Source: Houston Chronicle Contact: Sun, 18 Jan 1998 Website: http://www.chron.com/content/chronicle/ Author: Rick Bragg, NYTimes PROSECUTOR GOES AFTER PREGNANT ADDICTS FOR ABUSE South Carolina attorney general is enjoying his latest controversy COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Pat Buchanan gazes approvingly from a framed photograph on Charles M. Condon's office wall. "To Charlie Condon," reads the inscription, "who is saving lives while others prattle on about the rights of drug addicts." Even without that endorsement of Condon's most disputed act as South Carolina attorney general -- prosecuting pregnant crack cocaine addicts for child neglect and even manslaughter -- the Republican prosecutor's political ideals shine clear. Instead of an electric chair, he once proposed an "electric sofa" to speed executions. He pushed to preserve the State Capitol's Confederate flag -- a symbol that even the conservative Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., reluctantly said was too contentious. He is attacking video poker, refused to swear in an atheist justice of the peace and firmly supported the Citadel's fight to bar female cadets. And if he has his way, this well-off, well-educated man from a respected Charleston family could stand before the highest court in the land and argue that a crack mother's fetus is "a fellow South Carolinian" and has protections under the law. In October, a majority of the state Supreme Court supported Condon in his assertion that a viable fetus is a person under the state's child abuse laws, and that a mother who uses illegal drugs during pregnancy can be charged with neglect, manslaughter, even murder. The court upheld the conviction, 3-2, of Cornelia Whitner, sentenced to eight years for neglect in 1992 after she gave birth to a baby with traces of cocaine in its blood. The South Carolina court contradicted five other state supreme courts that threw out similar convictions, and now lawyers for Whitner are expected to appeal her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the court agrees to hear the case, it will give South Carolina's attorney general more than a place to defend his law. "It is a wedge into reconsidering Roe vs. Wade," said Steven Bates, the South Carolina director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's kind of scary to open that door of opportunity to the Supreme Court." By prosecuting pregnant addicts, Condon says, he is only trying to protect the unborn, and if a woman chooses, she can get drug treatment and generally avoid prosecution. Some fear that the prosecutions could be expanded so that a woman who aborted a fetus for a medical reason could be charged in the death of the child. (Condon has said his office would review such cases, but, so far, there have been no charges connected with abortion.) Only 23 women have been prosecuted for charges ranging from neglect to manslaughter. What he has done, however, is revisit the question of when life begins. It is a battle that he relishes. "You don't have the right to have a drug-impaired child," said Condon, 44, a tall, thin, sharp-faced man who graduated magna cum laude from Duke University's School of Law. "The child comes from God. We think we're in line with how most people feel in this country. We recognize the fetus as a fellow South Carolinian. And the right to privacy does not overcome the right to life." It promises to be a well-lighted stage for a politician who, political experts say, likes the glow. He is just one of a flood of conservative politicians -- some, like him, who used to be Democrats -- who have surged into state office in the South. Yet Condon is more effective, say supporters, and more dangerous, say enemies, than other populists. "He doesn't just talk," said David Lublin, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. "He makes a staunch use of the power of his pulpit, but also the power of his office," to pound out changes in South Carolina society. "He is quite willing to wade into areas where one wonders if the attorney general needs to," Lublin said. "He will enjoy the attention he will get when he argues the state's position." Dick Harpootlian, a lawyer and former prosecutor who lost to Condon for attorney general, said the political payoff drives this crusade. "He has the ability to disabuse himself of any beliefs he had, and to adopt the beliefs that 51 percent of the people have at that moment," said Harpootlian, referring to Condon's party switch in 1990. Political experts say that Condon will seek higher office -- the governorship or a U.S. Senate seat -- and has been criticized by people within his own party for personally prosecuting big- headline cases. But those who see him as a political opportunist see only half the picture, political experts said. "He seems to be willing to do anything to court the Republican right-wing electorate, and he's very ambitious," Lublin said. "But he seems to have genuine beliefs, and he seems to follow through on them. He's not a hypocrite, which is a rare quality. He's very intelligent, he's good at speaking, and even though he's stating his views from the very most right-wing stance, he doesn't sound crazy." That, Lublin said, is "the thing that makes him so acceptable, or so dangerous, if you're a liberal."