Source:   Houston Chronicle
Contact:    Sun, 18 Jan 1998
Author:  Rick Bragg, NYTimes


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

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."