Amidst much publicity, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Judith Scruggs earlier this week for putting her 12-year-old son at risk by maintaining a cluttered and dirty home.

Daniel Scruggs tragically committed suicide by hanging himself in his bedroom closet.

While publicly billed as a conviction for conduct which contributed to Daniel’s death, the evidence indicated that household conditions were probably unrelated to Daniel’s suicide. In fact, the trial court described the situation far differently than most national media accounts.

“The defendant did not physically abuse her child. She was a single parent raising two children and working two jobs, 60 hours a week, to support her family. ... Many people knew that the defendant’s 12-year-old son, Daniel, was in great distress” wrote Judge Stephen Frazzini.

Daniel was being constantly bullied at school, occasionally defecated in his pants at school, was frequently absent or tardy, and the state’s protective service workers had visited the home shortly before his suicide, yet closed their investigation.

According to the judge, “whatever the fault of the school or [the social workers], the state prosecuted and the jury convicted the defendant of risk of injury to Daniel’s health because of the living conditions in the home.”

Scruggs was prosecuted under a statute which prohibited conduct placing a child in a situation likely to injure a child’s physical or mental health. The trial court found that despite evidence of poor housekeeping, there “was no evidence ... that anything in the home environment was likely to injure a child’s physical health.”

Nevertheless, the jury convicted Scruggs under the theory that Daniel’s home environment was likely to injure his mental health.

In overturning the conviction, the Connecticut Supreme Court determined that the state’s “at risk” statute was unconstitutionally vague. A penal statute is unconstitutionally vague when an offense is not defined with sufficient clarity that an ordinary person can understand what type of conduct is prohibited.

In the unanimous decision, Senior Justice William Sullivan described the problem: “We recognize that there may be generally accepted housekeeping norms and that it may be common knowledge that, all things being equal, a clean and orderly home is preferable to a dirty and cluttered home.”

Infinite gradations of conduct, however, make it difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary people to discern the line between “potentially harmful but lawful conduct, and unlawful conduct.”

Kentucky has several statutes directed at preventing the endangerment of minors. Thus far, none have been declared void, though Kentucky courts have struck down unrelated statutes. Laws which attempt to penalize normally lawful conduct, but are directed at a specific societal issue, may be susceptible to a void-for-vagueness challenge. This is best illustrated by a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the nation’s high court struck down a Chicago ordnance requiring that persons who sit or stand in the company of a gang member disperse unless their “purpose was apparent.” It’s fairly easy to understand how such statutes do not fairly apprise ordinary people about what conduct may, or may not be, lawful.

The only certain thing to emerge at the conclusion of this entire ordeal is that undeniable conclusion that the system failed Daniel, and no court can remedy the loss of a little boy who’s daily struggles made death an attractive option.

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