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Convicted Mother's Appeal Is Refused

The Supreme Court gives no reason for turning down a case in which a baby died after the mildly retarded defendant took cocaine.

October 07, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal Monday from a South Carolina woman who was the first ever to be convicted of homicide for using illegal drugs during her pregnancy.

In 1999, a mildly retarded Regina McKnight, then 26 years old, had a stillborn child. When medical tests showed the baby had trace elements from cocaine exposure, McKnight was indicted for "homicide by child abuse."

The South Carolina courts earlier had broken new ground by extending the state's law against child abuse to the unborn. Several women were prosecuted for harming their babies after using illegal drugs while pregnant.

South Carolina law punishes a woman who intentionally kills her unborn child with a maximum two-year prison term. But the newly created crime of "homicide by child abuse" carried a maximum term of 20 years in prison.

McKnight's lawyers disputed that cocaine abuse caused the death of her child, but she was convicted and given a 12-year prison term. The state's Supreme Court upheld the charge and the prison term on a 3-2 vote.

More than two dozen medical and public-health groups -- including the American Nurses Assn. and the American Public Health Assn. -- had urged the Supreme Court to take up her appeal. They questioned whether cocaine exposure had caused the stillbirth. They also maintained that the state's prosecution policy could threaten women who smoked or used alcohol during pregnancy.

In their appeal in McKnight vs. South Carolina, her lawyers argued the punishment was extreme and violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of "due process of law," because the state law as initially written did not extend its coverage to the lifestyle of pregnant women.

"We're disappointed this woman could spend a good portion of her life in prison. There was no criminal intent here," said Wyndi Anderson of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a group that worked on McKnight's legal appeal.

This is "the first homicide conviction ever of a woman for suffering a stillbirth," said the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that promotes noncriminal solutions to drug addiction.

State prosecutors said McKnight knew that what she was doing was illegal and dangerous. "This is not simply a case involving a tragic stillbirth. She continued to ingest crack cocaine after she knew she was pregnant, and as a result, her child died," said state Atty. Gen. Henry McMaster.

The case did not directly involve the Roe vs. Wade ruling and the right to abortion. In that case, the court said women are generally free to choose abortion prior to the time the fetus is capable of living on its own, which occurs about the 24th week of a pregnancy. In McKnight's case, doctors said, her baby died in about the 35th week of the pregnancy.

The justices gave no reason for refusing to hear the case. Their action sets no legal precedent.

The court remains closely split on the abortion issue.

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