Parents of slain pregnant Howard County teacher seek bill on fetal homicide

When she was killed, Laura Wallen didn’t know that the baby she was carrying was a boy. But she had chosen a boy’s name, Reid.

If Mark and Gwen Wallen can sway the Maryland General Assembly, their daughter’s name will be united with that of their never-born grandson in a law allowing prosecutors to bring a murder charge against the killer of an unborn child no matter the stage of fetal development.

The couple is planning a news conference in Annapolis Tuesday to unveil Laura and Reid’s Law, to be introduced in the legislature this week. It’s their way of honoring their daughter, who was a 31-year-old social studies teacher at Wilde Lake High School in Howard County.

She was expecting her first child when she went missing in September. After a weeklong search and a tearful news conference in which the Wallen family and boyfriend Tyler Tessier pleaded for her return, Laura’s body was found in a shallow grave in a field in Damascus. She had been shot in the head.

Tessier, 32, was charged with first-degree murder in Laura’s death. But Montgomery County prosecutors told her parents they could not charge him in the death of their grandchild. The fetus was 13 or 14 weeks old and did not meet the viability test of 23 to 24 weeks for a separate charge to be brought under Maryland law.

Four months after their daughter’s death, the Wallens are working to change that. They’re planning to testify on behalf of the bill at hearings and to buttonhole lawmakers in support of it.

“We’re not trying to change the law for Laura,” said Gwen Wallen, sitting at the dining room table in Olney where they once shared Thanksgiving dinner with their daughter and her accused murderer. “We’re trying to change the law for other women and their fetuses in intimate-partner violence.”

The Wallens say they know that by taking on the issue they are wading deeply into the politics of abortion. For abortion opponents, any assertion of a fetal right to life at an early stage of pregnancy is counted as a victory. For supporters of abortion rights, who make up a majority in Maryland’s legislature, such laws are seen as a slippery slope leading to the erosion of a woman’s control of her body.

But Mark Wallen, 59, insists the legislation is about domestic violence, not abortion.

“It has nothing to do with a woman’s right to choose,” he said.

Gwen Wallen, 58, said she is well aware that the abortion issue will influence the debate over Laura and Reid’s Law. She said she conducted extensive research to find a state law that addressed the topic of fetal homicide without infringing on abortion rights. Wallen said she settled on a North Carolina statute that explicitly states that it does not cover legal abortions.

The bill as drafted for introduction in Maryland also specifies that it cannot be used to bring charges against a mother for failing to care for a fetus, nor can it be construed as conferring the rights of “personhood” to the unborn child.

To charge a defendant with fetal murder or manslaughter under the legislation, prosecutors would have to show the person intended to kill or seriously injure the unborn baby or “wantonly or recklessly disregarded” the likely harm to the fetus.

The Wallens are under no illusions that those provisions will make it easy to pass the bill.

“I knew when we started that would be a problem — that this would be a pro-life vs. pro-choice issue,” Gwen Wallen said.

After her daughter’s death, Gwen Wallen said, she found herself reading an article in Women’s Health — a magazine to which her daughter subscribed — that explored the link between homicide and pregnancy. She learned that more than half of pregnant women slain in the United States were killed in their first trimester.

“I realized that was our daughter,” she said.

The Wallens say they are confident that such a law would have a deterrent effect on potential attackers of pregnant women. But apart from that, they see it as a matter of justice.

Sen. Justin D. Ready, the bill’s Senate sponsor, agrees.

“The message is that it’s about protecting victims and getting justice for victims,” the Carroll County Republican said. An abortion opponent, Ready said his beliefs on that issue are “not the impetus of this bill.”

Maryland has had a fetal homicide law on the books since 2005, but to secure a conviction, prosecutors must show the fetus was capable of living outside the womb at the time of the attack.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, recalls that it was a struggle to get that bill passed. The Montgomery County Democrat said that while Laura Wallen’s killing was “absolutely ghastly,” the committee would scrutinize the bill to make sure the language doesn’t have unintended consequences.

“The caveats certainly go in the direction I would like to see,” she said.

The legislation would have no effect on case against Tessier, who police contend was engaged to another woman at the same time he was seeing Wallen. Prosecutors will seek life without parole when he goes on trial April 9, the same day the legislature is scheduled to end its 90-day session. Tessier’s public defender could not be reached Monday but had previously stated that his client maintains his innocence.

Gwen Wallen said she hopes that in some future case involving a slain woman and her unborn child, the second charge could mean the difference between a life sentence and life without parole.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, who became Maryland’s first prosecutor to win a conviction under Maryland’s fetal homicide statute, said that in the 2007 case against David Miller he had to present testimony from the woman victim’s obstetrician-gynecologist that the fetus she was carrying was viable at the time of the murder. He said the measure the Wallens support would make it easier to win a conviction in such cases and could have an effect on punishment.

“That would certainly be considered an aggravating factor in any judge’s mind in the sentencing,” said Shellenberger, a Democrat.

The Wallens said they approached Gov. Larry Hogan’s legislative office for advice on how to launch an effort to change the law. They said Hogan’s chief legislative officer, Christopher B. Shank, put them in touch with two Republican lawmakers who agreed to sponsor the measure: Ready and Del. Trent M. Kittleman of Howard County.

Shank, a former state senator, was candid with them, the Wallens said. They said he warned them that passing legislation is often a multi-year endeavor. They know it’s possible the measure will not even be brought up for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee — panels that are known for turning down emotionally charged appeals for new laws.

The Wallens say they are willing to work as long as it takes.

Gwen Wallen, a 38-year nurse who works at the National Institutes of Health, said the effort makes her feel productive.

“There’s so much we can’t control and we can’t do,” she said. “It feels like we’re doing good.”

Mark Wallen, a medical sales representative, said he’s prepared to use his gift of persuasion in the legislative arena to see that Laura is remembered.

“She has a legacy and we want to make every moment of her life have meaning,” he said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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