Court upholds murder verdict in stillbirth case

A cocaine-addicted woman was sentenced to 12 years in prison in S. Carolina for homicide by child abuse.

A South Carolina woman sentenced to 12 years in prison for homicide as a result of suffering a stillbirth has lost a bid to reverse her conviction.

In a one-line order issued Monday, the US Supreme Court let stand a South Carolina Supreme Court decision upholding her conviction for homicide by child abuse. The woman in question had used cocaine during her pregnancy.

The case is important because it opens the door to making a large number of women in South Carolina who suffer a stillbirth potential murder suspects, legal analysts say. The list of potential suspects could include not just drug addicts but users of tobacco, alcohol, and coffee, and maybe even those who endure unhealthful conditions in the workplace, analysts say.

"It is clearly going to reach a lot wider than just individuals who are addicted to drugs," says William McColl, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "People should be wary. If you take a drink or if you smoke [and later suffer a stillbirth], women are going to become murder suspects."

While most states have laws to prosecute someone who kills a viable fetus, South Carolina is the only state in the nation with a homicide statute tied to stillbirth.

South Carolina officials defend the prosecution and the state law as an attempt to deter pregnant women from engaging in risky behavior.

Regina McKnight, a homeless drug addict with an IQ of 72, was convicted of committing "homicide by child abuse" after hospital workers detected cocaine in her system shortly after she gave birth to a stillborn girl in 1999.

South Carolina law defines a viable fetus as a "person." At 8-1/2 months, Ms. McKnight's stillborn daughter was considered a person under state law, and McKnight was charged with homicide for causing the death by ingesting cocaine while pregnant.

Lawyers for McKnight say she was grief-stricken by the stillbirth of the daughter she intended to name Mercedes. They say McKnight was addicted to cocaine and that there were no drug-treatment options available to her. In addition, they say McKnight suffered from two medical conditions which, independent of the cocaine use, could have caused the stillbirth.

"There is no evidence that she knew cocaine use could endanger her pregnancy, and yet the state Supreme Court upheld her homicide conviction, and the US Supreme Court has refused to review that," says Jennifer Brown, legal director of NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. "This has to be terrifying to a large swath of women, not just those who abuse cocaine."

South Carolina prosecutors say the law is clear, and establishes a deterrent to behavior that might threaten unborn children. They say anyone who causes the death of a viable fetus may be prosecuted for homicide and face up to life in prison.

A jury convicted McKnight, and her conviction was upheld by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

South Carolina also has an abortion law to prosecute a woman's intentional termination of pregnancy after fetal viability. But that offense is classified as a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison. In contrast, the state's homicide statute - used to prosecute McKnight - carries a punishment of 20 years to life in prison. The judge in McKnight's case suspended eight years of her 20-year sentence.

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