The US is experiencing an unprecedented baby formula shortage and it can mean life or death for infants with special dietary needs or metabolic issues. About one in every 20,000 babies in the United States is born with MCAD deficiency, for instance. MCAD is an inherited disorder that prevents the body from breaking down certain fats and converting them to energy. Babies with this condition require very frequent feedings and without care the disorder causes malnutrition, dangerously low blood sugar, and sudden infant death syndrome. If a baby’s newborn screening is positive for MCAD deficiency, the infant’s doctor will contact the parent to arrange for additional testing. The initial positive result does not necessarily mean the child has the disorder and follow-up testing at a biomedical genetic laboratory is required to confirm the diagnosis.
In 2005, Tiffany Woods and Emmanuel Scott were forced to flee New Orleans the night before Hurricane Katrina struck with their four small children. Tiffany’s youngest child, little Emmanuel, was just two months old. Three weeks beforehand a New Orleans hospital had discharged the premature infant, who had tested positive for MCAD deficiency, but the crucial follow-up testing had not yet been performed before the hurricane hit.
Before the hospital sent the baby home after 41 days in intensive care, staff taught Woods how to care for her premature infant, but the discharge paperwork said nothing about frequent feedings, and Woods says the hospital never mentioned that. Days later, Woods took her baby to a pediatrician for a follow-up and vaccines. His visit to the Tulane genetics lab was scheduled for Aug. 29, the day after the city’s evacuation order was issued, but the family never made it back to Tulane.
Woods and Scott were forced to stay in a shelter with their children, feeding the baby formula they bought with government vouchers. Little Emmanuel was extremely sleepy and had trouble feeding, according to hospital records and his young parents, and when they ran out of the formula vouchers they switched to organic cow milk hoping he may tolerate it better. Experts say it’s a common mistake, though pediatricians generally advise against giving cow’s milk to children under one year old. Within weeks Emmanuel died of malnutrition.
Prosecutors decided his death was second-degree murder, which in Louisiana, requires no proof that harm was intended. A judge found both parents guilty and sentenced them to life in prison without the hope of parole. When the death occurred Tiffany Woods was 25 years old and Emmanuel Scott was just 18.
When Woods was arrested her three remaining children bounced around between foster care and relatives. No one seemed to consider these children when Louisiana took their parents and left them in the balance. “What is the benefit to society of keeping these people in prison for life?” Woods’ son Troy said. “My mama does not deserve to die in jail because of an accident.”
Louisiana has long had the highest homicide rate in the nation, but the law contains an unusually sweeping definition of second-degree murder that includes even some accidental deaths. Despite the wide variety of circumstances that can produce a second-degree conviction the sentence is always the same: mandatory life without parole. Judges have almost no discretion.
More than half of the people serving life in Louisiana were convicted of second-degree murder, including three-quarters of the 124 women serving life. Yet data suggests Louisiana may not be applying the punishment equally. Despite Black people making up one third of the population, 70% of people serving life without parole are black and 66% of those imprisoned in Louisiana are black.
Let us compare this tragic story to a white Ohio woman named Brooke Richardson who was found guilty of abuse of a corpse in connection with the death of her newborn daughter and sentenced to just seven days in jail and three years of basic supervision.
“Upon finding out that she was pregnant by a boy she had nothing to do with, Brooke burst into tears and told her doctor that she could not have this baby,” Prosecutor Steve Knippen told jurors.
Two months after the baby was born, investigators found her skeletal remains in a shallow grave in Brooke’s backyard. Police began an investigation that led to the remains after Richardson showed up at her doctor’s office – where she had taken the pregnancy test – without a child. When the doctor asked, Brooke began crying and said the baby was not alive at childbirth and she’d buried her.
Prosecutors charged her with aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, and child endangerment in the case. They painted a picture of a teen who was in a new relationship and wanted nothing to do with the baby or the man who impregnated her, alleging she killed the baby after she gave birth at home in the middle of the night.
To demonstrate her callousness, prosecutors showed the court a picture of Brooke at the gym just hours after giving birth, along with a text message to her mother.
“My belly is back, OMG. I am never, ever, ever, ever letting it get like this again. You’re about to see me looking freaking better than before, OMG,” the text message read.
In another case, a white daycare worker in Minnesota named Nataliia Karia plead guilty to attempted murder after hanging a 16-month-old boy from a noose in the basement of her home and third-degree assault for striking three people with her vehicle while attempting to flee the scene. She received time served for 20 months she had already served in jail and 10 years of probation.
A father who happened to be dropping off his child at the unlicensed center, Uptown DayCare, freed the boy, saving his life. Karia told the father she hung the boy from a pipe in her basement because she was stressed and “couldn’t take it anymore.” She then raced out the door and got into her minivan. Driving erratically, she hit a car and, after the driver got out to inspect the damage, she punched the gas and dragged him for 10 blocks. She then struck a cyclist, breaking his leg, before hitting a car driven by a pregnant woman.
Undoubtedly, children with similar genetic disorders to Little Emmanuel have died as a result of the current baby formula shortage. Are parents going to be held to the same standard as Tiffany Woods and Emmanuel Scott? Will they be charged with murder because they can not get their hands on formula during a crisis? Further, considering the circumstances, do the sentences in these three cases constitute EQUAL JUSTICE in today’s America?
Today, about one in every 31 people in the United States are under the supervision of the corrections system, either locked up or on probation or parole. The system unfairly punishes people of color, burdens taxpayers, and exacts a tremendous social cost. Sadly, African-American men who failed to finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed. Not surprisingly, the US is also home to the highest incarceration rate of women in the world. While the overall American incarceration rate is falling, at 133 out of every 100,000, the women’s rate remains at a historic high. Only 4% of the world’s female population lives in the US, but the US accounts for more than 30% of the world’s incarcerated women.
Additionally, the adoption of mandatory minimums has taken the power away from judges and given it to prosecutors, who could threaten to charge defendants with crimes that would “trigger” a mandatory minimum. Facing a harsh sentence from which there’s no other escape, a defendant can often feel coerced into admitting their guilt — even sometimes falsely confessing.
“Three-strikes” laws are another way legislatures have removed sentencing discretion that judges used to have. Under these laws, which started in California, a person is considered to be beyond rehabilitation after committing three crimes. As a result, once they’ve reached the “third strike,” the penalty is much more severe than it would usually be. Sometimes a life sentence can result from a combination of relatively minor offenses, just because the third strike requires the judge to impose a very long prison sentence. There are people today spending their lives in prison for committing three petty crimes.
Finally, different sentences for different drugs have driven mass incarceration and caused a race and economic imbalance within prison. Generally, possessing 5 grams of marijuana will earn you less prison time than possessing 5 grams of cocaine. The idea is that more dangerous drugs should be punished more severely. But that hasn’t always been the case. Crack and powder cocaine are chemically the same substance. But possession of crack cocaine, which is more common in communities of color, is punished much more severely than possession of powder cocaine, which is more common in wealthier white communities.
The US justice system desperately needs reform. Despite making up close to 5% of the global population, the U.S. has more than 20% of the world’s prison population. Since 1970, the incarcerated population has increased by 500% – 2 million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime. Additionally, despite Blacks making up a mere 13.4% of the total US population, they make up nearly 40% of the total American prison population. Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans and seven states have a Black/white disparity larger than 9 to 1.
Let’s take action to promote EQUAL JUSTICE in the United States, beginning with this tragic case following Hurricane Katrina. Locking both parents away in prison without the hope of parole and throwing their remaining dependent children into foster care is a miscarriage of justice. After more than 15 years in prison, help Tiffany Woods and Emmanuel Scott reunite with their family and achieve post-conviction relief!
Sign the petition advocating for Tiffany Woods’ and Emmanuel Scotts’ post-conviction relief HERE.
Make a donation towards private attorney and legal fees here for Tiffany Woods and Emmanuel Scott HERE.
We would like to thank The Marshall Project for the content related to Tiffany Woods’ and Emmanuel Scotts’ plight. Read the entire comprehensive article HERE.
We would like to thank CNN for the content related to Brooke Richardson, who buried her newborn in the backyard. Read the entire comprehensive article HERE.
We would like to thank People for the content related to Nataliia Karia, who hung a toddler from a noose in her basement. Read the entire comprehensive article HERE.