Changing Ohio fetus law ‘was about doing what was right’

For the last 20 years, the voices of Suzanne Daly and her unborn son — silenced in a deadly crash — have been heard in Ohio courtrooms.

Daly, 27, and her son, later named Austin Joseph, were killed on Aug. 14, 1995 when a 16-year-old unlicensed driver from Cincinnati went the wrong way on Interstate 275.

In the months that followed, Suzanne’s grieving husband, Joe Daly, of Middletown, his sister, Kathy Harris, and their family fought what appeared to be a lost battle: Changing Ohio’s law to give rights to unborn children and assure them legal protection from assault and homicide.

A baby wasn’t considered legally a baby until its first breath 20 years ago in Ohio.

That all changed following the events on the morning of Aug. 14, 1995 and because of the tireless work of the Daly family and southwestern Ohio legislatures. Eventually, the Daly Law, which gave unborn children rights, was signed on June 6, 1996, 20 years ago this week.

Joe Daly, now 53, remarried to Debbie and the father of twin 16-year-old girls, Kelsey and Elena, sophomores at Fenwick, was asked how long it seems since the law was signed, the final step in his fight to honor his late wife and their son.

“Some days it’s just like yesterday,” said Daly, flipping through a binder of laminated newspaper clippings that chronicled the ordeal. “Some days it’s like another life ago. Like I was reincarnated. How can you go from happy, about to have a baby, to terror and tragedy to picking up all the pieces and never thinking you’re going to get married to having two beautiful identical twins? My mom once told me, ‘Look, God caught up with you.’”

He wiped away some tears: “It still affects me as you can tell.”

After the deaths that created tremendous local media coverage, it was hard to turn on the TV or read the newspapers without seeing Joe Daly’s face. Every time he was spotted in his hometown, people whispered, “‘That’s the guy who lost his wife and son,’” Daly said. “That’s what I was known for.”

Others were harsher. They accused Daly of turning the tragedy into “Joe’s Show,” he said.

“Daly Law has nothing to do with me,” he said. “That was (Suzanne’s) last name when she died. I just had to keep it out in the public eye. I had to keep it high profile.”

Sen. Scott Nein, R-Middletown, remembers the Daly Law fondly. Even today, Nein rattled off the facts from 20 years ago like he heard the case yesterday. He called sponsoring Senate Bill 239 “one of the proudest moments” of his political career.

“It was so important,” Nein said of the bill. “I was pleased and honored to play a small part in it.”

Joe Daly played the lead. After his wife of five years and their unborn son — just three weeks shy of his Sept. 7 due date — were killed, Daly didn’t understand why the alleged driver of the vehicle wasn’t being charged with two counts of vehicular homicide since two people died in the accident. Daly buried his wife and unborn son in the same casket. Daly named his son Austin because he found a list of potential baby names and his wife had circled Austin.

Austin, wrapped in a white blanket, was placed in his mother’s arms in the casket. He was wearing a matching white top and pale blue jumper. Across the outfit were the words: “Take me home.”

They were killed when Krystal White, then 16, driving a stolen vehicle, went the wrong way on Interstate 275 and hit Daly’s vehicle. She was driving from Middletown to Loveland for her last week of work at the Children’s World Day Care Center before she started her maternity leave.

White was charged with juvenile delinquency by way of aggravated vehicular homicide, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and no driver’s license. Later, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters charged White with two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, but one count was thrown out because of Ohio’s law.

During one court appearance, White’s attorney, Kenneth Lawson, said the courtroom was no place to change state law. That was the role of the legislation, he said.

So Daly jumped into action. The 1981 Fenwick High School graduate dedicated all his time to making sure his son didn’t die in vain, he said.

“Somebody saved this for me to do,” he said, amazed no one had tried to rewrite the law before. “I mean it’s almost like seeing a crime and not reporting it. How can you live with yourself? The fact that 200 years went by and nobody said, ‘It’s wrong to kill the unborn.’”

So he formed a non-profit group called Protecting the Rights Of Unborn Dependents (PROUD), and began a postcard campaign out of his parents’ home in Middletown. The postcards read: “I’m PROUD and I support Joseph P. Daly’s mission to change Ohio law, which doesn’t recognize the rights of unborn children.”

Eventually Daly delivered nearly 100,000 postcards to Gov. George Voinovich’s office.

Rep. Bob Schuler, R-Cincinnati, and Nein sponsored the bills in December 1995 that granted viable fetuses legal status as “persons” under Ohio criminal law. Schuler’s bill was introduced in the House and was considered first, and Nein’s Senate Bill 239 was introduced in the Senate in January 1996.

The original bill passed by the Senate only protected so-called “viable fetuses,” those who could survive outside the womb. The bill was changed in the House to protect all fetuses.

On June 6, 1996, Voinovich left Columbus and drove to the Hamilton County courthouse to sign the bill. The legislation made it a crime to unlawfully terminate a pregnancy from fertilization to birth. The law specifically exempts from prosecution abortions and any harmful acts of the mother such as smoking and drinking.

At the time, Voinovich praised Daly and his family for making “a difference.”

The law gave unborn babies in Ohio the same rights as 37 other states, according to the Americans United for Life. Thirty-eight states define the killing of an unborn child at any stage of gestation as a form of homicide.

It’s unclear how many cases in Ohio the last 20 years have been impacted by the Daly Law, but there were two area cases that occurred shortly after the law passed.

In September 1996, Wright Patterson Airman Gregory Robbins pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the unlawful termination of a pregnancy after he allegedly punched his pregnant wife several times in the abdomen out of anger. He also pleaded guilty to assault and aggravated assault. It was believed to be the first conviction under Ohio’s fetus-homicide law.

In January 1997, Tracie Alfieri, 23, of Mount Washington, was indicted by a Hamilton County grand jury on charges of aggravated vehicular homicide and aggravated vehicular assault for allegedly causing a Nov. 27, 1996 crash that injured a Madisonville woman and killed the 6-month-old fetus she was carrying.

Daly, director of renovation lending and third party origination for AmeriFirst Home Mortgage, finds it ironic that it took him nine months — the human gestation period — to get the bill passed that honors his wife and son. Days after their deaths, Daly ordered the tombstone for their grave site at Woodside Cemetery in Middletown. Daly’s name also is listed on the tombstone and above his wife and son’s names it reads: “In memory of my beautiful wife a teacher who taught us love and to my son who would have brought great joy and happiness to our lives.”

The Dalys waited five years after they were married to start a family. They had decorated the baby’s room and family and friends had thrown them baby showers. They were just waiting for the arrival of their son.

“Austin never took a breath but because of his death he has represented hundreds of people in the courtroom,” Daly said.

Earlier this week Daly drove to Woodside Cemetery to pay respects to Suzanne and Austin. He walked slowly from his car to the grave site. As he neared, he lowered his head: “This was about doing what was right.”

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