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Was a 17-year-old pregnant girl within her rights under Utah state law to hire a man to beat her belly as a way to get an abortion, or should the girl instead be held criminally liable for attempted homicide?
That question was argued before the Utah Supreme Court on Wednesday as the Utah Attorney General's Office and defense attorneys for a Vernal teenager squared off over a district court judge's decision to dismiss criminal charges against the girl two years ago.
Assistant Attorney General Chris Ballard told the high court the Legislature never intended for "punching a pregnant woman in the stomach" to be a procedure for obtaining an abortion when it drafted a law that exempts women from criminal prosecution for murder when they seek an abortion. He said the Legislature intended for women to seek abortions in a "safe, humane" manner through typical medical procedures.
Vernal attorney Richard King, however, said the girl was well within her rights when she hired 21-year-old Aaron Harrison to beat her up so she'd miscarry.
"Any abortion is an assault on a fetus," King said, adding that Utah law at the time of the incident didn't specify what types of abortion procedures were not kosher, meaning the teenager couldn't be held accountable for seeking an abortion.
"The issue is whether soliciting someone [to kill a fetus] is an abortion. The statute at the time indicates that it is."
The Uintah County Attorney's Office and Utah Attorney General's Office have asked the high court to overturn 8th District Juvenile Court Judge Larry Steele, who threw out the case against a minor identified in court documents as J.M.S in November 2009.
The girl was originally charged in May 2009 with second-degree felony criminal solicitation to commit murder. According to charging documents and court testimony, Harrison accepted $150 from the then 17-year-old girl, who met at a Naples 7-Eleven. He brought the girl to the basement of his parent's house, where he kicked her in the stomach five times and bit her neck.
The girl, who gave birth in August 2009, pleaded no contest to the charge in June 2009. Steele ordered her placed in secure confinement until she is 21. Steele then reversed himself and released the girl after an attorney argued she did not commit a crime.
The ruling sparked state Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, to bring the issue to the Legislature and propose a bill which became a law allowing prosecutors to charge a woman who arranges an illegal abortion with criminal homicide.
In October 2009, 8th District Court Judge A. Lynn Payne sentenced Harrison to serve up to five years in prison for his role in the beating. Payne sentenced Harrison in four other unrelated cases the same day three of them third-degree felonies. Payne ordered the terms to run consecutively, meaning Harrison could serve up to 20 years behind bars. The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole has set a hearing date for Harrison in August of 2017.
But the high court is also considering Harrison's case, in response to the AG's office questioning why Payne sentenced Harrison to third-degree felony attempted killing of an unborn child, when a plea agreement reached with prosecutors was for attempted murder. Ballard called Payne's decision to sentence Harrison under a different charge "an illegal sentence." Harrison's attorney, Michael Humiston, is asking justices to uphold Payne's decision.
At Wednesday's Supreme Court hearing, justices questioned both attorneys on what should constitute an abortion under state law.
Justice Thomas Lee suggested a scenario in which a woman hires a hit man from the mafia to shoot a bullet into her pregnant stomach as a way to seek an abortion.
"Would an ordinary, average person think of that as an abortion?" he said. "I think it's kind of a stretch to say most people would look at that and call it an abortion."
The high court will issue a ruling in the case at a later date.
Meanwhile, the girl's baby has been adopted by a relative. The girl told police she solicited Harrison to assault her after her boyfriend threatened a breakup if she didn't terminate her pregnancy.