A woman who birthed a stillborn baby at home and wrapped its remains in a trash bag, which was later taken to a public dumpster, was properly convicted for concealing a dead body under Code § 18.2-323.02.
Appellant Katherine Dellis purportedly suffered a placental abruption that resulted in the death of her unborn child. She birthed the deceased fetus in her home, losing consciousness during the labor process. She awoke to find the deceased fetus next to her on the bathroom floor. She cut the umbilical cord, wrapped the fetus in a bathmat, placed the bathmat inside a trash bag, and placed that trash bag inside a larger trash bag. Dellis’s father, unaware of the bag’s contents, subsequently disposed of the trash bag in a public dumpster in Franklin County.
Dellis was later admitted to the emergency room, and the treating physician ultimately contacted the police. Law enforcement recovered the fetus from the dumpster, and Assistant Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Eli Goodman performed an autopsy. Goodman testified that the fetus, with a gestational age of 30 to 32 weeks, was considered viable. The autopsy showed that the fetus died in the womb “less than several days” before Dellis gave birth.
Dellis was charged with concealing a dead body in violation of Code
§ 18.2-323.02. She moved to dismiss the charge because the statute refers to a specific definition of “dead body” found in Code § 32.1-249, and she argued that the codified definition does not encompass a fetus that died in the womb. The trial court denied the motion. Dellis entered a conditional guilty plea and appealed the ruling on dismissal.
Dellis argues that Code § 32.1-249 distinguishes a dead body from a fetus by defining “dead body,” “fetal death,” and “live birth” as separate terms, and by identifying them separately when defining a “final disposition.” Dellis further contends that a fetus cannot be “dead” because it was never alive.
Code § 18.2-323.02 prohibits the concealment of a “dead body, as defined in § 32.1-249”: “a human body or such parts of such human body from the condition of which it reasonably may be concluded that death recently occurred.” On its face, this definition is not ambiguous and can, by its plain language, encompass a stillborn fetus. The definition is based first on identification or classification of the body or parts thereof as human, and second on observable signs that indicate a recent death. A trained individual, such as a medical examiner, is capable of identifying a recently deceased human fetus and then determining a likely timeframe of its demise, as occurred in this case.
Dellis’s proposed distinctions, based on definitions for “fetal death” and “live birth, are without a difference in light of the statutory scheme as a whole. Within Title 32.1, Chapter 7, dealing with “Vital Records,” the various sections outline administrative procedures relating to incidents of birth and death. Multiple sections use the phrase “dead body or fetus” when setting forth their requirements. There are also separate sections pertaining to the filing of death certificates and fetal death reports. Even though the statutes identify both terms, the requirements and procedures are largely the same when applied to each one. This signals that the legislature intended both to receive the same treatment. Having separate sections for death certificates and fetal death reports simply recognizes that there may be some incidents of vital record-keeping unique to each category of decedent.
Moreover, for readily apparent reasons, finding that a fetus is not a dead body within the meaning of the statute would lead to an absurd result. In enacting Code § 18.2-323.02, the legislature sought to punish the transport, secreting, concealment, or alteration of human remains, and it did so expressly as a deterrent to discourage the concealment of possible criminal activity or impeding the investigation of such. But the statute was also likely enacted to prevent negative public health consequences that could result from improper disposal of a human body. To find that the remains of a fetus don’t raise the same public health concerns as other recently deceased human remains would be an irreconcilable proposition. Similarly, to find that any of the proscribed acts couldn’t implicate unlawful activity simply because the object was a fetus would frustrate the larger purposes of the criminal statute.
Finally, Dellis invites this Court to consider, in light of Virginia common law and civil precedent, how a fetus can be a dead body “if life has never occurred.” On the narrow issue before this court, such an inquiry is neither necessary nor relevant to the disposition of the case at hand. As discussed above, the medical examiner was able to examine the fetus and determine that the condition required by the statutory definition was met. Thus, the statute was satisfied, and no further inquiry is required.
Dellis v. Commonwealth, Record No. 0341-17-3, Apr. 24, 2018. CAV (Chafin), from Franklin Cir. Ct. (Reynolds). Arthur J. Donaldson for Appellant; Victoria Johnson for Appellee. VLW No. 018-7-107, 7 pp.