Pubdate: Tue, 24 Jul 2001
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2001 The State
Author: Jeffrey Collins, The Associated Press


Technicality Cited By S.C. Justices; Fetal Abuse Issues Remain Unchanged

The state Supreme Court overturned Brenda Peppers' conviction on charges 
she harmed her child by taking crack cocaine while pregnant.

But Monday's ruling wasn't the complete victory the Greenwood County woman 

The justices unanimously agreed to toss aside Peppers' guilty plea to 
unlawful conduct toward a child because of a technicality, saying she only 
agreed to plead guilty if her case could be appealed to the high court.

Such conditional pleas are not allowed under South Carolina law, the 
justices ruled in an unsigned opinion released Monday.

The Supreme Court did not touch arguments by Peppers' attorney that South 
Carolina's law allowing women to be prosecuted under child abuse laws if 
they take drugs while pregnant and harm an otherwise viable fetus is 

Attorney General Charlie Condon said he is pleased with the court's 
decision and thinks the case will be dropped.

"If the goals of the prosecution have been met - if there has been 
successful drug treatment - I don't plan to prosecute this case again," 
Condon said.

Peppers, who went into a month-long coma shortly after her daughter was 
stillborn, said she never used crack after she recovered.

Peppers' lawyer, C. Rauch Wise, wanted the court to overturn its 1997 
ruling in the case of Cornelia Whitner. Then, the justices ruled a viable 
fetus is considered a child and mothers could be charged with abuse if they 
took drugs when their unborn child could live outside the womb.

"I'm delighted for Brenda Peppers," Wise said. "She's very deserving of 
getting rid of her criminal record."

While Peppers' case appears to be over, Wise said other cases making their 
way through the court system should provide additional challenges to the 
South Carolina law.

"The ultimate issue has not been resolved," he said.

The issue received national attention after 24-year-old Regina McKnight, 
who gave birth to a stillborn child who tested positive for a cocaine 
byproduct, became the first woman ever convicted of homicide by child abuse 
charges in May. McKnight was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Women's rights groups and other national organizations unfairly painted 
South Carolina's law as a tool to punish mothers, Condon's spokesman Robb 
McBurney said.

"The policy in South Carolina is not to put mothers in jail, but to get 
them help," McBurney said, pointing to Peppers' sentence of probation as proof.

And South Carolina's law is in line with current thinking about drug 
treatment that forcing addicts into treatment often works. Condon said.

In his brief before the court, Wise said no other state has followed South 
Carolina's lead in allowing mothers to be prosecuted for drug use. Women's 
advocates touted a study earlier this year in the Journal of the American 
Medical Association finding that using cocaine was about as harmful to a 
fetus as cigarette smoking and less harmful than heavy drinking.

Wise also warned that the law in the Whitner case could allow prosecutors 
to try pregnant women for having a glass or two of wine with dinner or even 
gaining too much weight.

McBurney called Wise's arguments "a parade of horribles" used to shoot down 
a sensible law.

"None of those things have happened yet," McBurney said.
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