Grand jury declines to indict Ohio woman facing charges after she miscarried

Brittany Watts, 34, miscarried at nearly 22 weeks.

January 11, 2024, 5:40 PM

A grand jury decided Thursday not to indict an Ohio woman on allegations that she mishandled the remains of a fetus after miscarrying her pregnancy at home.

The case had alarmed reproductive rights groups and legal experts who said there is no clear guidance on how to handle an at-home miscarriage and that police and local prosecutors overreached by charging the woman, who is Black, with "abuse of a corpse."

Brittany Watts, 34, of Warren, was arrested last October and pleaded not guilty to the charge. If convicted, she would have faced up to a year in prison. Because the grand jury decided not to indict, the case has been dropped.

According to the Trumbull County Coroner's Office, Watts' water broke last September when she was 21 weeks and five days pregnant. A fetal heartbeat was present, but her doctors at Mercy Health - St. Joseph Warren Hospital recommended that Watts be induced to prevent a life-threatening infection from developing.

At the time, Ohio allowed abortions up to 22 weeks gestation or later if a woman's life was at stake.

The coroner's report said Watts then signed herself out of the hospital against medical advice "to process the information she was told." She returned to the hospital the next day, but again left a second time against the advice of doctors.

PHOTO: The Trumbull County Courthouse, Oct. 16, 2020, in Warren, Ohio.
The Trumbull County Courthouse, Oct. 16, 2020, in Warren, Ohio.
David Dermer/AP

The hospital declined to comment, citing privacy concerns.

Two days later, Watts delivered the fetus at home over a toilet. She then returned to the hospital, where she told authorities she thought she had taken the fetal remains out of the toilet and placed them in a black bucket.

The fetal remains were found wedged inside the toilet bowl, according to the coroner's report.

"Not wanting to destroy any evidence, the bottom portion of the toilet was removed" and taken to the local morgue "for further investigation," the coroner's office wrote.

A subsequent autopsy showed that the baby had died before being born due to a spontaneous miscarriage and that no illicit drugs were present. Watts was arrested two weeks later on accusations of "abusing a corpse."

Assistant prosecutor Lewis Guarnieri argued to have the case move forward, which was agreed to by Warren Municipal Court Judge Terry Ivanchak.

Ivanchak referred the case to a grand jury, arguing there was "probable cause" of a crime. He has since retired. The case would have been tried by Judge Andrew Logan.

The local police and the city attorney of Warren, responsible for initiating charges against Watts, have not responded to requests for comment.

Dennis Watkins, the Trumbull County prosecutor who advised the grand jury ahead of its decision, said his office believed Watts "did not violate the Ohio Criminal Statue of Abuse of a Corpse as alleged in the complaint."

"We respectively disagree with the lower court's application of the law," he said in the statement.

The charge against Watts occurred before Ohio voters passed an amendment in the November 2023 election to enshrine abortion rights in the state's constitution.

The ballot measure ended an earlier effort in Ohio by Republican lawmakers to enforce a near-total abortion ban after six weeks.

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