Factual question about a "Law & Order" episode

OK, so I remember this one episode where there was a lady who would contact other women and make it seem like she would be willing to sell her baby to them. In court, there were like three women who had sent money to her and expected the baby (obviously, each woman didn’t know about the other). She testified that she was only asking for financial help and that if they thought that they were getting the baby then it was their fault, not hers.

McCoy and his assistant (I forget which) only won the case after the lady’s boyfriend turned on her, testified against her, and told about how they knew a lawyer who told her just the right words to say so that if she ever did get sued, she could claim that she never said anything to indicate that she would give up her baby.

My question is, and this may vary from state to state, if the case were real, would she really be able to get off the hook because she never explicitly said she was selling the baby, or would a judge be able to say something to the effect of “Three women thinking the same thing isn’t a coincidence, it’s obvious that you lead them to believe that they would receive the baby if they sent you the money.”?

Also, I can’t remember if the mother tricked the other women into thinking that they would legally adopt the baby, or if it would be more like a black market transaction, but for the sake of the question, let’s assume that they thought that they would get to adopt it legally.

Sounds like the plot depended on the “magic words” view of the law - that there are magic legal words, and if you say them just right, a certain legal result is automatic.

That’s not how it works. In a case such as you describe, the judge or jury is entitled to take all relevant facts into consideration. They should consider what the accused person said, but also consider those statements in context, and whether they think the accused is telling the truth. They can also consider the effect of the conversations with the other people, and those other people’s explanations of what they understood the accused was offering. In particular, if you have three similar charges, tried together, that may help to show a pattern of intentional deceit.

IANAL, but I do not believe it is legal in any state in the U.S. to contract to sell an unborn baby. I believe the birth mother can always keep the child regardless of any agreement before hand.

That’s what I was thinking. Thanks.

Yes, but if I remember right (I’m looking for the episode on Google) the woman was arguing that she never promised her baby to anyone in the first place.

While that’s true, in this case fraud might have been involved and the money might have to be returned. That’s an area of contract law I definitely don’t know, but it’s certainly plausible with what little I do know. Given that this is L&O, there must be murder and/or rape involved somewhere. And probably an overly-complicated investigation by poorly-trained policeman, followed a frighteningly less-competent prosecution.


IANAL but…
You cannot sell a child, born yet or not. Any such contract is definitely not enforceable and certainly prosecution is a risk if you put too much on paper.

You can offer to help someone with their expenses. I assume this includes lost income and any other material needs. Since they cannot offer to sell thier child, presumably this would not be a contract. If the payments came attached to an offer to adopt, I suppose it would be something like the old proposal of marriage type “gift in anticipation of …” and with a good lawyer you could get the money back.

Did the dumb detective (Staedler?) fly off the handle and beat anyone up in the episode, or did they just harrass everyone by arrresting them in the most public manner, only to go “oops” and drop charges as the story progresses?

In the Baby M surrogacy case, the Sterns paid all of Mary Beth Whitehead’s birth expenses and never got their money back after she kept the child. Whitehead never paid Dr. Stern for the use of his sperm either.

The illegality (fraud) occurs when there is intent to decieve. Proof of that, and the woman accepting the money loses. It doesn’t matter how she worded her agreements to legally protect herself. If she had intent to mislead and they can proove it to a jury, they can convict her.

If for some reason, the buyers actually thought they were commiting to a legal transaction (surrogate fees or whatever) it’s harder to convict them of a crime, but not impossible as ignorance of the law is not immunity from the law.

For the life of me I cannot find the episode. Or rather, on the few sites that have episode guides for all 20 seasons, I’d have to start with season five…I think it was a McCoy era episode…and read the plot of each and every one, which I don’t really have the patience to do.

Anyway, her boyfriend who was part of the fraud turned and testified against her. I don’t remember much of the episode, just mostly the parts with the lawyers, and not really anything with the cops.

Edit time is passed. My last post was directed to md2000.

Could it be this ep?

YES!!! THANK YOU! :slight_smile:

This has a little more info on the episode

Um… huh?

She “kept” the child for about two weeks. The Sterns won complete custody of Melissa at the trial court, and Mary Beth Whitehead’s parental rights were revoked. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision as to the revocation of parental rights, but left the Sterns with physical custody and guardianship; Whitehead was awarded visitation rights only. Baby M grew up with the Sterns, not with Mary Beth Whitehead.

Interestingly enough, when she turned 18, “Baby M,” Melissa Stern, was at her own behest adopted by Elizabeth Stern, terminating Mary Beth’s parental rights again, this time with no chance of a court reversing it.

She kept the child from April 1 to May 5th, when the Sterns and the police showed up with a court order for her to give custody to them. Whitehead called an attorney, who told her to give the child to the poice. Instead, her husband kicked out a window screen, went outside and she handed him the child. They then went to Florida and lived on the run for three months until they were tracked down and the baby was then put in custody of the Sterns.

After that little stunt, Whitehead was only allowed supervised visitation.

OK, fair enough. Four months, then. My point stands: given that ultimately the Sterns received custody of the child, it doesn’t make sense to speculate that Whitehead should have returned thier money… although I’ll admit that a penalty of some kind to compensate the Sterns for their undoubtedly considerable legal fees in the wake of her reneging wouldn’t have seemed terrible.

Also of interest: the court decision that reversed the TPR as to Whitehead has had some interesting latter-day effects, including the loss of a same-sex married couple’s child after they had arranged surrogacy in New Jersey.

Dr. Stern was the biological father. MBW was the mother biologically. So it was basically a custody dispute. Wikipedia says she also threatened suicide if she didn’t get her baby back. If you were the judge - one parent threatens suicide, abducts the child against court orders… the other has a nice stable home and marriage. Who would you give the child to?

Somewhat different than someone who is having a baby and promising or not promising to let someone adopt it. the prospective parents have no real rights until the adoption is formalized, I would imagine.

But yes, playing the same adoption and expense money game with 3 different couples at once would probably be intent to defraud beyond a reasonable doubt. I doubt that fraud has to be a contract (any lawyers in the crowd?). I assume you can commit fraud while claiming to be a charity case and soliciting money.

If she’d stuck to 1 couple and then just “decided” to back out at the last minute, I imagine it would be harder to prove.

From here:

Sure. But in the Hollingsworth case I mention above, the female who got custody had no genetic link to the child at all.

Don’t forget that Mary Beth Whitehead also threatened to kill the baby, had sent her biological son Ryan to Florida to live with parents and then complained when it was used against her, and worst of all falsely accused William Stern of sexually molesting her 10 year old daughter Tuesday. Today such false acusations are immediately considered to prove the accuser an unfit parent.