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Parents of slain pregnant woman fight to change law

Wallen Family 2aLaura Wallen's family with Sen. Justin Ready and Del. Trent Kittleman in Annapolis. PHOTO BY GLYNIS KAZANJIANWhen the father of a slain Olney woman found out the man accused of killing his pregnant daughter would only be charged with one count of murder, instead of two, he said he was shocked.

“It wasn’t going to count,” Mark Wallen said of his daughter Laura’s unborn child’s death. “Justice was not going to be done for my grandson. The law now says the life of my grandson doesn’t even exist.”

Under current state law, charges of murder or manslaughter for an unborn child can only be brought against a person if a fetus is considered “viable” outside of the mother’s womb. 

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy charged Laura Wallen’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Tyler Tessier, 33, of Damascus, with one count of murder last October. Wallen was 14 weeks pregnant at the time of her death, according to the state’s chief medical examiner who conducted an autopsy. She was having a boy, whom she planned to name “Reid.”

“A medical team established at the time of Ms. Wallen’s murder the child was 14 weeks old,” McCarthy said at an October press conference. “Based on medical testimony, the child was not viable independent of Ms. Wallen. Based on those medical findings, and as a matter of law in Maryland, as a result the defendant is not chargeable with a second count of murder related to the child.”

The Wallen family would like to change the law, not for their daughter, they said, but for all pregnant women in Maryland who may face intimate-partner domestic violence now or in the future.

Laura Wallen’s mother Gwen Wallen said nothing had changed in Laura and Tyler’s relationship except that Laura became pregnant.

“The only thing that changed in their relationship was the baby,” Gwen Wallen said. “Reid was a risk factor for Laura. I absolutely believe that the baby was the inconvenience.”

This week in Annapolis Laura’s family stood with two lawmakers to introduce legislation that could change the law that prevented prosecutors from charging Tessier with a second count of murder for the death of their grandson.

The preliminary legislation, “Laura and Reid’s Law,” would change three words in Maryland criminal law that addresses prosecution for murder or manslaughter of a pregnant woman. “A viable fetus,” in criminal Law Section 2-103 would be changed to “an unborn child.”

In addition, part of the newly proposed bill language reads: “...a prosecution may be instituted for murder or manslaughter of an unborn child” and “For purposes of a prosecution under this title [Section 2-103], unborn child means a fetus at any stage of development that is carried in the womb.”

“At 13 to 14 weeks, my daughter saw my grandson move and the heart beat,” Mark Wallen said at the press conference. “She was pregnant. It was a fetus in her belly, and it was a beautiful boy.”

The bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll County, and Del. Trent Kittleman, R-Howard and Carroll counties, as well as the Wallens, appeared to be on the defensive as they made arguments for the bill in hopes of attracting Democratic support.

In a Democratic-majority state legislature, where pro-abortion and pro-choice advocates may feel threatened by legislation that defines life of an unborn child at any stage or any gestational age, finding support for the bill may be an uphill battle. 

Del. David Moon (D-20), who sits on the House Judiciary Committee that can move forward the legislation or stop it in its tracks, said his initial reaction without having reviewed the bill in detail, or knowing about Wallen’s case, is that it will probably be controversial.

“I think some folks would be concerned about unintended consequences that would arise from using a term like ‘unborn child’ in criminal law,” Moon said. “The issue itself is a debate. That being said, we obviously do want to be protecting residents and make sure that people aren’t getting away with violent crimes. We’ll have to see from the hearings, there may be other language that could be explored to achieve this without retriggering this whole debate about viability of the fetus versus unborn child. That’s very likely to get us into a philosophical conversation instead of looking at the basics of a horrible murder.”

While state law protects abortion rights in Maryland, according to Ready, he said advocates of the bill are open to amendments to achieve the goal of passing the bill.

“We are trying to get as much cooperation as we can,” Ready said. “It’s not a partisan issue. It’s an issue about justice for victims. The [bill] language we feel is very strong as far as separating the two issues, but we’re willing to look at amendments at whatever we need to do. The goal is to try to be sure we are protecting these vulnerable women and the children they are carrying.”

Kittleman said the bill would provide an additional layer of protection to women’s rights that currently do not exist for pregnant women.

“The law on abortion protects the woman’s right to control the destiny of her own body,” Kittleman said. “The law protects the rights of a pregnant woman who doesn’t want to have the child. The law must also protect the rights of a pregnant woman who does want to have a child. To protect her right to control the destiny of her own body, the law must recognize that someone who kills her unborn child regardless of the age of the fetus is committing murder.”

Four Montgomery County lawmakers that sit on Judiciary committees that will steer the legislation – Sen. Susan Lee (D-16), House Judiciary Vice Chair Kathleen Dumais (D-15), Del. David Moon (D-20) and Del. Pam Queen (D-14). Lee and Dumais did not respond to comment requests for the article. 

Queen offered the following statement in response:

“Our community is saddened and dismayed by this senseless crime. Our sympathies are extended to the Wallen family for their tremendous loss; and we pray for their strength during the upcoming trial. Unfortunately, this brutal tragedy is part of a greater narrative of violence against women, especially injury and death of pregnant women by their mates. This type of tragedy crosses different races and economic status. 

“Regarding the proposed legislation, I haven’t seen the details of the bill. I know my office has been contacted to request a repeal of the death penalty in Maryland as a response to this crime. I expect the proposed legislation, ‘Laura and Reid Bill’ will engender a lively debate which is always good to develop good policy.”

Wallen said advocates that want to protect against domestic violence of this nature now have their chance.

“Four months ago, Labor Day Weekend, when everyone else was enjoying their summer, the unimaginable thing happened,” Mark Wallen said. “A monster with one bullet killed two generations of our family. Everyone talks to the media and goes on record as against domestic violence or we need to protect women. 

“They say now here today we have a bill that addresses the most vulnerable of women, a pregnant woman and someone says this is a slippery slope. I say not protecting pregnant women from domestic violence is unbelievable and unthinkable.

“This bill has nothing to do with a woman’s right to choose. Hundreds of people have told us, ‘I have no words to help you.’ This bill finds the words.”

@glyniskazanjian

Last modified onTuesday, 06 February 2018 18:03
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