BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — As she recovered in a hospital bed on a chilly December night, Marshae Jones could only think about what she had lost.
The 27-year-old was five months pregnant when she was involved in a fight that, authorities say, prompted a woman to fire a gun in self-defense. The bullet tore through Jones’s abdomen and caused a miscarriage, anguishing the young mother — and the historic East Thomas neighborhood of central Alabama, where her family has lived for generations.
“As her pastor, I would ask whoever to prayerfully consider the heart of this young lady,” said the Rev. George Robinson Jr., the pastor of First Baptist Church of East Thomas, where Jones and her family attend. “Marshae is not the person that has been pictured or painted of her. She’s not that young lady.”
Robinson said he prayed with Jones in the hospital that night, and in the weeks leading up to Wednesday, when a grand jury indicted her on a manslaughter charge for the death of her own fetus.
The complex case has divided those seeking to place blame in the fetus’s death, a tension augmented by the abortion debate in Alabama and the state’s broad manslaughter law, which makes it a felony to “recklessly” cause the death of another person.
“She was really sorrowful about everything that actually transpired up to this point,” Robinson told The Washington Post, speaking of the woman’s reaction in the aftermath of the shooting. “Her words to me were she could not believe she lost the baby.”
In a Friday statement, the office of District Attorney Lynneice Washington said they have not decided whether Jones will be prosecuted on the manslaughter charge, face a lesser charge or be cleared in the death of her fetus. The grand jury that indicted Jones chose not to indict Ebony Jemison, the woman who prosecutors said fired the shot.
Robinson and others close to Jones, who has a young daughter, say it’s difficult to picture the “lovable and caring” mother as an aggressor. They say Jones may have been caught up in the heat of the moment on the afternoon of Dec. 4, when police and prosecutors say she initiated a fight with Jemison outside a Dollar General.
In a phone interview late Thursday, Jemison’s mother, Earka, told The Washington Post that her daughter was cleared by the grand jury because 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 Earka.
She said things boiled over in December when 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,” her mother 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 Jemison’s mother says was aimed at the ground — ricocheted into Jones. Earka Jemison told The Post that her daughter received threats after the indictment.
“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.”
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 Post that Jones and Jemison had feuded in the past but that Jones has always been a quiet, soft-spoken person, and a good mother to her young daughter.
“Her daughter is with her everywhere,” the 37-year-old said of Jones. “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.”
“She’s a good person,” he added. “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 AL.com, 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.”
Alabama is among at least 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 say those laws are ensnaring pregnant women.
Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, says Alabama leads the country in mothers charged with crimes related to pregnancy. But she said this case 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.”
Robinson, the pastor at Jones’s church, said he did not see young woman as a criminal. He called the situation “shocking” and said the 200 or so members of his tightknit congregation are equally concerned about the case.
As they struggle to answer unthinkable questions, the East Thomas community waits for a prosecutor to decide whether Jones should be held accountable for her lost pregnancy.
Alex Horton contributed to this report. Horton and Brice-Saddler reported from Washington.