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A few months into her pregnancy, Natalia Harrell was in a detention van without air conditioning, according to a recent petition filed with the Florida Courts of Appeals. It was more than 100 degrees inside the van, the petition said, and a Miami-Dade County Jail official only opened a door after hearing Harrell banging on the walls.
Harrell, 24, has been jailed without bail since July when she was accused of fatally shooting another woman and was charged with second-degree murder. She was six weeks pregnant at the time and says at eight months prison staff endangered the fetus by refusing adequate prenatal care and putting her in situations such as the inmate-cart incident.
The allegations are part of a writ of habeas corpus that Harrell’s attorney filed with the Florida Third Circuit Court of Appeals last week. While habeas corpus filings typically claim that an individual is being illegally detained, Harrell’s attorney has instead argued that it is Harrell’s fetus that is being wrongly detained, as first reported by the Miami Herald.
Attorney William M. Norris’ petition states that the “unborn child” is innocent and should be released from prison so that it can receive proper care. That would require Harrell to be released until the child is born, the injunction argues.
“An unborn child has rights independent of its mother, even if it is still in the womb,” Norris told the Washington Post. “The unborn child was deprived of due process in this detention. You just have to factor in the unborn child.”
Norris’ argument that Harrell’s “unborn child is a person within the meaning of the Florida and United States Constitutions” is reminiscent of the concept of fetal personality, the belief that a fetus is a person entitled to constitutional protection . The term has gained traction and relevance since the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade overturned in the summer that guaranteed abortion rights.
On Monday, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office filed a motion to dismiss Norris’ petition, saying he failed to provide the necessary documentation to support allegations of inadequate medical treatment. The motion argues that habeas corpus is the wrong legal argument to seek redress.
Harrell is accused of killing 28-year-old Gladys Borcela during an argument in an Uber on July 23. She now faces a charge of second-degree murder, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. She pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to appear in court in April.
Harrell has been incarcerated at the Miami-Dade Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center for nearly seven months, an arrangement the petition says left her and her fetus vulnerable.
A Miami-Dade County corrections and rehabilitation spokesman said in a statement to The Post that the department is reviewing its prenatal care services.
“We are committed to ensuring that all inmates receive professional, timely medical care and all appropriate treatment,” the spokesman said.
The habeas corpus petition, filed Thursday, alleges detention center staff failed, refusing to provide medical care or transport Harrell to scheduled doctor’s appointments. According to the petition, she has not seen an obstetrician and gynecologist since October.
Staff failed to provide Harrell with vitamins, fluids and nutritious foods that doctors advised would aid in the development of her fetus, the order said.
“Without the immediate release of the UNBORN CHILD from the custody of the defendants,” states habeas corpus, “the UNBORN CHILD will likely be delivered on the concrete floor of the prison cell without the assistance of qualified doctors and paramedics in the presence of violent criminals.”
On Tuesday, Norris filed a response to the state’s motion to dismiss the petition, reiterating that the fetus is a person and that he has no other legal assistance because he is not charged with a criminal offense and therefore has no pending court cases to file any claims.
Norris told the Post he will continue to fight for fetal freedom.
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He is not the first to invoke the concept of habeas corpus in relation to pregnant defendants. In 2018, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that all pregnant defendants should be granted habeas corpus and be allowed to await trial at home.
Norris argued that Harrell’s is entitled to constitutional rights even if the fetus does not know it. The fetus has developed eyes and arms and could be born in the next month, the order said. However, without proper care, Norris worries that the fetus will be harmed before or during birth.
“The unborn child will be locked up without regard to its rights,” Norris said. “Our concern is the health of the unborn child and at this point it’s a bitch. We do not know at this point the health of the unborn child as months have passed without prenatal care.”