Pubdate: Tue, 07 Oct 2003
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2003 The State
Author: Rick Brundrett


Horry County Woman Was Convicted In 2001 Of Killing Her Fetus By Using Cocaine

Pregnant women who use illegal drugs likely will not face a new wave of 
prosecutions in South Carolina despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday 
clearing the way, state prosecutors said.

The nation's top court without comment declined to hear the appeal of 
Regina McKnight, an Horry County woman convicted in 2001 of killing her 
fetus by using cocaine. The court's decision, in effect, upholds her 

In May, McKnight asked the high court to overturn a sharply divided January 
ruling by the S.C. Supreme Court.

She is serving a 12-year prison sentence for homicide by child abuse - the 
stiffest penalty, her lawyers say, for any South Carolina woman convicted 
of harming her unborn child.

McKnight was prosecuted based on an earlier S.C. Supreme Court ruling that 
said a fetus that can survive outside the womb is a person under state 
child abuse and neglect laws.

She was charged after giving birth to a stillborn, 5-pound girl in May 
1999. The gestational age was estimated at between 34 and 37 weeks.

More than 70 women have been prosecuted statewide since 1989 for using 
drugs while pregnant, according to the National Advocates for Pregnant 
Women, a New York organization.

Critics say the latest court rulings will allow prosecutors to target 
pregnant women who drink or smoke too much, not just those who use illegal 
drugs. They also contend it will discourage women from seeking prenatal care.

"I'm afraid that it opens the door to more legal experimentation that can 
hurt more people in the process," said Donny Brock, of Charleston, 
president-elect of the S.C. Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors.

But solicitors surveyed Monday by The State generally said they would 
prosecute only those pregnant women who use illegal drugs, and only if they 
refused treatment for their addiction.

"The preferable thing to me is if you got someone hooked on coke and 
they're charged, run them through drug court ... try to use the treatment 
aspect as much as you can," said Donnie Myers, the solicitor for Lexington, 
Saluda, McCormick and Edgefield counties.

Myers couldn't recall a case in which his office prosecuted a drug-addicted 
pregnant woman, adding any future decisions would be made on a case-by-case 

S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster said Monday he supports a policy 
started by his Republican predecessor, Charlie Condon, to prosecute 
pregnant, drug-addicted women who show "extreme indifference" to their 
unborn children.

"People must be accountable for their actions," he said. "It is common 
knowledge now as to the effects of drugs ... on unborn children."

But McMaster, a Republican, said his office does not plan to take away 
control of those cases from local prosecutors, as was done at times under 

"That is not a procedure we invoke very often, and we don't intend to 
invoke it here," he said.

Condon, a U.S. Senate candidate, couldn't be reached Monday.

Barney Giese, the solicitor for Richland and Kershaw counties, said Monday 
his office has prosecuted only a handful of such cases since 1997, when 
Talitha Garrick pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the 1995 
stillborn death of her 38-week fetus.

Garrick was the first woman in South Carolina to be convicted of killing 
her unborn child by smoking crack cocaine. She was placed on probation.

But Garrick's isn't the typical case handled by his office, said Giese, the 
newly elected president of the S.C. Solicitors Association.

"We have a protocol," he said. "If we find out (pregnant women are using 
illegal drugs), we get them counseling most of the time and get them off 
(the drugs)."

Some prosecutors have taken a tougher stance. For example, Robert Ariail, 
the solicitor for Greenville and Pickens counties, said pregnant women who 
are referred to drug court in his jurisdiction cannot have their charges 
dropped even if they complete treatment programs.

Druanne White, the solicitor for Anderson and Oconee counties, said she 
will prosecute pregnant women who are first-time drug offenders if they do 
not voluntarily come to authorities. In many cases, she pointed out, 
drug-addicted mothers have more than one drug-addicted child.

"Injecting an illegal drug is illegal," White said. "I don't understand the 
desire to protect mothers who are totally unfit over innocent children."

Still, White acknowledged her office has prosecuted few such cases in 
recent years and doesn't expect any immediate changes in light of Monday's 

She added that, even in cases she decides to prosecute, she generally would 
recommend court-ordered treatment programs instead of jail time.

Brock, of the state association of alcohol and drug abuse counselors, said 
his group wants more treatment programs. He cited the costs of McKnight's 
trial and appeals.

"Look at how many drug-addicted mothers we could have treated with the 
money that has been spent on both sides," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens