In US First, South Carolina Court Finds Drug-Using Woman Guilty of Murder in Death of Fetus 5/18/01

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A South Carolina jury on Wednesday convicted Regina McKnight of murder and sentenced her to 12 years in prison for using crack cocaine during a pregnancy that resulted in a stillbirth. The verdict marks the first time in the US that a woman has been found guilty of homicide for taking drugs during pregnancy, said Wyndi Anderson of South Carolina Advocates for Pregnant Women (http://www.scapw.org). Anderson also told DRCNet that the verdict could lead to prosecutions of other women for unhealthy activities such as smoking during pregnancy.

"This is a tragedy for Regina McKnight, who will be locked away in prison for 12 years not for being a criminal, but for being a drug addict," said Anderson. "But this affects all women, particularly any woman who becomes pregnant and has a stillbirth. Now we've set a precedent in South Carolina where a woman can be prosecuted for delivering a stillborn child. This is open season on pregnant women."

There are 500 stillbirths a year in South Carolina, Anderson said.

Despite hours of complicated and contradictory medical testimony, the jury took just 15 minutes to find Regina McKnight, 24, guilty of negligent homicide. Medical experts testifying on McKnight's behalf said they could not be sure if cocaine caused the fetus to die or even if cocaine were found in her system. The doctors also testified that McKnight suffered from an inflamed placenta, which could have caused the fetus's death. But a state pathologist told the jury that cocaine had caused the stillbirth.

Defense attorney Orrie West told the Associated Press that the brief deliberations indicated that the jury punished McKnight because she was a drug addict. "Given almost all of the trial involved complex medical testimony, I don't think the jury weighed it like they should," West said.

This was the second jury to hear the case; the presiding judge ordered a mistrial in the state's first attempt to prosecute McKnight in January after two jurors admitted researching the medical evidence on the Internet. Jurors had earlier told the judge they were having difficulty reaching a decision.

Undeterred, prosecutors tried again. "The state needed to press forward because a child ended up dead," prosecutor Bert von Herrmann told the AP. "She smoked cocaine as much and as often as she could... if that's not extreme indifference to life, I don't know what is."

But Anderson pointed instead to the indifference with which the state addresses the needs of poor women. "We don't solve this by prosecuting the most disenfranchised people in the most disenfranchised communities," she told DRCNet. "We need to make drug treatment more readily accessible, but the bottom line is we need to build communities, we need educational opportunities, we need real health care -- not just drug treatment, but normal health care, prenatal care, all of those things."

The prosecution of McKnight became possible after the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that a viable fetus is considered a child and pregnant women could be charged with child abuse if they used drugs after the fetus was viable.

McKnight, who is the mother of three children and is two months pregnant, will appeal, her attorneys told the AP. In the meantime, McKnight has begun serving her sentence.

South Carolina Advocates for Pregnant Women will stay the course, Anderson told DRCNet. "We'll continue to work with Regina's lawyers on the appeal process and we will continue to advocate for these women. We must also strengthen our grassroots educational work," she added. "We can blame the state for initiating this prosecution, but those jury members who convicted her hold all too common attitudes."

For Anderson, the McKnight case marks "the intersection of the war on drugs with the war on poor people and the war on women's rights. The war on drugs has been a convenient club with which to attack women," she argued.

Now the state of South Carolina has one more such club to wield.

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Issue #186, 5/18/01 Editorial: Supreme Fictions | Supreme Court to Medical Marijuana Movement: Drop Dead -- Movement to Feds: Get Real | Study Finds Seattle Drug Arrests Target Blacks, Suggests Decrim Dialogue, Police Chief Suggests Arresting More Whites | In US First, South Carolina Court Finds Drug-Using Woman Guilty of Murder in Death of Fetus | Colombian Coca and Poppy Production Up Last Year Despite Heightened Drug War, Market Crash Ahead? | Thugs Kill New York City Marijuana Retailer, Two Others, Police Blame Marijuana | DEA's Caribbean Office Lied About Arrests, GAO to Investigate | Two Steps Forward, One Step Back in Indiana Sentencing | Canadian Medical Association Journal Calls for Marijuana Decriminalization | Media and Resources: Arianna Huffington, Village Voice, Salon.com, MotherJones.com, U. Miami Law Review, CDC | The Reformer's Calendar
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