Greene County sheriff refuses to jail pregnant defendant

Wednesday, November 19, 2008 | 4:24 p.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD — A sheriff in southwest Missouri has given a pregnant defendant a jail pass, refusing to hold her for fear of a medical risk.

But in granting the release of 32-year-old Jennifer Jansen Van Vuren, Greene County Sheriff Jack Merritt has gone against a judge's order to lock up the mother-to-be.

Jansen Van Vuren was freed from the county jail twice in the last several days, despite Springfield Municipal Judge Todd Thornhill's order she be held on a $2,000 bond. In both cases, it was Merritt who called for her release.

"My medical staff told me it was such a danger,'' the sheriff told the Springfield News-Leader. "There were so many things.''

He said the county also would have likely had to pay for the woman's hospital stay if she gave birth while in custody.

Jansen Van Vuren, whose due date is in late November, is accused of stealing, trespassing and careless and imprudent driving.

The dueling over her release started Friday, a day after she was sent to jail for failing to appear in court several times. Merritt released her that evening on the promise she would report to court three days later.

When she showed up Monday, Thornhill sent her back to jail. This time, Merritt refused to book Jansen Van Vuren.

The Springfield police chief and city attorney got involved, and eventually a call was made to prosecutor Johnnie Burgess.

Burgess and Thornhill worked it out so Jansen Van Vuren's bond was dropped and she was released on her own recognizance.

Now, questions have arisen about whether Merritt overstepped his authority in refusing Thornhill's order.

"That certainly wasn't my desire,'' Merritt said. "There's a lot of people I have disagreed with, but I have not lost respect for the judge or his decisions.''

He said as sheriff he has leeway under state law to turn away inmates who aren't fit for confinement. However, case law suggests he could be held in contempt for not following the order.

In 1997, the Missouri Supreme Court found the St. Charles police chief to be "wrong in his temporary refusal to comply with the oral and written orders of the court.''

Thornhill has declined comment, noting that Jansen Van Vuren's cases are still pending.

Merritt has reached out to Thornhill through e-mail.

"I regret any complications I may be causing by refusing to accept Ms. Van Vuren, but I feel the liability issues associated with her medical condition is something we cannot accept,'' the e-mail reads.

Burgess said it is fairly uncommon to jail municipal defendants before they're convicted. He said it becomes necessary when a defendant repeatedly misses court dates.

In some cases, bonds are set to make certain a defendant shows up for trial, Burgess said. But in Jansen Van Vuren's case, the potential medical-care cost outweighed the possibility of her not arriving for court.

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