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Under scrutiny, DA weighs whether to prosecute woman charged in death of her own fetus

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BIRMINGHAM — Prosecutors in Alabama said Friday that they have not decided whether a woman shot by someone else — resulting in a miscarriage — will face prosecution for the death of her fetus.

Marshae Jones, 27, was arrested after a grand jury indicted her on manslaughter charges Wednesday, prompting fierce outcry over claims of criminalizing pregnancy and triggering a broader debate over abortion, particularly in a state with the most-restrictive abortion laws in the country.

Jones was five months pregnant when she was involved in a fight with a woman who police and prosecutors said acted in self-defense when she fired a gun at Jones. A grand jury looked at actions by both women and declined to indict Ebony Jemison, who fired the shot, prosecutors said. The jurors instead returned an indictment for Jones.

“While the grand jury has had its say, our office is in the process of evaluating this case and has not yet made a determination about whether to prosecute it as a manslaughter case, reduce it to a lesser charge or not to prosecute it,’’ said a statement from the office of District Attorney Lynneice Washington.

Jones was released on $50,000 bond Thursday. In a statement Friday, Jones’s attorneys said their client was facing “unprecedented legal action” that had tarnished the reputation of both Jones and the state of Alabama. The law firm White Arnold & Dowd said it would fight vigorously for her exoneration to prevent a “grave injustice.”

“This young mother was shot in the stomach while five months pregnant and lost her baby as a result. She lost her home to a fire and lost her job,” the firm said. “Now, for reasons that defy imagination, she faces an unprecedented legal action that subjects this victim of violence to further distress and harm.”

In front of a modest blue home in Birmingham on a hot, sunny day, Jamal Jones identified himself as Marshae Jones’s second cousin. He told The Washington Post that Jones and Jemison had feuded in the past but that Jones has always been a quiet, soft-spoken person.

“She’s a good mom,” the 37-year-old said of Jones, who has a young daughter. “Her daughter is with her everywhere. She makes sure she gets her to school every day, picks her up, feeds her. She don’t try to put her off on anybody.”

He added: “She’s a good person. I’m not just saying that because she’s my cousin. She gets along with anybody.”

Jones’s mother, who declined to give her first name, said she was turning to her faith amid a trying time for her family.

Jones “is a fun-loving mom, churchgoing, a hard-working lady,” Jones’s mother said. “My child just doesn’t bother anybody.”

Speaking with, Jones’s grandmother, Patrice Jones, echoed those sentiments.

“It’s not fair,’’ the grandmother said. “Marshae didn’t have a gun. How did they turn it around on her?”

"We feel sympathy for the families involved, including Ms. Jones, who lost her unborn child,’’ the district attorney’s office said. “The fact that this tragedy was 100 percent avoidable makes this case even more disheartening.”

The indictment against Jones, unsealed Thursday, said that she “intentionally” caused the death of her fetus by “initiating a fight knowing she was five months pregnant,” reported. She could face up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors distanced themselves from Alabama’s restrictive abortion laws after abortion and pregnancy rights groups quickly seized on the incident with Jones as further evidence of the state criminalizing pregnancy.

“This case predates the passage of the legislation, and we must point out the new law played no role in the consideration of the grand jury,” prosecutors said. The statement was delivered by Chief Assistant District Attorney Valerie Hicks Powe because Washington was out of the country Thursday, reported.

The statement did not mention race, which advocates have said played a role. Jones is a black woman, as is Washington, the first black female district attorney elected in Alabama.

In a phone interview late Thursday, Ebony Jemison’s mother, Earka, corroborated the police account. She told The Washington Post that her daughter was cleared by a grand jury June 10 when evidence and testimony was presented to suggest that Jones started the fight, causing Ebony to fire a warning shot out of fear.

Jones worked at the same company as Ebony Jemison and the fetus’s father, and tension developed between the two women, according to Jemison’s mother.

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Things boiled over on Dec. 4, when, she says, Jones, who was driving with friends at the time, spotted Jemison and leaped out of the vehicle to attack her. Jones’s friends left the car soon afterward and began to move toward the scuffle, she said.

“Ebony was afraid for her life and reached in her purse for the gun,” Earka Jemison said, adding that her daughter had a license to carry the weapon. “She tried to fire a warning shot to get away from her.”

But the shot — which Ebony Jemison’s mother says was aimed at the ground — ricocheted into Jones.

Earka Jemison told The Post that her daughter had received threats after the indictment. Ebony Jemison was not available for comment.

“If they weren’t sitting in the courtroom, let them talk,” the mother said about the people threatening her daughter. “I saw the evidence. I saw the evidence.”

Alabama is among 38 states with laws that classify fetuses as victims in homicide or assault, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Alabama, a “person” includes embryos and fetuses at any stage of development.

Rights groups raked Alabama for its laws that they say have ensnared pregnant women.

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told The Post that Alabama leads the country in mothers charged with crimes related to pregnancy, namely under the “chemical endangerment of a child” statute.

But this case, she noted, was unique.

“This is the first time the idea that fertilized egg or fetal personhood has provided the basis for arrest of a woman because she was pregnant, and she herself was the victim of a criminal act,” Paltrow said. “Alabama has indicted Ms. Jones, claiming it is a crime for a woman to be unable to protect her own life and health.”

Randall Marshall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said the state “is one of the most dangerous places in the country for a black woman trying to carry her pregnancy to term, and this prosecution is just one more attack on the basic human rights and dignity of black women in our state.”

Richard Jaffe, a criminal defense attorney in Birmingham, said he was shocked that Jones was charged with manslaughter, which in Alabama can apply to someone who negligently causes another person’s death after ignoring a known risk.

“No one expects to be shot or wants to be. To charge this person is astonishing to me,” Jaffe told The Post on Thursday. “She is probably going through enough grief as it is.”

Correction: The age of Jamal Jones was incorrect in a previous version of this story. He is 37.

Horton and Brice-Saddler reported from Washington.

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