ABERDEEN, S.D. — The reversal of a federal court decision to dismiss manslaughter charges against a Sisseton woman could have wide-ranging implications and will likely be back before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
That's the take of Federal Judge Charles B. Kornmann of Aberdeen. He dismissed the charge in 2017. After that, the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Dakota sought to press charges against Samantha Flute, who gave birth to a baby boy only to have that baby die four hours later.
The recent court of appeals decision could bring that case back before Kornmann. But Kornmann said it could also go back before the court of appeals for further debate.
According to the charges, Flute tested positive for cocaine and multiple prescription drugs when she was admitted to the hospital at 38 weeks pregnant. She said she knew the drugs would harm the baby, but that "she needed to get high," according to the appeals court decision. An autopsy found that the combined drug toxicity from the substances Flute ingested while pregnant caused the baby's death.
The case was dismissed after Kornmann determined part of the U.S. criminal code that covers the protection of unborn children prohibits the prosecution of a woman with respect to her unborn child. But two of the three appellate judges disagreed.
According to the court of appeals decision, because baby Flute was born alive and lived for four hours, he was a human being and can be considered the victim of involuntary manslaughter. As a result, Flute can be prosecuted for her action's before his birth.
According to a memo issued by Kornmann, the reversal of his decision has broad implications and historical significance since "the government has never before in the history of our country charged a mother with manslaughter based on prenatal neglect that causes the death of a child."
That statement is echoed in the dissenting opinion from Court of Appeals Judge Steven Colloton. He wrote that the U.S. criminal manslaughter statutes do not include criminal liability on a mother for prenatal conduct that results in the death of her child.
Colloton also noted several decisions that have dismissed cases of prenatal neglect.
In a phone interview last week, Kornmann speculated on other scenarios that could result in charges of involuntary manslaughter if the court of appeals decision is upheld. Those scenarios included instances of reckless driving or failure to seek prenatal care.
Now that the U.S. Court of Appeals issued its ruling, Kornmann said, he will be tasked with deciding if the involuntary manslaughter statute was unconstitutionally vague. That argument was made by Flute's defense attorney.
The case might also go back before the court of appeals. Kornmann said he's been told the defense attorney is seeking an "en banc" hearing. That, Kornmann said, is a hearing before a larger group of judges.
He said it's rare for an en banc hearing to be granted, but, with one dissenting opinion, there's a better chance it happens.
"There's never been a case like this in the United States," Kornmann said.