Pregnancy: South Carolina Supreme Court Overturns Woman's Murder Conviction for Fetal Death After Cocaine Use

The South Carolina Supreme Court Monday threw out the homicide by child abuse conviction of Regina McKnight, the first woman in South Carolina to be convicted on that charge for suffering an unintentional stillbirth after having used cocaine during her pregnancy. In its ruling in McKnight v. South Carolina, the court held that McKnight received inadequate counsel during her trial and that her conviction was based on "outdated" and inaccurate information linking the fetal death to her cocaine use.

McKnight was arrested in 1999, several months after she experienced a stillbirth at Conway Hospital. She was convicted of homicide by child abuse in 2001 after a jury bought scientifically unsupported arguments that her cocaine use caused the stillbirth. Although McKnight had no prior conviction, and even prosecutors agreed she had no intention of harming the fetus, she was sentenced to 12 years in prison with no chance of parole.

McKnight unsuccessfully appealed her conviction in 2002, challenging the constitutionality of using murder statutes to prosecute women who experience stillbirths. But in a split decision, the state Supreme Court upheld her conviction, offering a novel interpretation of the state's homicide laws. The court held that any woman who unintentionally heightens the risk of a stillbirth could be found guilty of homicide with "extreme indifference to human life." Under this doctrine, the court held, any pregnant woman who engages in activity "potentially fatal" to her fetus could be charged with murder.

McKnight and her attorneys appealed to the US Supreme Court, but that body declined to review the decision.

In Monday's decision, the state Supreme Court focused on whether McKnight got a fair trial. It found that she did not. McKnight's trial counsel, an overworked public defender, was "ineffective in her preparation of McKnight's defense through expert testimony and cross-examination," the court found. The court also found that the information given to the jury about the supposed link between McKnight's cocaine use and her stillbirth was not scientifically supported.

"Significantly, the opinion acknowledges that current research simply does not support the assumption that prenatal exposure to cocaine results in harm to the fetus, and the opinion makes clear that it is certainly 'no more harmful to a fetus than nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, or other conditions commonly associated with the urban poor,'" said Susan Dunn, counsel for amicus. "This decision puts prosecutors across the state on notice that they must actually prove that an illegal drug has risked or caused harm -- not simply rely on prejudice and medical misinformation."

"Ms. McKnight is one of more than 500 women in South Carolina who experience stillbirths each year, and in many of those cases, medicine just can't determine the cause," said Brandi Parrish, coordinator of the South Carolina Coalition for Healthy Families. "It is a tragedy that Ms. McKnight has been in prison for nearly eight years for a crime she did not commit. Families in South Carolina are not helped by treating stillbirths as crimes and wasting hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to imprison innocent mothers."

At least 90 women have been prosecuted in South Carolina for stillbirths after using drugs, according to National Advocates for Pregnant Women, one of a number of organizations that got involved in the case when McKnight sought redress. "The groups got involved because there is complete consensus that prosecuting pregnant women is bad for mothers and babies," said Lynn Paltrow, head of the group. "Regina McKnight was convicted on junk science and was not fairly represented at trial," she told Myrtle Beach Online Tuesday.

McKnight is not out of the woods yet. Her case has been remanded for retrial, but prosecutors have so far given no indication whether they will proceed. In the meantime, she remains in prison awaiting a hearing on bail pending her new trial.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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That poor woman

America is NOT the land of the FREE!!!! This story is a fine example. I can not believe that woman is behind bars for this and we have pedophiles out running the streets! I know I dont want my tax dollars keeping someone in jail for something like that!!!! Make America free vote Libertarian! Ron Paul !!!

Regina did NOTHING to deserve prison

But the War on Some Drugs is a Race War. People of color and the poor fill our prisons. Our entire system of retribution, straight out of the Christian Bible teachings, have set the foundation to punish people instead of helping them. Repression is alive and well in Amerikkka. Congratulations, Regina, and I apologize for what they did to you, because, until WE end this, WE are all responsible for those who are being punished for trying to feel better.

the real story

[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.Canada The real story isn't that she's been let go but that she was even charged in the first place.This is what's wrong with the justice system.You get a prosecutor with an agenda and he can ruin a lot of lives.This should never have seen the light of day.

I agree with the above post

I mean, how did the prosecutors even find out about the stillbirth, and that she had used cocaine? They simply must have been moral fanatics out to find people to punish.

(unless it was the father, though, or the father's family)

(unless it was the father, though, or the father's family). but still, it would be about moral objection to cocaine use, since there wasn't even medical evidence. the only other possibility is that the father (or his family) just hated her and wanted to put her in jail any way he could.

SOUTH CAROLINIANS

IF YOU ASK ME HALF THE DAMN STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA IS LOCKED UP FOR MINOR THINGS OR SHOT WITH DOUBLE DIGIT FOOTBALL NUMBERS FOR BULLSHIT AND NOT GIVEN FAIR TRIALS OR IF NOT GIVEN A FAIR TRAIL THEY WOULD HAVE TO WAIT DAMN NEAR 10-15 YEARS IN PRISON BEFORE THEY CAN GET AN APPEAL. ALSO YOU HAVE MORTGAGE LAWYERS TAKING ON CRIMINAL CASES. ON A WHOLE SOUTH CAROLINA'S JUDICIAL SYSTEM IS ALL FUCKED UP THE ONLY JOBS BOOSTING SOUTH CAROLINA'S SLOW ECONOMY ARE FUCKED UP PRISON'S......TO ANYBODY READING THIS TAKE MY FOOLISH ADVICE DON'T EVER GO TO SOUTH CAROLINA AND THOSE WHO LIVE THERE GET THE FUCK OUT THEM CRACKERS WITH WHITE SHEETS STILL RUN THAT BITCH THEY'RE JUST HAVE GOVERNMENT JOBS.......

You people are ridiculous

Birth should be a special thing. This woman killed her baby because of her selfishness of not giving up cocaine. First of all, cocaine is illegal. Second, under the Child Abuse Laws, doing anything that can injure or harm a viable fetus in anyway is Child Abuse. And not only did this woman abuse her unborn baby, but she killed it. And you're telling people that this woman should just be let go free? Where are our morals going in the world?
And America is the land of the free, and I'm sorry that you think it sounds okay to do drugs, even while you're pregnant and eventually killing the unborn child. But I'm pretty sure that is not what our Founding Fathers wanted when they gave us our freedom.

Reply

Your absolutely correct, pregnancy is a special gift, a special gift from God. However, individuals have an abundance of deep rooted issues that they are facing, and in no way am I excusing drug use, but we all have our own vices, and unless you have been an addict, you really don't know what addiction is. I think we should be attempting to aid these women by mandatory drug treatment programs, not sentencing them to jail. Imagine if you had a daughter, or maybe you do, and she was jailed simply because of her inability to overcome her habit. Right is Right, and Wrong is Wrong, however, two negative do not make a positive. Some food for thought.

Medical Evidence

ACTUALLY, they did have medical evidence.

When Regina McKnight gave birth to her stillborn, they took a urine sample from her and they took blood from the dead baby and they both came back positive for cocaine exposure.

I've been studying cases like these. Everyone just needs to get their facts straight before they go blabbing on about how right they are.

And also, America's freedom doesn't mean doing drugs while pregnant. And this also has nothing to do with racism either. They would have found any mother ignorant enough to do this guilty.

And I don't appreciate the term "Crackers", just because you think all white people are racist. Well, look who is talking.

borden's picture

Logic please. It's not

Logic please.

It's not enough to demonstrate cocaine exposure. It's also necessary to show that cocaine exposure causes stillbirths. Research has been done on this, and it has not turned up such evidence. In fact, the research has not found cocaine-exposed infants to be any different health-wise than other infants, at least not in large and long-term ways.

Because research indicates that pre-natal cocaine exposure causes these types of problems, to convict McKnight and others on such a basis is to convict them based on false assumptions. The justice system is supposed to operate on facts, not emotion-driven fiction. So far it's alcohol use that is proven to be the big pre-natal problem, and also cigarettes, based on the evidence.

I'd agree that if a parent remains addicted, that that can have an affect on the quality of parenting, and affect a child that way, but that is a different thing.

I will try to find the links backing up my statements, but I think most recently it was research by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Also, many medical and public health organizations have called for this type of prosecution to stop, based in part on the fact that it drives the mothers away from the pre-natal care that their children need them to get. Another reason why logic is so important in this issue.

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org: the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC
http://stopthedrugwar.org

Drug use in pregnancy

I have been a Women's/Children's Health Nurse for 20 years.
You have no clue what it is like for us as Health Professionals to watch a baby die in utero on a fetal monitor because its "mother" chose to use substances that she knew could cause harm and /or death to her baby.
Or to frantically race to save not only the woman, but her unborn child, when she presents with a uterine abruption, hemorrhaging, following her cocaine binge.
No woman has the right to subject her fetus to any substance known to have adverse effects, regardless of whether it is a legal or illegal substance. The only saving grace with illegal substances is that it does afford us, as advocates for the infant, to prosecute the woman.
It amazes me that people are actually ignorant enough to think that there is any difference between giving an unborn child cocaine in utero and giving a newborn infant cocaine. Obviously you think that the right of the woman overrides the right of the child.
Preganat women who are honest about their drug use/addiction are given access to treatment. Since the majority of these women are on Medicaid it is FREE OF CHARGE. If a woman complies with treatment, her child is not automatically taken away. At the time of birth a social work consult is made to determine whether or not DSS involvement is warrented. In most cases, if a woman is compliant and continues to test negative during the remainder of her pregnancy, no such referral is made. The truth is that every patient is given the opportunity to do what is right for her and her child. Only when she refuses do we intervene to PROTECT THE CHILD!!

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