Case Snapshot
Case ID: 4562
Classification: Unclassified
Animal: cat
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Saturday, Jan 4, 2003

County: Penobscot

Disposition: Not Charged

Person of Interest: Roscoe Sargent

In emotional testimony that included showing an autopsy photo of the 34-week-old fetus that died when their niece was murdered, Kristen Eckmann of Hudson and Kristy Fowler Eckmann of Dedham asked the committee to pass LD 262 and create a state law similar to the one passed by Congress last year.

"Because of the [federal] Laci and Connor bill, a man could kill a woman who is eight months pregnant in Acadia Park, or other federal land, and be prosecuted for two murders," Kristen Eckmann said, "and then go outside the park and kill another pregnant woman, but only be prosecuted for one murder. ... The simple humanity, the simple reality is that the law must recognize that there are two victims."

Roscoe Sargent, 30, murdered his pregnant wife, Heather Fliegelman Sargent, 20, on Jan. 4, 2003, at their residence in the Rainbow Trailer Park in Bangor. Two days later, police found her body and four dead cats in the couple's bedroom. She had been stabbed 47 times.

Sargent was convicted last year of murdering his wife after a jury-waived trial in Penobscot County Superior Court. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison. He was not charged in the death of his unborn son because Maine's homicide law does not apply to fetuses.

LD 262 would create a set of new crimes including "the murder of an unborn child, manslaughter of an unborn child and assault on an unborn child." The bill specifically states that it does not change the meaning of abortion, according to sponsor state Rep. Brian Duprey, R-Hampden, and is applicable only if the fetus is killed during the third trimester.

The U.S. Congress last year passed a bill making it a separate offense to harm a fetus during the commission of a federal crime. Maine's two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, split their votes on the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Snowe voted against the bill, but Collins voted for it after meeting with Kristen Eckmann and Fliegelman Sargent's mother, Cynthia Warner of Minnesota, the aunt told the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Maine's Democratic Reps. Tom Allen and Michael Michaud voted against the bill, also called the Laci and Connor bill after the notorious California case in which Scott Peterson was convicted of two counts of murder for killing his pregnant wife and unborn son.

Kristy Fowler Eckmann told the committee that it was with great trepidation that she and other family members looked at autopsy photos of Heather Fliegelman Sargent's body and the boy she was carrying, whom the family named Jonah, a year after the murder.

"I couldn't get over how much he looked like my son when he was a newborn," the mother of two told the committee. "We want justice for the next victim and her family. Stop playing the politics of fear and abortion, and vote for the Heather and Jonah bill."

She pointed out that Sargent could have been charged with animal cruelty and faced up to four years in prison for killing his cats, but could not be prosecuted for killing his unborn son.

LD 884, "An Act to Protect Motherhood," a bill some legislators considered a competing measure, passed the House and Senate earlier this week. Sponsored by Sen. Beth Edmonds, D-Freeport, the bill gives special weight in sentencing perpetrators of elevated violent crimes against pregnant women.

"Importantly, the legislation ensures the focus of the legal system is on the primary victim of the violence - the pregnant woman - and takes strong affirmative action toward providing protection under the law," Baldacci said in signing it as the Eckmanns looked on.

Kristen Eckmann said after the event that she supported the bill, but believed it was not specific enough because it did not include recommendations on how much longer sentences would be if the victim were pregnant.

"It still doesn't acknowledge Jonah as a loss for my family," she said.

State Rep. Darren Hall, R-Holden, a co-sponsor of the fetal homicide bill, told the Judiciary Committee at the hearing that Edmonds' bill did not go far enough.

"LD 884 is a great, great start," he said, "but it does not provide justice. I'm sure that if my wife were attacked and our baby died, there's absolutely no question that there would be two victims."

Hall and his wife are expecting their first child, a boy, in August. The legislator left the hearing immediately after his testimony to be with his wife at a Bangor hospital. She asked doctors to delay surgery related to her pregnancy for a day so Hall could testify at the hearing, he told the committee.

Representatives from pro-choice groups submitted written testimony opposing the bill but did not speak at the hearing. "The victim's family didn't need to go through a long hearing," Nicole Clegg, who lobbies for the Maine Choice Coalition, said after the hearing. "It took a lot of courage for them to stand up here."

In her statement, Clegg said that the bill was part of "a national strategy to use the criminal code to establish separate rights for a fetus and create a legal argument to be used in attempts to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade."

Kim Roberts, representing the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, did speak at the hearing. She argued that the bill would allow a violent crime specifically targeting a woman to be prosecuted with the fetus being presented as the primary victim instead of the woman.

"Yet it is the violent act against the woman that is at the root of the devastating injuries to the woman and the pregnancy," Roberts said. "In our view, legislation and policy should be focused on recognizing violence against women as the serious crime it is, and need not rely on loss of a pregnancy to vigorously prosecute these crimes."

Maine is on a shrinking list of states - one of 13 - that have no laws governing the injury or death of a fetus. Eighteen states, the latest being Virginia, have adopted homicide laws that recognize fetuses as victims, regardless of their stage of development.

Twelve other states have homicide laws that recognize fetuses as victims but only during certain stages of development.

A handful of other states, including New Hampshire, have laws that enhance penalties against a person who harms or murders a pregnant woman.

Three years ago, a fetal homicide law was submitted to the Legislature, but the Judiciary Committee voted the bill "ought not to pass," and it was voted down by a substantial margin in the House and the Senate.

The hearing on the bill Thursday originally was scheduled to be held last week with a host of anti-abortion bills before the Judiciary Committee. Duprey, known around the State House as a pro-life legislator, is the prime sponsor of those bills and LD 262.

Kristy Fowler Eckmann said earlier this month that she and others convinced committee chairman Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, to move the hearing on the fetal homicide bill to Thursday because it is not an abortion bill. The work session on the bill, however, was scheduled to be held after the hearing along with anti-abortion bills, but LD 262 was tabled late Thursday afternoon.

Duprey said he expected the vote in the committee would be divided along party lines.

Rep. Michael Dunn, D-Bangor, said after the hearing that he did not know how he would vote on the bill.

"This is a tough one for me," the father of four said. "I consider myself to be pro-choice, but I think this is about more than just choice."

References

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