.


 

 

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