South Carolina Supreme Court Reverses 20-Year Homicide Conviction of Regina McKnight

Press Release May 11, 2008
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Lynn Paltrow at 917-921-7421 or Tony Newman at 646-335-5384

COLUMBIA, SC — Today, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that Regina McKnight did not have a fair trial when she was convicted in 2001, becoming the first woman in South Carolina to be convicted of homicide by child abuse as a result of suffering an unintentional stillbirth.

McKnight was arrested in 1999, several months after she experienced a stillbirth at Conway Hospital. McKnight’s conviction was based on the jury’s acceptance of the scientifically unsupported claim that her cocaine use caused the stillbirth. McKnight had no prior arrest history and even prosecutors agreed that she had no intention of harming the fetus or losing the pregnancy. Nevertheless, upon conviction she was given a twenty-year sentence, suspended to twelve years in prison with no chance for parole. She was projected to be released in 2010.

The medical community has strongly opposed McKnight’s prosecution and conviction. From the beginning, leading South Carolina and national medical, public health, and child welfare organizations and experts have opposed the prosecution and conviction. These organizations–represented by National Advocates for Pregnant Women and the Drug Policy Alliance, with South Carolina counsel Susan Dunn included the South Carolina Medical Association, the South Carolina Nurses Association, the South Carolina Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, and the South Carolina Coalition for Healthy Families–argued in an amicus (friend of the court) brief that women do not lose their rights to a fair trial upon becoming pregnant and challenged the state’s evidence that cocaine use or anything else that McKnight did or did not do caused the stillbirth.

In 2002 counsel for Ms. McKnight challenged the constitutionality of using homicide statutes to prosecute women who experience stillbirths. On appeal, a bare majority of the State Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the new interpretation of the state’s homicide law. The Court held that a pregnant woman who unintentionally heightens the risk of a stillbirth could be found guilty of “extreme indifference to human life” homicide. Under this decision a conviction for homicide is permitted on any evidence that a pregnant woman engaged in activity “public[ly] know[n]” to be “potentially fatal” to a fetus. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the decision.

Today’s ruling focused on the question of whether Ms. McKnight received a fair trial and concluded that Ms. McKnight’s counsel was “ineffective in her preparation of McKnight’s defense through expert testimony and cross-examination.” The decision also indicated that the medical and scientific basis for her prosecution and that of other women in the state is based on outdated and inaccurate medical information.

“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 K. Dunn, counsel for amici. “This decision puts solicitors [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.”

This ruling addressed a petition filed on behalf of McKnight seeking a judicial review to determine whether the person is imprisoned lawfully or should be released from custody. The petition must show that the court ordered the imprisonment based on a legal or factual error. In McKnight, the factual error was accepting a causal link between McKnight’s cocaine use and her stillbirth. The legal errors were not calling medical expert as witnesses who could refute that link, failing to investigate the medical evidence the state’s witnesses relied on and that was based on outdated scientific studies, and failing to challenge the court’s confusing and contradictory explanations to the jury of what “intent” Ms. McKnight had to have.

“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.”

The medical and public health groups also raised concerns about the consequences of South Carolina’s policy of arresting pregnant women who experience drug problems. In their brief, they cited the fact that threatening pregnant women with jail time deters them from seeking prenatal care and other vital services, as has been the case in South Carolina since the Whitner ruling in 1997 that originally permitted prosecution of pregnant women under state child endangerment charges.

Ms. McKnight is represented on the petition by C. Rauch Wise of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina Foundation, Inc., and Matthew Hersh and Julie Carpenter of the law firm Jenner & Block for the DKT Liberty Project.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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