Pubdate: Fri, 18 May 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Author: David Firestone


A 24-year-old South Carolina woman has been
sentenced to 12 years in prison for killing her unborn fetus by
smoking crack cocaine.

Legal experts said it was the first such homicide case in the country.
A jury deliberated 15 minutes on Tuesday before convicting the woman,
Regina McKnight of Conway, S.C., of homicide by child abuse.

She was eight and a half months pregnant when she delivered the
stillborn baby in May 1999. Four doctors who testified at her trial
gave differing opinions as to whether her addiction to crack caused
the baby's death. In 1997, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the
conviction of a woman who had been charged with child abuse for using
cocaine during her pregnancy, ruling that a viable fetus was
considered a person under the state's criminal code. The ruling was
the only one of its kind in the country.

Previously, other efforts to prosecute women for the deaths of their
fetus have been thrown out by the courts because of the many possible
reasons for stillbirths. Greg Hembree, the prosecutor in the McKnight
case, said he decided to bring her to trial by extending the court's
decision to homicide. "If the child had been smothered by its mother
two weeks after being born, there'd be no question about prosecution,"
Mr. Hembree said. "The only difference here is, this was two weeks
before the child would have been born. It is still part of a parent's
fundamental responsibility to protect children." Critics said the
state was on shaky legal ground by punishing women for the outcome of
their pregnancies. Ms. McKnight's public defender, Orrie West, said
she would appeal. Mr. Hembree acknowledged that future cases could
involve women whose pregnancies ended after they drank too much
alcohol, or consumed other legal substances with knowledge that they
could be harmful. Noting that Ms. McKnight is pregnant again, he
added: "I know for sure that her baby isn't going to die from crack
cocaine this time. That's one thing I know."
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