Pubdate: Fri, 11 Dec 1998
Source: Rock Hill Herald, The (SC)
Copyright: 1998 The Herald, Rock Hill, S.C.
Author: Associated Press


COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A South Carolina woman convicted of child neglect
because she used crack cocaine while pregnant wants a federal judge to set
her free from state prison so she can be with her three children.

Cornelia Whitner's case has become a rallying point for women's groups and
doctors who say jailing pregnant women with substance abuse problems
discourages them from seeking proper prenatal care. The policy is based on a
landmark 1996 state court ruling that a viable fetus can be considered a

South Carolina is the only state with a court-sanctioned policy of charging
new mothers whose babies have been exposed to illegal drugs. The Women's Law
Project in Philadelphia said similar laws have been rejected by two dozen
other courts.

Whitner's case has already been turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Now
she wants a federal district judge to take the unusual step of granting
habeas corpus, a request to get out of prison because one's constitutional
rights were violated.

''Ms. Whitner is in jail in violation of the U.S. Constitution,'' said Sue
Frietsche, a staff attorney for the Women's Law Project representing
Whitner. The Pickens County woman was punished for something she did years
before the state court made its ruling, she said.

''No one could possibly have known that the South Carolina Supreme Court was
going to change the meaning and expand the scope of the South Carolina
child-endangerment law in the very dramatic way that it did,'' Frietsche
said. ''You can't put somebody in prison for something that nobody could
have known was a crime.''

Whitner, 34, was charged in 1992 with child neglect for using cocaine while
pregnant even though the baby was born healthy. She is serving an eight-year
sentence at Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood.

Whitner's latest petition also argues that her constitutional guarantees of
due process and privacy were violated and that she received ineffective
legal counsel that prompted her to plead guilty.

Frietsche said she did not know when the federal court might hear the

Attorney General Charlie Condon supported the state Supreme Court's July
1996 ruling. He did not respond when his office was contacted Thursday.
''There's no comment at this point because we haven't gotten the paperwork
yet,'' spokesman Tom Landess said.

Lawyers say the Whitner ruling is discouraging some women from seeking
proper prenatal care.

''Pregnant women are thinking twice about getting medical care because the
doctor's office and treatment center might be just one step away from the
state prison,'' said Rauch Wise of the state chapter of the American Civil
Liberties Union.

Frietsche said one Columbia substance-abuse treatment center has reported an
80 percent drop in women seeking admission. ''Our concern is that this is a
public health catastrophe,'' she said.

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Checked-by: Don Beck