Wrongful Convictions and the Purvi Patel Appeal

What a relief that Center on Wrongful Convictions co-founder Larry Marshall will handle the appeal of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman unjustly sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide and neglect of a child. I have been closely following this case, on behalf of the CWC Women’s Project and out of great personal interest, and every aspect is disturbing—from the nature of the charges to the holes in the prosecution’s evidence to the sentence imposed.

The defense contended that Ms. Patel miscarried and that her baby was stillborn; if this is true, obviously there was no crime. As it happens, nearly two-thirds of proven wrongful convictions of women were in “no-crime” cases.

The prosecution’s theory was that Ms. Patel committed feticide by taking illegal abortion drugs, and, incongruously, that she committed neglect by delivering, at home, a live but very premature baby who died a few seconds after birth. The evidence supporting this theory was highly problematic and Larry will certainly bring out its weaknesses during the appeal. Indeed, Ms. Patel could hardly have chosen better in engaging Larry as pro bono appellate counsel. What is chilling about this case, though, is the unveiled threat to women that once they become pregnant, they lose autonomy over their own lives and may be criminally liable if they are deemed to have fallen short in guaranteeing a healthy birth.

Ms. Patel’s sentence is every bit as outrageous as the charges. In what universe does a woman with no criminal background, who was hiding her pregnancy due to fear of her family’s disapproval, deserve twenty years behind bars for neglect because she panicked after her baby came early? Most rapists and batterers get off with much less.

Some folks in criminal justice consider wrongful convictions to be “wrong person” cases, in which all that was wrong with the prosecution was the identity of the defendant. The Purvi Patel case, however, is an equally invidious type of “wrongful conviction” in which most likely there should have been no prosecution at all.

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