Death penalty in Cleveland horrors? Wait, who died?

Once again, let's turn to the dictionary and that tricky word "fetus," which has through the decades been at the heart of so many bitter newsroom arguments about abortion, morality, religion, science and law.

fe·tus ... pl. fe·tus·es

... 2. In humans, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo.

Obviously, your GetReligionistas have been discussing this term lately because of the ongoing, and ongoing, trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell and the fact that some elite media have been saying things like the following (care of the industry scriptures, The New York Times):

PHILADELPHIA -- Through four weeks, prosecutors have laid out evidence against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion provider on trial on charges of killing seven viable fetuses by “snipping” their necks with scissors and of causing the death of a pregnant 41-year-old woman during a procedure.

The problem, once again, is that at the heart of the Gosnell nightmare were the reports that he was DELIVERING late-term fetuses and THEN killing the infants -- after delivery. In other words, these infants were no longer "fetuses," according to the dictionary, when the abortionist snipped their spinal cords.

Now, we are seeing some interesting, and related, issues emerging in Cleveland, where prosecutors are preparing to throw the book at the alleged kidnapper and torturer Ariel Castro. Note the language in this New York Times report, which resembles that seen in many other mainstream media accounts. Here is the lede:

CLEVELAND -- As more grim details emerged ... about the long captivity of the three women rescued from imprisonment in a dilapidated home here, one official compared the victims to survivors of a P.O.W. camp, and prosecutors said they would seek murder charges against the man held in the abductions, accusing him of forcing at least one of the women to miscarry.

Timothy J. McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said the miscarriages, which at least one of the women described to the police, could be grounds for seeking the death penalty for the suspect, Ariel Castro. Mr. Castro, a former bus driver, enticed the women off the street with offers of a ride home, the authorities say.

And later on, there is this linked to the torture of Michelle Knight:

Immediately after police officers broke into Mr. Castro’s fortified home on Seymour Avenue on Monday afternoon, Ms. Knight told her rescuers that Mr. Castro had impregnated her multiple times.

“She stated that Ariel would make her abort the baby,” the police wrote in a report obtained by The New York Times. Mr. Castro would starve Ms. Knight for weeks, she told the police, then repeatedly punch her in the stomach “until she miscarried.”

Mr. McGinty said at a news briefing that Ohio law allowed for the death penalty for “aggravated murder during the course of a kidnapping” and that he was studying whether to seek capital murder charges from a grand jury because of the forced miscarriages.

Note the lack of "fetus" language and the fact that the word "baby" is quoted from a police report. This is careful writing.

The USA Today team was not quite as careful:

CLEVELAND -- The man accused of holding three women captive in his house for more than a decade could face the death penalty if it's determined he is responsible for the deaths of the victims' unborn children, prosecutors said Thursday.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said pending further police investigation, Castro, 52, could face charge of murder in the course of kidnapping, which carries a potential death penalty. McGinty will present the case to the grand jury and could seek aggravated murder charges for each of the pregnancies.

Clearly, journalists are struggling here to try to determine how to answer a question that, in court debates, has often turned on theological issues linked to personhood, ensoulment, human rights, etc., etc. To be blunt: Precisely when does an undesired "fetus" turn into a "unborn child" when the biological, dare I say "journalistic," realities are the same?

Now, from the perspective of the journalists defending a consistent use of the term "fetus," even when the term is inaccurate (see Gosnell coverage), here is the hard-news question of the moment. If the prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty for Castro in this case, who did he kill? What human persons with full dignity and legal rights, under this nation's current legal regime, died during these alleged crimes?

Just asking. Try covering that story without facing religious questions.

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