Missouri Woman's Sentence After Encouraging Her Boyfriend To Kill His Son Sparks Legal Questions
Earlier this month, a woman living in Columbia, Missouri, admitted to pressuring her boyfriend to kill his 3-month-old son. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that, in April 2017, Emily Paul sent texts to Jibri Baker, of St. Louis, threatening to leave him if he continued caring for his two sons and calling the baby “a burden.”
Paul was initially charged with first-degree murder but pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of involunary manslaughter. She will serve four months in prison and faces up to 10 years if she violates probation, court records show.
The case raises questions. Paul was miles away when Baker suffocated his son, and her lawyer has said she “never truly believed” her words would lead to the infant’s death. For many observers, her prosecution calls to mind a 2014 case, when a Massachusetts woman was sentenced to 15 months in jail after urging her suicidal boyfriend to kill himself.
Baker was sentenced to a life term in February.
“I think the interesting issue is whether or not words — saying words — would really establish that you’re certain an action would occur,” said Susan McGraugh, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law and director of its criminal defense legal clinic. “Under Missouri law, someone acts recklessly when they should know that it’s practically certain that a certain action should occur. It’s the lowest mental state we have.”
The Massachusetts case relied on texts in which the woman explicitly told her boyfriend to kill himself. Paul’s lawyer said his client never directly told her boyfriend to kill his son.
McGraugh noted that Paul may well have convinced a jury she wasn’t guilty of murder. But it would be a huge gamble. In Missouri, a first-degree murder conviction mandates either life in prison or the death penalty.
“What she was facing was really an enormous amount of punishment,” McGraugh said of Paul. “Also, she was charged in a way that’s called ‘acting with another,’ so that she was going to be held responsible for what she did and what the father of the child did.”
Added McGraugh, “If you gamble with the trial — and a trial is always a gamble — and you lose, she’d never get out of prison. All of the sudden, [a] four-month [sentence] looks like a really good deal.”
McGraugh joined attorneys Bill Freivogel and Mark Smith for St. Louis on the Air’s monthly Legal Roundtable discussion.
“It’s a horrible case, and people want her to have more of a penalty,” said Smith, who is also associate vice chancellor and dean for career services at Washington University.
Smith said it might have been impossible for prosecutors to prove Paul’s intent or how much she knew about her boyfriend’s mental state.
“I think there’s a good chance she might have won on appeal saying, ‘Hey, I never said this [explicitly], so I don’t think it can fit under involuntary manslaughter. I was just telling him, ‘I don’t like these kids being around,’ and there’s no way I could have anticipated it.”
Smith added that prosecutors will likely face pressure to bring similar cases in light of young people’s growing reliance on written communication like texts. But the Missouri case doesn’t add to the law, unlike the earlier case in Massachusetts; Paul’s plea agreement doesn’t set a precedent.
The Legal Roundtable panelists also discussed other local and regional legal issues, including a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, challenges to St. Louis County’s prohibition on some youth sports and St. Louis prosecutors’ decision to not charge protesters who were issued trespassing summons after a June incident in front of Mark and Patricia McCloskey’s Central West End home.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.