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Georgia’s ‘Year And a Day’ Rule to Be Reviewed Through Infant’s Death

August 16, 1990

ATLANTA (AP) _ Under unwritten common law dating back to the Middle Ages, a person cannot be prosecuted for murder in Georgia if the victim takes more than a year and a day to die.

Under the law, Sala Shavon Cross, who was shaken into a coma at 3 1/2 months and died 18 months later, took too long to die. Murder charges against her father, David Lebron Cross, were thrown out earlier this month.

The case renewed scrutiny of the ″year and a day″ rule, and an appeal to be filed with the Georgia Supreme Court this month provides the state with its best opportunity in nearly a decade to repeal it.

The rule, based upon the precedents of English common law and dating to the 13th century, does not exist in Georgia’s official code but snakes through its judicial decisions and has become complicated by modern medicine.

A prosecutor in the case said the rule leaves would-be murder cases hanging in a limbo created by advances in medical technology.

″The moral of this rule is if you hurt somebody, make sure you hurt them near a hospital, so they can stay on life support for a year and a day. Then, go on about your business,″ said Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Hornbuckle. ″That’s the nightmare scenario.″

A Cobb County judge threw out murder charges against Cross after his attorney successfully cited the rule.

Bert Cohen, Cross’s lawyer, said the rule keeps a person from having the threat of a murder charge follow him through the rest of his life.

″How long should somebody have something like this hanging over his head?″ asked Cohen. ″We value individual rights in this country, and it’s pretty cruel to have something like this indefinitely hanging over someone’s head.″

Cross still faces a child cruelty charge and, if convicted, would face up to 20 years in jail. On the murder charge, prosecutors had said they would seek a life sentence.

Over the past decade, many states have moved to purge the rule through legislation, the courts or a combination of the two, said Deborah Young, assistant professor of law at Emory University.

″Some of the reasons for the law have clearly passed their time in history,″ she said.

At least two other states, Nevada and Maryland, still have ″year and a day″ rules; in Nevada it’s a state law and in Maryland it is a matter of common law. Two states, California and Washington, have rules stipulating three years and a day.

Cross, 27, was arrested on charges of aggravated battery and cruelty to children in August 1987, one week after he carried his unconscious daughter to the hospital. He said the baby had choked on her formula.

Medical tests showed evidence of 11 old and new fractures to Sala’s ribs, arms and legs. Doctors said the infant had suffered irreversible brain damage and would not regain consciousness.

Cross was jailed but was released on bond four months later as the child clung to life. He declined to give his consent when the hospital and Sala’s mother, Linda Lawson, asked a judge to allow doctors to withhold lifesaving efforts if Sala stopped breathing on her own.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Don A. Langham denied the request for continued resuscitation in December 1988, and Sala died two months later.

Cross was indicted in October 1989 on charges of murder and cruelty to children. Cobb County Superior Court Judge Watson White dismissed the murder charge Aug. 2, saying the ″year and a day″ rule was the law in Georgia.

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