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Court Lets Stand 'Crack Mom' Conviction

Supreme Court Refuses McKnight vs. South Carolina Appeal


Updated October 06, 2003

The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand the homicide conviction of a South Carolina woman who was found guilty of killing her unborn child by continuing to smoke crack cocaine while she was pregnant. By refusing to consider the case, the high court let stand a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling that the punishment was not too harsh because she should have known using cocaine would harm her child.

After Regina McKnight delivered a near full-term stillborn child, hospital staff took a urine sample from her and tested the dead child's blood. Both were positive for cocaine. McKnight was arrested several months later and convicted in 2001. A Conway, SC jury deliberated less than 15 minutes before returning a guilty verdict against McKnight, 24, who had two other children and was two-months pregnant again.

In 1992, the South Carolina legislature made it a felony to cause the death of a child younger than 11 through child abuse or neglect "under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life." Later the South Carolina Supreme court said the law also applied to a viable fetus, since the same court previously ruled that a viable fetus is legally a person.

South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster defended the state's position in the case of Knight vs. South Carolina. In papers filed with the court, McMaster wrote:

"This is not a case involving a tragic stillbirth that occurred through no fault of the mother. On the contrary, the evidence established a direct link between McKnight's ingestion of crack cocaine, which she had no legally protected right to do, and her child's in utero death.

"The state has a compelling interest in protecting the child's life," and McKnight should have been well aware of the legal risks of drug use that could harm her child. While the fact that other states have failed to take such steps to protect viable fetuses may make South Carolina's decision to do so novel, it does not make it unconstitutional or mandate that this court intervene."

Several medical and public health organizations supported McKnight's Supreme Court appeal with friend of the court briefs. "The criminal investigation and possible prosecution of women like Ms. McKnight sends a perilous message to pregnant addicts not to seek prenatal care or drug treatment," to withhold information from doctors or to abort their fetuses, the American Public Health Association told the court.

"The lower court ruling opens women to prosecution for any number of actions taken while pregnant, McKnight's lawyers wrote. "Pregnant women in South Carolina are left without any reliable basis for deeming whether, in the event of stillbirth, they could be punished, with life imprisonment, for homicide."

McKnight is serving a 12-year sentence in a South Carolina prison.

Earlier Story: Case Could Have Far-Reaching Implications

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