Pubdate: Sun 27 May 2001
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company
Page: A03
Author: Sue Anne Pressley, Washington Post Staff Writer
Cited: South Carolina Advocates  for Pregnant Women
National Advocates for Pregnant Women
Bookmarks: (Ferguson v. City of Charleston) (Women)


Jury Finds Mother Guilty of Homicide in Stillbirth

Throughout her recent three-day trial on charges she had killed her
stillborn child by smoking crack cocaine, Regina McKnight was in
disbelief that she had even been charged.

"I didn't kill my baby," she kept repeating to those around

A jury in Horry County, S.C., disagreed. After just 15 minutes of
deliberations, jurors returned May 15 with a guilty verdict that has
stirred a debate about fetal rights and given McKnight a distinction
she still has trouble grasping.

McKnight, 24, the mother of three, became the first woman in the
nation to be convicted of homicide for killing an unborn child through
drug abuse, according to women's rights groups. She will serve 12
years without the chance for parole unless she wins her appeal.

"She didn't understand how she could go to prison. She kept wanting to
talk about that," said Wyndi Anderson of South Carolina Advocates for
Pregnant Women, who sat with McKnight through the trial. "She knew it
was bad, she knew she had a problem, but she didn't

To critics of the verdict, the murder prosecution of a woman who had
no prior criminal record and has never been in a drug treatment
program opens the door to future prosecutions of women for smoking,
alcohol use or other behaviors that could harm a fetus.

They also contend that McKnight's race and economic status -- she is
black and has been homeless for much of the past few years -- made her
an easy target for prosecutors and politicians who wanted to make an
example of someone.

Greg Hembree, solicitor for the 15th Judicial District of South
Carolina, whose office prosecuted the case, disagrees. He stands by
the verdict and sentence, saying that critics are failing to see the
case for what it is.

"If that baby had been born and two weeks later [McKnight] smothered
that child with a pillow, or she gets so high on crack, she throws the
baby in the back seat of the car, in a bassinet, and doesn't strap it
in, and has a car wreck while she's high and kills the baby, nobody's
going to object [to prosecution]," Hembree said.

"It was her recklessness, her disregard for the safety of the child,"
he added. "People kind of get their fur up about this case. It has
become much more of a pro-life, pro-choice issue, and it's not that at

Hembree said the state recognizes that the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade
decision establishing a constitutional right to have an abortion
supersedes any state laws.

Hembree also denied that McKnight's poverty affected the decision to
prosecute. "When you don't have anything else to argue about, you
argue about race and poverty. It didn't matter to me. It could've been
a doctor's wife."

There have been several other cases in South Carolina and across the
country that resulted in addicted mothers of stillborn children
pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and serving some prison
time. But McKnight is the first to be convicted by a jury for
homicide, said Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
McKnight's sentence, 20 years reduced to 12, also is the stiffest by
far, Paltrow said.

South Carolina has taken the lead among states in prosecuting mothers
who take drugs. "Since the mid-'80s, more than half the state
legislatures have considered punitive laws," Paltrow said, "and
repeatedly, no state, including South Carolina, has actually passed
such a law -- in part because there is such unanimity in the medical
community . . . that punitive approaches to health problems during
pregnancy are always counterproductive.

"Nevertheless, individual prosecutors have brought cases under
statutes intended for other purposes," she said.

"When we get to South Carolina," she added, "lo and behold, unlike
every other state court in the country that has ruled on this, the
South Carolina Supreme Court upheld that . . . a viable fetus is a
child covered by child abuse laws."

That controversial 1997 ruling involved the case of another black
woman, Cornelia Whitner, who tested positive for cocaine after her
child was born healthy in 1992. Whitner pleaded guilty to violating
the state's child abuse laws, expecting to be sent to a drug treatment

Instead, the judge sentenced Whitner to prison. The case is still on
appeal, but McKnight's attorney, Horry County Public Defender Orrie
West, said McKnight's prosecution was inevitable after the Whitner

Other states have begun to move in a similar direction. Last year, the
Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a baby born addicted to cocaine because
of his mother's addiction is legally an abused child.

South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon, a Republican candidate
for governor, applauded the McKnight decision, calling it "a landmark
case" and declaring that South Carolina is "on the cutting edge of
protecting the innocent life of the unborn as well as the born."

"That child had no say whatsoever in his or her mother using drugs,"
Condon said in a statement released after McKnight's conviction.
"Today, South Carolina's unborn children have a much better chance at
a long, happy life than they did yesterday."

When he was Charleston County prosecutor, Condon helped formulate a
policy that allowed the local public hospital to administer drug tests
to pregnant women without their consent and forward the results to
police. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the practice in March,
ruling that it amounted to an unconstitutional search by police.

McKnight told Anderson that she had never smoked crack cocaine until
her mother -- the woman who took care of everything in her life -- was
struck by a car and killed in 1998. Described as a 10th-grade dropout
with an IQ of 72, McKnight "had no coping skills," Anderson said.

In May 1999, when she was 8 1/2 months pregnant, McKnight went to a
county hospital suspecting a problem with her pregnancy. It was the
first time she had sought prenatal care.

After the daughter McKnight named Mercedes was stillborn, doctors
performing an autopsy on the infant found evidence of a cocaine
derivative. McKnight herself tested positive for cocaine and was soon
arrested on charges of homicide by child abuse and released on bond.

At her trial, the only defense witness, a Charleston pathologist,
testified that in 40 percent of stillbirths, it is nearly impossible
to determine a cause. Two pathologists presented by the prosecution
said the mother's cocaine use caused the death.

"I don't think the jury considered the expert testimony," West said.
"They just saw her as a drug addict. The image that my client used
drugs while she was pregnant -- that's what hurt more than anything

Bert Von Hermann, an assistant solicitor who prosecuted the case, said
he saw McKnight as "callous."

"It ought to be telling that the only time she cried like she did was
when she was sentenced," he said. "She slept through a lot of the
trial. I don't think she showed that she really cared."

Paltrow noted that South Carolina, which ranks near the bottom in
money spent on drug treatment programs, will spend an estimated $
300,000 to imprison McKnight for a dozen years.

For Von Hermann, however, the news that McKnight is again pregnant
makes what happened in the courtroom all the more significant.

"At the end of the day, when all is said and done, if we've done any
good, we've saved one child's life," he said. 
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