US: Judge gives HIV-positive pregnant woman longer prison sentence ‘to protect unborn child’ (updated)

A judge in Maine has more than doubled the prison sentence of an HIV-positive woman in order to protect her unborn child, according to a report from The Bangor Daily News. The judge admits he based the decision entirely on the woman’s HIV status.

The 28 year-old woman, from Cameroon, had previously pleaded guilty for having fake documents. She was not legally entitled to be in the United States and was planning to seek asylum. The case has now been taken up by the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

Both prosecution and defence had asked U.S. District Judge John Woodcock to sentence the woman to 114 days, or time served (she has been in custody since January 21st). However, citing the welfare of the woman’s unborn child, the judge sentenced her to 238 days (to coincide with her due date of August 29th).

Woodcock told [the woman] at her sentencing on May 14 in U.S. District Court that he was not imposing the longer prison term to punish her further but to protect her unborn child. He said that the defendant was more likely to receive medical treatment and follow a drug regimen in federal prison than out on her own or in the custody of immigration officials. The judge also said that his decision was based entirely on her HIV status. If Tuleh were pregnant but not infected with the AIDS virus, he would have sentenced her to time served.


In sentencing Tuleh, Woodcock said that the law required he take into account a defendant’s medical condition in fashioning a sentence. Although a defendant’s medical condition most often is used to lower a sentence, the judge found that there was nothing in the federal sentencing guidelines to prevent him from imposing a sentence longer than the guidelines recommended because of Tuleh’s HIV status.

“My obligation is to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant,” he said at Tuleh’s sentencing, “and that public, it seems to me at this point, should likely include that child she’s carrying. I don’t think that the transfer of HIV to an unborn child is a crime technically under the law, but it is as direct and as likely as an ongoing assault.

“If I had — if I were to know conclusively that upon release from imprisonment a defendant was going to assault another person,” Woodcock said, “I would act in a fashion to prevent that, and similar to an assault, causing grievous injury to a wholly innocent person. And so I think I have the obligation to do what I can to protect that person, when that person is born, from permanent and ongoing harm.”

The Maine Civil Liberties Union told The Bangor Daily News.

“We are enormously sympathetic to the desire to ensure that Ms. Tuleh receives adequate health care, including prenatal care,” Zachary Heiden, legal director for the MCLU, said in an e-mail. “Federal immigration law has developed in truly arbitrary and punitive ways. Here, even a federal judge could not get assurances that Ms. Tuleh would not be deported before the end of her pregnancy. He could not get assurances she would not have her medical care arbitrarily cut off. That is wrong.

“Judges cannot lock a woman up simply because she is sick and pregnant,” he said. “Judges have enormous discretion in imposing sentences, and that is appropriate. But jailing someone is punishment — it is depriving them of liberty. That deprivation has to be justified, and illness or pregnancy is not justification for imprisonment.”

The sentence was objected to primarily by the prosecution, however.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Lowell objected to Woodcock’s decision. Lowell said Tuleh’s sentence set a precedent that “could affect the many other sorts of cases that come before this court in which defendants have serious medical conditions. In the end, Bureau of Prisons custody is designed to incarcerate,” Lowell told Woodcock at the sentencing hearing. “Incarceration is mostly designed for the purpose of punishment, deterrence and community protection. The Bureau of Prisons is not well-designed to accomplish necessarily the end of providing medical care to a defendant and her unborn child.”

The US Attorney’s office has appealed the sentence to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, but arguments will not be heard until late July. The MCLU is also planning on submitting amicus curiae briefs on the issues of HIV, pregnancy, immigration law, and prisoner rights.

Update: June 18th The woman will now give birth in hospital rather than prison after Judge Woodcock heard new evidence that she will be looked after in the community, according to a report in The Bangor Daily News.

“I recognize that the sentence turned out to be controversial,” he said. “I can certainly understand how some have misinterpreted what the court intended to do in this case.”

Woodcock said that what he had wanted to do was “to step in between the prison system and the social [safety] net” to ensure that Tuleh remained healthy and that the child was born healthy.

“At the time of the sentencing, I had no clear understanding of what the community could do,” Woodcock said.


A three-judge panel in Boston has agreed to hear the appeal on an expedited schedule, but oral arguments are not expected to be held until late July and early August. In addition to appeals filed by the prosecution and the defense, a group of 15 individuals and organizations have filed in Bangor and Boston a “friend of the court” brief in support of Tuleh.

Woodcock said Monday that he found the brief “articulate and helpful” in making his decision about whether to release Tuleh on bail.

More details at the National Advocates for Pregnant Women site here

Click here to see the results of the paper’s poll asking whether a judge should be able to impose a longer sentence in order to protect an inmate’s unborn child?